Sociological social psychology in general, and particularly the study of morality, suggest caveats for the relevance of evolutionary processes to motivate modern research programs. Certainly, evolution has set the boundaries for social processes, but the prominent questions involve what happens within those biological and neurological boundaries.

I suggest three reasons that social psychology is relatively unconcerned with evolutionary logic; proximate biological processes are a bit more prevalent in sociological social psychology, today.

First, a focus on the evolved human organism connotes essentialist thinking whereby similarities across social groups are universalized and differences may be credited to immutable traits (e.g., gender). Given the racism present in the work of the authors of the first social psychology textbooks (by Ross and McDougal, respectively in the early 1900s), even a century later we have a reflexive desire to steer far away from anything that seems to substantiate such claims.

Relatedly, the biologist Henrich calls into question the very generalizability of much psychological work. We can find evolutionary ‘just so’ stories for a range of observed behaviors and findings, but the overwhelming amount of research has been conducted with Western, Industrialized, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic (WEIRD) individuals. Sociology has long been skeptical of universalizing claims; (see John Levi Martin’s first rule of sociology: Some Do, Some Don’t).

A second reason that our field pays less attention to such issues involves disciplinary boundary drawing. Our subdiscipline has long defined itself apart from psychology while signaling to sociology that we belong. We start from the social and explore how it gets Inside, rather than focusing on the human organism. Sociological social psychology begins with the general symbolic material and accordant differences in power, status, and legitimacy inherent in the organization of any society that becomes internalized through notions of schemas, identity, and the self. Such material and relationships shift much more quickly than the putative forces that shaped the human organism over millennia. Biologically influenced social psychologists (see Further Readings) typically engage questions of stratification, interaction, and status attainment – processes much more guided by concurrent social arrangements than by evolved capacities.

Relatedly, a third factor operates within an American society that valorizes individual success and failure and posits the driving forces behind such results within the enterprising individual. Sociologists counter this by demonstrating how much of an individual’s life attainment can be explained outside of biological factors. Thus, a sociological social psychologist both draws boundaries against the organism-focused field of psychology and signals membership in the broader sociological community through focusing on the mechanisms whereby social (dis)advantages are shaped and perpetuated through interaction and intersubjective understandings. Evolution may have shaped the species’ broad capacities for thought and feeling, but the content is shaped by social circumstance, culturally defined understandings of what stimuli trigger emotions and thoughts, and how cultural notions of acceptance and appropriation shape our moral senses.

Morality is a topic that spans the social sciences, with evolutionary and biological theories finding some purchase (see the 2018 TVOL series on Universal Morality), though much less so in sociology. Morality, whatever that means in practice (definitions differ, but the basic idea is about being good to other people and following societal rules when they are just), is a useful nexus for thinking about what capacities are hard-wired into people that are ‘filled in’ by cultural expectations, definitions, and boundaries. Richard Shweder argues that even evolved abstract capacities to moralize harm and justice are less interesting than how, when, and where those dispositions translate into human interaction.

Sociology is less often included in the debates about moral evolution and functioning even though we have much to offer about morality in society, ranging from what Abend considers the “moral background” – distal understandings of what agents garner moral consideration and pre-interactional notions of what morality even means – to ways that social class (as one example) patterns the drawing of boundaries between right and wrong. Humans have evolved (within social contexts) to favor their in-groups, for example, but who is considered part of the in-group can change across cultures, contexts, and the life course. The interesting action for a social psychologist involves locating patterns in the how, when, and where such definitions are created, applied, and internalized. 

Read the entire Evolutionary Sociology series:

  1. Introduction: Nothing In Sociology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Russell Schutt, Rengin Firat, and David Sloan Wilson
  2. Social Science Contributions to the Study of Zoonotic Spillover: Normal Accidents and Treadmill Theory by Michael Ryan Lengefeld
  3. Is Video Chat a Sufficient Proxy for Face-to-Face Interaction? Biosociological Reflections on Life during the COVID-19 Pandemic by Will Kalkhoff, Richard T. Serpe, and Josh Pollock
  4. Natural and Sociocultural Selection: Analyzing the Failure to Respond to the C-19 Pandemic by Jonathan H. Turner
  5. Bringing Neuroscience and Sociology into Dialogue on Emotions to Better Understand Human Behavior by Seth Abrutyn
  6. Speculations About Why Sociological Social Psychology Largely Elides Evolutionary Logic by Steven Hitlin
  7. The Coronavirus Pandemic, Evolutionary Sociology, and Long-Term Economic Growth in the United States by Michael Hammond
  8. Institutionalization of Animal Welfare and the Evolution of Coronavirus(es) by Erin M. Evans
  9. The Coronavirus in Evolutionary Perspective by Alexandra Maryanski
  10. Gene-Culture and Potential Culture-Gene Coevolution: The Future of COVID-19 by Marion Blute
  11. For God’s Sake! What’s All This Fuss About a Virus? by Andrew Atkinson

Further Readings:

Abend, Gabriel. 2014. The Moral Background: An Inquiry into the History of Business Ethics. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Abend, Gabriel 2018. “The Love of Neuroscience: A Sociological Account.” Sociological Theory 36(1):88-116.

Buchanan, Allen and Russell Powell. 2018. The Evolution of Moral Progress: A Biocultural Theory: Oxford University Press.

Freese, Jeremy. 2008. “Genetics and the Social Science Explanation of Individual Outcomes.” American Journal of Sociology 114(S1):S1-S35.

Guo, Guang, Hexuan Liu, Ling Wang, Haipeng Shen, and Wen Hu. 2015. “The Genome-Wide Influence on Human Bmi Depends on Physical Activity, Life Course, and Historical Period.” Demography 52(5):1651-70.

Henrich, Joseph, Steven J Heine, and Ara Norenzayan. 2010. “The Weirdest People in the World?” Behavioral and Brain Sciences 33(2/3):1-75.

Hitlin, Steven and Stephen Vaisey. 2013. “The New Sociology of Morality.” Annual Review of Sociology 39:51-68.

Piliavin, Jane Allyn and Paul C. LePore. 1995. “Biology and Social Psychology: Beyond Nature Versus Nurture.” Pp. 9-40 in Sociological Perspectives on Social Psychology, edited by K. S. Cook, G. A. Fine, and J. S. House: Allyn and Bacon.

Simons, Ronald L, Man Kit Lei, Steven RH Beach, Gene H Brody, Robert A Philibert, and Frederick X Gibbons. 2011. “Social Environment, Genes, and Aggression: Evidence Supporting the Differential Susceptibility Perspective.” American Sociological Review 76(6):883-912.

Tomasello, Michael. 2020. “The Role of Roles in Uniquely Human Cognition and Sociality.” Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour 50(1):2-19. doi: 10.1111/jtsb.12223.

Turner, Jonathan H. 2015. “The Evolutionary Biology and Sociology of Social Order.” Pp. 1842 in Order on the Edge of Chaos: Social Psychology and the Problem of Social Order, edited by E. J. Lawler, S. R. Thye, and J. Yoon. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Published On: August 10, 2020

Steven Hitlin

Steven Hitlin

Steven Hitlin is professor of Sociology & Criminology at the University of Iowa. His research focuses on social psychology, self and identity, morality, values, agency and the life course. He is the author of Moral Selves, Evil Selves: The Social Psychology of Conscience (2008, Palgrave), co-author of Unequal Foundations: In (equality, Morality and Emotions across Cultures (Oxford, 2018) and the lead co-editor of the Handbook of the Sociology of Morality (Vol. 1, 2010; Vol 2, in development).

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