Social Evolution Forum
FIND sef:
Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution: A Sociologist’s Perspective

The two-part essay by David Sloan Wilson and Harvey Whitehouse, “Developing the Field Site Concept for the Study of Cultural Evolution” presents compelling applications of field research methods and evolutionary theory that make clear the value of their combination.  Wilson’s Binghamton Neighborhood Project (BNP) and Whitehouse’s studies in Papua New Guinea and then in the AnthroLab field sites are not only models for research on cultural evolution but also examples of how to investigate fundamental questions about the social world within a scientific program of theoretically-guided research.  My commentary on the essay will focus on the implications of these models for research in sociology and on the persuasiveness of the authors’ arguments from a sociological standpoint.

Three recommendations underlie the “field site” vision elaborated in David Sloan Wilson’s part, although the first recommendations are subsumed within the third: (1) Use field study as a methodology; (2) Use evolutionary biology as a theoretical framework; (3) Apply field study methods within the theoretical framework of evolutionary biology in order to explain cultural variation and change.  The first recommendation is the easiest for a sociologist to accept, since as Wilson points out, there is a strong tradition of field research in sociology. Nonetheless, there is much to be learned from reviewing this tradition and considering its current status and challenges.  The second, theoretical recommendation requires overcoming what Wilson aptly characterizes as sociology’s historical disinclination to adopt an evolutionary perspective, and so I will review that history and consider whether there is some potential for a disciplinary reset.  Of course, it can be argued with respect to the third recommendation that most sociologists do not study cultural evolution, but if behavior ranging from sociality in Binghamton schools (Wilson, 2016) to community rituals in Melanesia (Whitehouse, 2016) are best explained by evolutionary theory, it is clear that “cultural evolution” is meant to be broadly applied.

Recommendation #1: Field Study Methods
Sociology emerged as a discipline in the late 19th century during the social transformations associated with urbanization and industrialization of Western society, and in the midst of growing support for the scientific method and of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection.  With increasing numbers of people moving from small, homogeneous villages to urban areas and leaving home- or workshop-based agricultural and craft work for factory (and then office) labor, early sociologists focused attention on the corresponding changes in the nature of social ties.  Émile Durkheim (1893) conceptualized the change as involving a shift from “mechanical” solidarity based on likeness to “organic” solidarity based on interdependence; Max Weber (1915) described the shift from traditional society to legal-rational authority and bureaucratic organization; Ferdinand Tönnies (1887) distinguished gemeinschaft social groupings bound by feelings of togetherness from the new gesellschaft pattern of instrumental relations.

Concern with the fragility of social ties associated with the more modern form of social organization stimulated research ranging from Durkheim’s seminal study of suicide rates in France to Robert and Helen Merrell Lynds’ mixed methods field study of Middletown.  This focus found perhaps its most concentrated expression in the development of what came to be known as the “Chicago School,” which was centered at the University of Chicago’s Department of Sociology.  With the rapidly growing metropolis of Chicago as their laboratory, Chicago School sociologists used ethnographic methods to study neighborhood social life holistically, at times making explicit analogies to the ecological approach in biology.  Since the 1920s, the Chicago School approach has inspired field studies of neighborhoods and organizations by sociologists in Chicago and beyond, including Harvey Warren Zorbaugh’s (1929) The Gold Coast and the Slum (Chicago’s Near North Side), William Foote Whyte’s (1943) Street Corner Society (Boston’s North End), Gerald Suttles’s (1968) The Social Order of the Slum (Chicago’s Near West Side), Kai Erikson’s (1976) Everything in Its Path (Buffalo Creek, West Virginia), and, more recently, Carolyn Ellis’s Fisher Folk (community in Chesapeake Bay), Elijah Anderson’s (1999) Code of the Street (North Philadelphia), Mitchell Duneier’s (1999) Sidewalk (New York’s Greenwich Village) and Eric Klinenberg’s (2002) Heat Wave (Chicago’s North and South Lawndale).

I hope I have made it clear that field studies have a long tradition in sociology that has continued to inspire new research even before Rob Sampson’s (2012) brilliant new contribution, Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect.  It is therefore important to consider why relatively few sociologists conduct field studies.

The explanation again takes us back to the discipline’s founders.  The other side of the coin of concern with the loss of community was sociologists’ conceptions of the society that was replacing it.  Although differing in their specifics, these conceptions highlighted decreasing communal ties and traditional values and increasing individual autonomy and rationally determined goals.  Each also expressed various degrees of apprehension about this shift, but all understood that the social world’s tectonic plates were shifting.  Arguably expressed most clearly in Talcott Parsons’s (1951) “pattern-alternatives of value-orientation,” the direction of change included a shift in orientation from affectivity to affective neutrality, from concern for the collectivity to concern for the self, from ascription to achievement, and from particularistic to universalistic values.  To the extent that society thus shifted from a more collectivist to a more individualist culture, sociologists could favor methodologies that treat individuals as the units of analysis and slight the role of local social context.

The appeal of a theoretical rationale for methodological individualism was complemented by rapid development of national communications, transportation, and educational and computational infrastructures that facilitated collection and analysis of data with surveys and other quantitative methods.  The ability to represent large populations, measure myriad variables, and test complex causal chains diminished for decades the appeal of intensive, locally-focused field studies.  As globalization has increased the scale of interconnection (Friedman 2006), “neighborhoods are seen as an anachronism displaced by global networks of interchangeability.” (Sampson, 2012, p. 355)

But attention to social context is on the rebound in sociology, both because of the discipline’s foundational concern with social relations and as an indirect consequence of interrelated social and technological developments.  Four examples convey the increasing contemporary sociological focus on social context:  (1) Migration has created new social patterns within cities across the globe.  Like Harvey Whitehouse’s multi-sited AnthroLab project, the Max Planck Institute’s comparative field studies of social diversity in New York, Singapore, and Johannesburg is showing how traditional field research methods can relate global issues to local communities. (2) While the Project on Human Development in Chicago Neighborhoods set a new standard for quantitative research on contextual effects, the “ecometrics” method Rob Sampson developed for the PHDCN can now be facilitated with Google Street View data.  Place-based analyses are now also possible with GPS data pertinent to many social science questions (Sampson, 2015, p. 360). (3) A large body of sociological research has highlighted the value of social ties for health and well-being, but individually-based measures of social supports are increasingly being supplemented by assessment of the social networks (Schutt 2015)—the social context—in  which they are embedded (Christakis and Fowler, 2009).  (4) Statistical analyses of quantitative data collected from different social contexts, including organizations and communities, increasingly use multi-level modeling techniques that take account of contextual influences (e.g., Schutt, 2005).

So while traditional ethnographic field studies focused on single communities may never comprise more than a fraction of sociological research, attention to social context and group-level processes is evident increasingly throughout sociology.  We can place a solid checkmark in the box corresponding to Recommendation #1.

Recommendation #2: Evolutionary Theory
After decades of disciplinary disengagement followed a troubled rupture between sociology and evolutionary biology at the turn of the last century, the path to implementation of Recommendation #2 contains many obstacles.  However, the development of multi-level selection theory in evolutionary biology—so well represented in the Social Evolution Forum—as well as related developments in genetics and neuroscience require reexamination of the bases of the rupture and provide multiple means for productive and sustained reengagement.  As I discussed in a contribution to This View of Life, this reengagement is still in a nascent stage in sociology.  I will limit myself here to a summary of the major disciplinary changes and new points of convergence, after a brief reconsideration of the past points of contention.

The application of Darwin’s (1871) theory of evolution by natural selection to the context of human society was shaped largely by Herbert Spencer’s (1852) conceptualization of the struggle for “survival of the fittest” as the causal mechanism that explained social stratification in contemporary society: The “evolution” of human societies involved a “natural process of elimination” of the “good-for-nothings” (Spencer 1874, p. 286).  In the words of William Graham Sumner, Spencer’s American acolyte, the only alternative to the “survival of the fittest” was the “survival of the unfittest” (The New York Times, 1883).  The enduring popular—and sociological—understanding of the implications of Darwin’s theory for human society was that it was a reductionist perspective in which critical human abilities that were fixed by biology at birth resulted in a competition between individuals that those less endowed were destined to lose. As Mendelian genetics added to Darwinism a mechanism to explain inheritance, as Nazi “science” distorted genetics to justify genocide, as Lysenko’s Soviet “science” of environmentally-determined heredity was discredited (Mukhernee, 2016), it seemed appropriate to consider the scientific study of society a matter apart from biology and the theory of evolution as irrelevant to understanding human cultures.

But while this construction of Darwinism supported social prejudices of the time, it is important to recognize that it overlooked much of what Darwin (1989/1874) actually believed.  Two of the seven chapters (4 and 5) of The Descent or Origin of Man focus on the importance of human sociality and the role of group selection pressures in the evolution of Homo sapiens’ most distinctive characteristics.  Human dominance of the earth is in part due to “social habits, which lead him to aid and defend his fellows” (Darwin, p. 52); social motives override self-preservation and extend beyond kin to one’s social group (p. 114); the “social instinct” is a more powerful influence on human behavior than “the base principal of selfishness” (p. 125); these social instincts can be extended to larger groups and communities (p. 127) and can become hereditary (p. 128); groups are disadvantaged in the course of evolution if they are composed of more “selfish and contentious people” (p. 135). In other words, Darwin believed strongly in evolutionary selection at the level of groups as well as individuals! (Wilson, 2015)

The recent development of multilevel selection theory finally capitalizes on this long neglected aspect of Darwin’s theorizing and recasts evolutionary theory in a way that supports sociologists’ recognition of the importance of human altruism and social processes (Durkheim (1984/1893) rather than standing in opposition to it. Complementary developments in neuroscience, genetics, and anthropology also strengthen the need for this disciplinary reconnection.  Social neuroscience has identified the structures and neurochemical processes in the brain that evolved to support social connection and the plasticity that allows the brain to develop in response to social experience (Schutt, Seidman, & Keshavan, 2015): “We now know that the human brain, considered in isolation from its social functions, is like a cell without chromatin.” (Brothers, 1997, p. 67)  The explication of epigenetic processes reveals that the connection of genes to their environment is bidirectional, rather than deterministic (Mukherjee, 2016).  Henrich (2015) and others have connected biological evolution to cultural change, in part by showing how cultural learning shapes reward circuitry in the brain, and thus preferences and behavior  so as to allow adaptation to different environments without genetic change.

Some sociologists have also begun to connect the dots that link human biology and social behavior.  Sociologists have collected biomarkers in order to understand gene-environment interactions (Guo & Adkins, 2008; Guo, Tong, & Cai, 2008), “neurosociologists” have contributed new insights about evolutionary and cognitive processes (Franks, 2010; TenHouten, 2013), and others have accorded evolved emotions a key role in social organizational processes (Turner, 2011). New sections have formed within the American Sociological Association to support scholarship on evolution, biology, and society ( and on altruism, morality, and social solidarity (

Emerging from these efforts are principles that can be the foundation for sociological research informed by evolutionary theory:  (1) sociality, the capacity and need for social connection is instantiated in human biology—most importantly in the brain; (2) social contexts, ranging from families and peer groups to organizations and neighborhoods shape individual orientations and behaviors; (3) influence between individuals and groups flows in both directions, in part through environmental influences on biological processes—including cultural variations—and in part through biologically-based behavioral predispositions toward social contexts; (4) the evolutionary processes of variation, selection, and retention are important at each social level, from individuals to states, and natural selection at the level of groups can be more consequential than at the level of individuals; (5) tension inevitably emerges between motives to act on the basis of self-interest and on behalf of group well-being and is managed through social psychological and social control processes.

Although relatively few sociologists frame their scholarship explicitly in terms of evolutionary biology theory, many more investigate research questions that are tied closely to these basic principles and that could be reframed to good explanatory effect in terms of these principles.  The concept of “collective efficacy” used by Sampson (2012) to explain neighborhood effects is related closely to the concept of variable group effectiveness that underlies group selection theory, while Thomas Scheff’s (1990) “microsociological” theory of the centrality of social bonds as a human motive and the role of shame as an emotional indicator of their disruption lacks only a connection to the evolutionary theory that explains this fundamental aspect of human nature. Much the same could be said of the extensive sociological literature on social support (Song, Son, & Lin, 2011).  My own research has focused for many years on the bidirectional process of influence between individuals and their social contexts (Schutt, 1985; Schutt, 2011), but has only recently included attention to the biological dimensions of this process (Schutt, Seidman, & Keshavan, 2015).

In the discipline of sociology, there is much room for more progress toward Recommendation 2, but momentum is building in that direction.

Recommendation #3: Use Field Studies and Evolutionary Theory to Understand Culture
This disciplinary history and these contemporary developments suggest that some sociologists are already predisposed to endorse Recommendation 3—the overarching point of the Wilson/Whitehouse essay—and that many more could be convinced of its value.  Few sociologists would question the value of David Sloan Wilson’s comparative study of schools in Binghamton neighborhoods or of Whitehouse’s cross-cultural research spanning the globe.  Most sociologists would endorse the proposal to use a theoretical framework to guide more community-based research projects and to frame interconnected research questions.  But to what type of social phenomena should this approach be applied and which methods and/or theories should it displace?

The disciplinary boundary between anthropology and sociology—as is true in relation to each of the social sciences—is to some extent arbitrary and permeable; but it does reflect an anthropological tradition of primary attention to the small-scale communities of the past as compared to a primary sociological focus on the large societies of the present.  Therein, as I mentioned at the outset, lies the origin of our discipline, but also the appeal of methods that allow collection of data from large numbers of people sampled from areas that transcend physical, social, and political boundaries.  While Rob Sampson (2015) has provided persuasive theoretical and empirical justification for reemphasizing the importance of neighborhood location—of “place,” this does not obviate the need to understand local cultural variations within the context of overarching cultural patterns nor the importance of determining empirically the appropriate units for comparison to answer particular research questions.  To analogize to evolutionary biology, when should we consider neighborhoods to be like organelles that evolved endosymbiotically within cell boundaries, or to be like organs within an organism, rather than as different independent “sites” that can best be understood as functionally integrated cultural units and compared as such to each other?  While we do not want to fall back into what can seen as Durkheim’s circular reasoning about “organic” solidarity, in which different social parts are assumed to have the position they do because it supports the functioning of the whole society, we cannot escape the need to take account of macro-level processes.  And for this reason I suggest we need to take advantage of opportunities to conduct field studies within broader mixed methods investigations (Schutt, 2015) that can inform us about cross-cultural interconnections and structural constraints that must be understood as part of a larger social context—even as that context is increasingly global and virtual (Chayko, 2017).

This evaluation of the appropriate context for understanding social life also requires attention to the role of emotions.  As part of the evolved neurobiological mechanisms that enhance survival, social emotions are attuned to interpersonal interaction and the context of face-to-face communication (Damasio, 1999).  Is this a reason to suppose that interaction that transcends local contexts can therefore be understood apart from human biology?  Research on engagement in both written texts and electronic forms of communication suggests that the brain responds in similar ways to social information irrespective of the medium, but this connection needs more investigation in order to better frame our understanding of the relevant “field” for particular investigations and the role of evolved capacities (Chayko, 2017; Pinker, 2011).  And the emotional ball also still bounces in evolutionary biology’s court, as the role and even relevance of emotions in human evolution remains unsettled (cf. Boehm, 2012; Brothers, 1997; Tomasello, 2014; Turner, 2000).

If more sociologists are to adopt Recommendation 3, they must be convinced that their theorizing about culture should reflect or at least be compatible with the tenets of evolutionary biology.  In some respects the development of evolutionary views of culture makes this a harder sell.  The argument is as follows: The evolution of the human capacity for cultural learning created both the possibility of gene-culture coevolution (as in the development of lactose tolerance after the domestication of milk-producing animals) and the means for evolution of social practices without genetic change and at a pace much more rapid than is possible through natural selection (Henrich, 2015; Turchin, 2016).  Yet this remarkable consequence of biological evolution returns us to a basic argument first made by those who argued for a complete separation between biology and the human sciences:  Homo sapiens crossed an evolutionary Rubicon from genetic determination to cultural malleability (Kroeber 1915).

As Whitehouse notes, evolutionary psychologists have looked back across the river and found constraints on human behavior and psychology in evolutionary adaptations during the Pleistocene era; culture is therefore more “evoked” than “transmitted” (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992; Whitehouse, 2016).   But the less constrained “Evolutionary Views of Culture” that Whitehouse endorses is more compatible with the perspectives of sociologists—even the many who do not see any need to view through an evolutionary lens the extension of human cooperation to larger units or the spread of such patterns as monogamy or monotheism, and so it is ETC on which I focus (Turchin, 2016).

I think that the tie binding sociology and evolutionary biology at the hip is the evolved capacity for and importance of human sociality.  Neither human altruism, group-level cooperation, or social identity, nor the importance of secure attachment or of neighborhood cohesion—to name a few examples—can be explained adequately without taking into account the neural and other biological processes involved in sociality (Schutt, Seidman, & Keshavan, 2015).  It is a fundamental consequence of human evolution within social groups that is still too often overlooked even by sociologists who recognize the need to engage with biology (Shostak & Freese, 2010). If sociologists come to recognize that sociality and group process underlie the evolution of our species and are inherent in our biology, Recommendation 3 will become not just a means of framing sociological research but a clarion call for transdisciplinary recognition of the centrality of our discipline (Wilson, 2012).

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