Biosociology and Neurosociology: Volume 29


Table of contents

(14 chapters)
Content available
Content available
Content available

List of Contributors

Pages vii-viii
Content available

This volume begins with two chapters that draw on evolutionary sociology to advance our understanding of interpersonal processes and their role in social organization. In “The Biology and Neurology of Group Processes,” Jonathan H. Turner and Alexandra Maryanski draw on three areas of evolutionary sociology (cladistic analysis, comparative neuroanatomy, and ecological analysis) to show how understanding the selection pressures acting on the brain over millions of years can help us get a better grasp on the biologically based capacities and propensities that are involved in group processes such as role-taking and role-making. An improved understanding of these processes means better explanations of how humans create, sustain, and change social structures and culture – topics that lie at the core of sociological inquiry. At the same time, Turner and Maryanski's chapter will give sociologists much to think about and debate, as one of the main conclusions of their argument is that neurology explains human capacities to develop non-kin groups more than culture. The next chapter entitled “Sacrifice, Gratitude, and Obligation: Serial Reciprocity in Early Christianity,” by Richard Machalek and Michael W. Martin, may be seen as giving more equal explanatory weight to culture and biology in a theoretical analysis that combines a focus on cognitive processes (historically unique meanings and ideas) with evolutionary sociological insights about emotions in order to generate better explanations of complex socio-historical developments. Specifically, Machalek and Martin extend Rodney Stark's analysis of how ideas contributed to the rise of Christianity by showing how the evolved features of human emotionality related to “paying it forward” (or serial reciprocity in more formal terms) may have also played an important role in this historical process. Both chapters provide excellent examples of the value of combining multiple theoretical perspectives and paying attention to the interplay of social and biological forces.

Purpose – The purpose of this chapter is to bring data to suggest that group processes have a biological base, lodged in human neurology as it evolved over the last 7 million years.

Design/methodology/approach – The method for discovering the neurological basis of group processes is labelled evolutionary sociology, and this method revolves around: (1) cladistic analysis of traits of distant ancestors to humans and the great apes, with whom humans share a very high proportion of genes, (2) comparative neurology between the great apes and humans that can inform us about how the brains of humans were rewired from the structures shared by the last common ancestor to humans and apes, and (3) ecological analysis of the habitats and niches that generated selection pressures on the neurology of apes and hominins.

Findings – A key finding is that most of the interpersonal processes that drive group processes are neurologically based and evolved before the brain among hominins was sufficiently large to generate systems of symbols organized in cultural texts remotely near the human measure. There is, then, good reason to study the neurological basis of behavior because neurology explains more about the dynamics of interpersonal behavior than does culture, which was a very late arrival to the hominin line.

Research implications – One implication of these findings is that social scientific analysis of interpersonal processes and group dynamics can no longer assume that groups are solely a constructed process, mediated by culture and social structure. There were powerful selection pressures during the course of hominin evolution to increase hominin sociality and especially group formation, which required considerable rewiring of the basic ape brain. Since groups are not “natural” to apes in general and even to an evolved ape-like humans, it is important to discover how humans ever became group-organizing animals. The answer resides in the dramatic enhancing of emotions in hominins and humans, which shifts attention away from the neocortex to the older subcortical areas of the brain. Once this shift is made, theorizing and research, as well as public views on human sociality, need to be recast as, first, an evolved biological trait and, only second, as a most tenuous and fragile of a big-brained animal using language and culture to construct its social world.

Originality/value – The value of this kind of analysis is to liberate sociology and the social sciences in general from simplistic views that, because humans have language and can use language to construct culture and social structures, the underlying biology and neurology of human action is not relevant to understanding the social world. Indeed, just the opposite is the case: to the extent that social scientists insist upon a social constructionists research agenda, they will fail to conceptualize and perform research on more fundamental forces in the social world, including group dynamics.

Purpose – Uses Kenneth Boulding's concept of “serial reciprocity” in conjunction with information about the evolution of emotions and social exchange processes to identify possible mechanisms that can help explain the rise of early Christianity.

Design/methodology/approach – Using the concept of serial reciprocity as a central organizing principle, a theoretical account is developed that integrates ideas from evolutionary sociology, the sociology of emotions, and exchange theory in order to extend Rodney Stark's analysis of social forces responsible for the success of early Christianity as a social movement.

Findings – Patterns of serial reciprocity may develop when evolved emotions such as gratitude, sympathy, and empathy are activated by recipients of altruism who, in turn, become motivated to repay their benefactor by transmitting a benefit to a third-party recipient. Historical evidence reviewed by Stark is consistent with the claim that serial reciprocity may have conferred benefits to victims suffering from plagues that swept the Roman Empire during the early history of Christianity. Similar processes may be operating today in regions of the world in which aid workers provide assistance to victims of natural and man-made disasters.

Originality/value – This analysis demonstrates the value of integrating conventional sociological analysis and evolutionary theory to gain new explanatory insights about social processes such as serial reciprocity that have received relatively little prior attention by sociological researchers.

Purpose – The purpose of this chapter is to be as comprehensive as possible about what is known about mirror neurons at this time.

Design/methodology/approach – This chapter offers a comprehensive critique including Churchland's hesitations about findings on mirror neurons (2011) which are balanced by Ramachandran's conviction that much of the research on mirror neurons is valid (2011). Following this is a summary of the results of the Mirror Neuron Forum (2011) wherein leading mirror neuron researchers exchange their views and conclusions about this subject.

Findings – The few single cells measures that we have show that they are much wider distributed throughout the brain than we have previously imagined. It should be stressed that single measures of mirror neurons have occurred albeit in limited situations. This establishes once and for all their relevance to humans.

Originality/value – The work on mirror neurons is a critical contribution from neuroscience to bringing the social brain into sociology and refining our understandings of intersubjectivity and of our biologically driven connections with others.

Purpose – The purpose of this chapter is to demonstrate how biosociologists can further the understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorders by combining neurology's knowledge of the brain with social scientific knowledge about paraverbal communication and interactional synchrony.

Findings – We theoretically analyze Autism Spectrum Disorders through the lens of neurosociology and develop a research agenda centered on relationships among brain function, interactional symmetry, and autism. We also derive an intervention model involving the artificial manipulation of speech communication. In our analysis we draw attention to multidisciplinary research on vocal and behavioral synchrony and demonstrate how this knowledge contributes to a neurosociological understanding of autism.

Research limitations/implications – We synthesize diverse programs of research from multiple fields and innovate a neurosociological approach to understanding biosocial interaction rituals in relation to autism. We discuss the potential use of “dichotic filtration” of speech to enhance communication efficacy for individuals with autism.

Practical implications – Our arguments suggest that the social difficulties faced by individuals with autism may be rooted in problems associated with the cerebral processing of paralanguage. As a potential remedy for these problems, we suggest an intervention method based on recent technological advancements stemming from decades of theoretical and empirical research.

Social implications – To the extent that the proposed intervention model proves successful, it will enhance the lives of individuals with autism and those with whom they interact by improving social communication and associated channels for creating social bonds.

Originality/value – This work is uniquely important as an example of how biosociologists might move “from bench to application” in the context of a cumulative program of interdisciplinary research, development, and technology transfer.

Purpose – The goal of this chapter is to demonstrate the importance of incorporating gene by environment (G×E) interactions into behavioral science theory and research.

Design/methodology/approach – We critique behavioral genetics, discuss the emergence of epigenetics, review findings on G×E effects, and present the differential susceptibility model of gene–environment interplay.

Findings – The studies reviewed demonstrate that genetic variation often interacts with environmental context to influence the probability of various behaviors. Importantly, in many, and perhaps most, of the studies reviewed, the genetic variable, unlike the environmental variable, has little if any main effect on the outcome of interest. Rather, the influence of the genetic variable is limited to its moderation of the effect of the environmental construct.

Research limitations/implications – Molecular G×E research does not undermine the importance of environmental factors; rather it shows how social scientific explanations of human behavior might be made more precise by incorporating genetic information. This suggests expanded research opportunities for those interested in social causation.

Social implications – This model of molecular G×E research presented suggests that a substantial proportion of the population is genetically predisposed to be more susceptible than others to environmental influence. We argue that this model of G×E is particularly relevant to sociologists and psychologists and has the potential to enhance the development of theory in both areas.

Originality/value – This chapter will be of particular interest to sociologists and psychologists who have found the behavioral genetic paradigm off-putting because of its emphasis on genetic main effects and genetic determinism. The current chapter offers an alternative model that may better capture the available data and better integrate social processes with genetic and biological processes.

Purpose – Due to an absence of dialogue between sociology and the neurosciences, the scientific study of morality largely ignores cultural and structural influences. This chapter offers a synthetic approach integrating these separate disciplines to aid a more complete understanding of morality.

Design/methodology/approach – This chapter reviews morality's bonding (a sense of groupness and belonging) and bounding (reproducing and reinforcing group boundaries) qualities across disciplines, and proposes three provisional principles to systematize an interdisciplinary model of morality. We then offer a preliminary illustration of how this model might be operationalized with functional MRI data.

Findings – Our proposed principles (as exemplified by our illustrative example) suggest that the sociology-neurology gap in understanding the domain of morality might shrink through an engagement with the underlying neural mechanisms that encompass issues of empathy, racial attitudes, and identity as potential platforms opening up a more “social” neuroscience.

Research limitations/implications – This chapter provides a starting-point for further research incorporating biological mechanisms into sociological theories in the area of morality. The illustrative case study should be replicated in a larger sample and/or in additional studies with different social groups.

Practical implications – This chapter is a useful source of information for sociologists seeking to find out more about the intersection of neuroscience and sociology as well as the neural dynamics of morality.

Originality/value – This chapter presents an introduction to an integrative approach recognizing our biological capacities for a socially constructed morality and the interaction between society and the mind. It includes one of the first sociologically oriented fMRI studies, offering avenues for new ways to bridge research disciplines.

Purpose – The aim of this research was to test whether the motivations of self-enhancement and self-verification act independently and simultaneously, specifically in the context of the impostor phenomenon.

Design/methodology/approach – Using both self-report measures and salivary cortisol levels, I conducted a 2×2 experiment (N=106) in which status (high or low) was crossed with competition outcome (win or lose). The “low-status winner” condition served as a simulation of the impostor phenomenon.

Findings – Winners reported greater positive affect and less negative affect, indicating self-enhancement, but salivary cortisol levels were higher in participants whose status was disconsonant with the competition outcome (high-status losers and low-status winners), reflecting self-verification.

Research limitations/implications – A potential limitation was the omission of nicotine use as a control variable.

Practical implications – Results illuminate the dual public and private nature of the impostor phenomenon, in which normative expressions of happiness overlie deeper feelings of anxiety. A better understanding would benefit educators, employers, counselors, and therapists who work with high-achieving women and minorities as well as the women and minorities they serve.

Social implications – Findings suggest that efforts should be made to bolster the confidence of promising young women and minorities, with the understanding that, despite high levels of achievement, self-confidence and a sense of deservedness may be lacking.

Originality/value – Methodological advancements included the first laboratory simulation of the impostor phenomenon and the use of both self-report and physiological measures of responses to status situations. This was the first study capable of observing the motivations to self-enhance and self-verify simultaneously and independently of one another.

Purpose – This paper proposes a new procedure for measuring affective responses during social interaction using facial thermographic imaging.

Methodology – We first describe the results of several small pilot experiments designed to develop and refine this new measure that reveal some of the methodological advantages and challenges offered by this measurement approach. We then demonstrate the potential utility of this measure using data from a laboratory experiment (N=114) in which we used performance feedback to manipulate identity deflection and measured several types of affective responses – including self-impressions and emotions.

Findings – We find warming of the brow (near the corrugator muscle) and cheek (near the zygomatic major muscle) related most strongly to emotion valence and self-potency, with those whose brows and cheeks warmed the most feeling less positive emotion and less potent self-impressions. Warming in the eye area (near the orbicularis oculi) related most closely to undirected identity deflection and to positive self-sentiments. Positive self-views and strong identity disruptions both contributed to warming of the eyes.

Implications – The rigor of contemporary sociological theories of emotion exceeds our current ability to empirically test these theories. Facial thermographic imaging may offer sociologists new assessments of affect and emotion that are ecologically valid, socially unreactive, temporally sensitive, and accurate. This could dramatically improve our ability to test and develop affect based theories of social interaction.

Publication date
Book series
Advances in Group Processes
Series copyright holder
Emerald Publishing Limited
Book series ISSN