Neurosociology Research Paper Starter


(Research Starters)

Neurosociology is a relatively new field that is dismantling some of the long felt distrust many sociologists have for biological explanations of behavior. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, attempts to prove that whites were superior to other races and that men were superior to women combined biological explanations with sociology. As these theories were discredited, sociobiology also fell out of fashion, and it has remained a neglected area of study until recently. Driven by inquiries arising from the increasing popularity of the sociology of emotions and new questions about free will, sociologists are again looking to the human body -this time to neurology — to understand the physical basis for social behavior. Neurosociology is working to connect new knowledge about the brain with studies of interaction.

Keywords: Attachment Behavior; Biological Reductionism; Emergence; Epigenesis; Limbic System; Neurosociology; Primary Emotions; Sociobiology



If sociologists have been slow to explore the implications of neurological research on social interaction, there is a good reason for their hesitation. Earlier attempts to explain social processes through biological explanations largely fell flat, sometimes with damaging consequences. Biological explanations were used in the past to attempt to prove the superiority of the white race over other races; likewise, attempts to prove women's inferiority to men were rooted in supposedly scientific biological explanations. Sadly enough, in the eighteenth, nineteenth and early twentieth centuries a variety of sociobiological approaches were used to "prove" that women and nonwhite peoples were inferior to white men.

For example, evolutionary theory in a rudimentary form was used to support racism, as scientists speculated that racial inferiority was caused by divergent evolutionary paths, or a sort of de-evolution by some races. Early understandings of genetic inheritance also played a role in supporting various sociologically and scientifically dubious enterprises, as Mendel's laws of inheritance were adapted to justify the eugenics movement, including sterilization of "feebleminded" people (who were often immigrants or mislabeled nonconformists) and virulent forms of racism. A popular theory called Lamarckianism even claimed that culturally learned traits could be transmitted from parent to child (McKee, 1993). Many sociologists distrusted these theories and insisted that social factors were more important in explaining behavior and social interaction. Others tried to work current biological theories into their sociological theories. After these biological theories were all shown to be flawed, most sociologists avoided biological explanations.

More recent attempts to root explanations of social behavior in the fact that humans are first and foremost biological creatures have not caught the imagination of many sociologists. Many sociobiological explanations are seen as being biologically deterministic or reductionist. That is, in these explanations, human behavior is reduced to a simple, biologically determined and ultimately predictable phenomenon. These theories are often close to suggesting that biology is destiny, which is unacceptable to a discipline that studies the intricate and complex causes for human actions.

However, advances in neuroscience, genome theory and related fields have made these fields relevant to sociology in new ways. While rooted in the understanding of humans as biological creatures, these disciplines emphasize the emergent properties of the various systems that make humans into physically embodied beings. A system is emergent if it has properties that cannot be predicted from a knowledge of its constituent parts. Sociologists believe that human social behavior is emergent, because knowing the predispositions of individuals cannot explain group-level phenomena like suicide rates. Many biological processes are also revealing emergent properties. For example, a human's brain structure is suggested by that person's genetic inheritance, but the actual end product is influenced by social and environmental influences as the person develops.


Neurosociology is a field merging sociology with neurology, linking theories of social interaction with new understanding of the roots of behavior in the processes of the brain. Neurosociology has begun to generate new explanations in areas that have long drawn sociological interest. Driven by inquiries arising from the increasing popularity of the sociology of emotions and questions about free will, sociologists are again looking to the human body -this time to neurology — to understand the physical basis for social behavior. Neurosociology is working to connect knowledge about the brain with studies of interaction. The most promising work so far seems to be in the areas of attachment, emotion, and motivation.

Attachment Behavior

Attachment behavior between caregivers and mothers has a neurophysiological basis. Research indicates that humans are actually hardwired for interaction and that the roots of caregiver/infant attachment are innate. As a caregiver comforts an upset baby, molecules called opioids are released in the baby's and the caregiver's brains, producing a sense of calm. (This process does not end as people mature; in fact, attachment behavior in adults also releases opioids in both the person being cared for and the caregiver.) Separation causes arousal and eventually distress in the infant; this creates a cycle of interaction between caregiver and child that is the model for all social interaction (Smith 2004; Smith & Franks, 1999).

As is true of much of the human body, the final structure of a human's brain is not completely determined at birth. Instead, genomes offer potentials for organization and structure that are later developed as humans interact with their environments. Epigenesis is the term for how genomes take environmental and cultural information and use this information and stimulation to develop structures. Studies show that the human brain develops throughout life and that its development is not determined at birth; it is strongly shaped by environmental influences and social interaction. Without proper stimulation (emotional, cognitive and social), the brain will not develop properly. Sensory deprivation and emotional isolation can affect the emotional, cognitive and physical development of children.

Some of the early work revealing the link between emotional stimulation and cognitive development was done by Rene Spitz in the mid-twentieth century. Spitz is most known for a study comparing children raised in a foundling home with children raised in a penal institution where their mothers were confined. The children in the penal institution had contact with their mothers while the children in the foundling home had little contact with caregivers beyond that which met their basic needs. While the children were otherwise from similar backgrounds and treated in similar fashions, their development was dramatically different. The institutionalized children who were raised with bonds to caregivers developed normally, while the foundling home children had extremely high mortality rates and showed emotional distress and cognitive impairment from a very young age. The damage done by this early neglect turned out to be irreparable. This early study was influential in changing the treatment of children in institutions. Advances in the study of the brain can explain what Spitz observed in neurological terms. Environmental influences such as cognitive and emotional stimulation and attachment to caregivers can actually change the brain's structure and potential as a child develops (Tredway, Knapp, Tredway & Thomas, 1999).

The term Neurosociology, coined by Bogen, was first used in an article by Bogen, DeZure, TenHouten and Marsh in 1972. TenHouten went on to pioneer research in the different capacities of the brain's hemisphere, and to apply this research to cultural questions. For example, people raised in different cultures use their brains differently. The left hemisphere of the brain generally handles conscious thought, speech, and decision making; the right side of the brain is in control of spatial relations, time, color, motion and expressions. TenHouten showed that the children of Australian Aborigines used the right hemisphere of their brains more than the children descended from European settlers, but when the Aboriginal children joined urbanized cultures, their brain...

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