Social Neuroscience

By Mark Simes

In the October 12, 2009, online issue of the New York Times, Op-Ed Columnist David Brooks published a brief article titled “The Young and the Neuro,” recounting his visit to the 3rd Annual Social and Affective Neuroscience Society’s conference.  This article, following the trend of most New York Times articles whose subject purports to address the nexus of neuroscience and human behavior, shot to the top of the “Most Popular- E-Mailed” list and landed in my personal inbox from different senders no less than 8 times.  Since the focus of my research pertains specifically to the relationship between the social environment and the human brain, receiving this once or twice from colleagues or close friends would not have been extraordinary, however, the sheer popularity of the article and a glaring omission that directly concerns the goals of Liah Greenfeld’s overall project – and my work within this science – makes Brooks’ article worthy of comment here.

It is true that the trend for combining the social and behavioral sciences with neuroscience has recently gained momentum.  Brooks points out in his article that, “In 2001, an Internet search of the phrase “social cognitive neuroscience” yielded 53 hits. Now you get more than a million on Google.”  It is no secret that such a sub-discipline of neuroscience has been introduced in an effort to bridge the manifest gap between the knowledge ascertained about the human brain and any explanatory relationship to human mental experience; these dual aspects of brain and mind refuse to be happily married in either sickness or health.  Thus, some incorporation of the social sciences into neuroscience was inevitable.

Upon reading “The Young and the Neuro”, however, I was struck by the disregard of the particular discipline whose role specializes in the study of the uniquely human social environment–sociology.  To be sure, the existence of our discipline is only warranted by this human focus.  Were sociology merely the study of society defined by a group of conspecifics living together in communities and their interactions, then such a study could (and does in the case of all other species of life) exist perfectly within the realm of biology.  Our own disciplinary foundation contradicts this conception–we are not biologists by definition.  We study that which arises out of unique characteristics of human behavior and the manifestations that become part of our distinctly symbolic way of life.  As Durkheim implied in his establishment of such a discipline, our subject matter cannot be explained by biology alone and exists as a reality of its own kind.  It is from an understanding of this human social reality that social cognitive neuroscience stands the most to gain.

Alas, we are often forgotten as a group in place of more specialized fields of social science that focus on particular types of human behavior or the behavior of individuals (i.e. Economics, Political Science and Psychology).  Brooks himself notes that a particularistic focus for social cognitive neuroscience is ill-equipped to bridge the gap that the paradigm necessitates.  He writes, “The work demonstrates that we are awash in social signals, and any social science that treats individuals as discrete decision-making creatures is nonsense.” Yet, the proprietors of the study of human society in its broadest sense, sociologists by training, are rarely considered an authority on how this social environment may interact with the biology at its base.

Through this discussion I assert nothing more than an illumination of a budding interdisciplinary paradigm–the paradigm necessarily implied by the framework that Greenfeld has espoused in Mind, Modernity, Madness–namely, a social neuroscience in which, we, the sociologists most closely connected to subjects of the mind and the brain, have the opportunity to play a central role.  I imagine that the contribution of sociological theory to the study of social cognitive neuroscience, more than ever, has the promise of advancing our knowledge in both disciplines and ameliorating our scientific understanding of ourselves as symbolic social beings.

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