Debate Magazine

Constructing the “Social”

By Cris

What do we mean by “social”? I will confess to having never given this important issue much thought, which I now realize is a serious mistake. I should have known better, given that half my research is in evolutionary biology and cognitive science (where “social” is used one way) while the other half is in the social sciences (where “social” is used another way). These disjunctive uses of “social” have a history or genealogy. We’ve all heard about the “social construction” of one thing or another, but have we stopped to closely consider how the “social” has itself been constructed? How the concept of “social” has changed over time and what the consequences of such change might be?

I was just made aware of this issue, or oversight, while reading Gregory Hollin’s superb Somatosphere post on “Autism, Sociality, and Human Nature.” In the past, “social” was constructed in Durkheimian ways which were later popularized by Peter Berger in The Social Construction of Reality (1966). Over the past few decades, there has been a substantial shift away from this construction. This alternate construction has been formulated by cognitive scientists and biological anthropologists, and has eventually seeped over into psychiatric medicine. In any event, I encourage you to read Hollin’s piece, which contains this money paragraph:

Within the experimental human sciences this is a really significant shift in understandings of the social.  Under this new regime the social is individualised, essentialised, and biologised, becoming a property of individual persons outside of context, individual or institutional history.  I have an innate, biological capacity to feel empathy and this capacity lies at the heart of my social being.  In other words, ‘the social’ is not something that shapes us throughout one’s lifetime, it is something that we are inherently and naturally.

These different constructions and uses of “social” have profound impacts, not just in our trans-disciplinary debates (which often seem to be at cross-purposes, probably due to differing definitions), but also in a world where “autism” is the diagnosis or pandemic affliction du jour.


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