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Reflections: Human Nature and the Sociology Textbooks
I have been assuming in my writing so far that sociologists generally avoid the topic of ‘human nature’; they act as though sociology does not have to make use of this concept in explaining social action and societal events. Yet I wonder whether I have really shown that sociologists avoid this topic, rather than merely excluding it as not pertinent to the discipline – no more relevant than the chemistry of a fish pond? So far I have mainly been at pains to show how social scientists actually use ideas about human nature without talking about them. But the reader could wonder what makes me think that sociologists attempt to do social science without a concept of human nature.
In these reflections I have decided to tackle this avoidance more directly by looking at the discursive strategies which operate to deal with the topic. To do this I have selected four textbooks that are well known and used in Australia to introduce sociology. Unavoidably, I will be making arguments that call these strategies into question. Yet by selecting these textbooks I may have seem to have given myself an easy target; why not go back to the sources of social theory from which these textbooks develop a sociological canon? Partly, this is because these textbooks do represent the canon. Students study these as they are introduced into the discipline and much of what the textbooks say defines the discipline throughout the whole of a sociological career. To understand what discourses are available to sociology, and in fact define the common sense of the discipline, what better than a textbook in which the arguments of key authors have been digested and presented in a form which anyone can understand? So the reader must beg my forgiveness if they believe I have inadvertently misrepresented the original sources which these textbook arguments represent. I am more concerned to consider the way these sources are ‘generally understood’ rather than to discover what they might really mean.
There is nothing universal about human conduct
Textbook introductions to sociology emphasize the fact that people’s thoughts, actions and intentions shape a variety of social situations. Just as there is nothing universal about thoughts, actions and intentions, they vary from moment to moment and from person to person, so the social orders and contexts brought about by variable human behaviour are variable. The other side of this equation is that a great variety of social situations shape a great variety of human behaviours. So, the conclusion is suggested, if we believe that human nature in its unvarying sameness is responsible for the social situations we see around us, think again. A cursory sociological glance at the great variety of human societies should dispel any illusion that they could possibly be created by something as universal as human nature. Clearly stated in this way, this is a very silly argument. Could you possibly believe that the great variety of shapes and colours of the physical world could be understood better by supposing that a particular set of elementary particles operate to bring about this variety? So such a silly argument is rarely put so baldly as I have stated it here. Instead it is suggested.
In the opening pages of the understandably successful “Public Sociology” we are told that sociology is:
…the study of the relationship between the individual and society, investigating how human thought, action, and interaction shape and are shaped by society. (Germov & Poole 2004: 4)
In this, it is assumed that these two elements are sufficient for sociology. On the one hand you have the variable thoughts, actions and intentions of individuals. On the other hand you have society. How society might be shaped by human nature is not an issue, apparently. To ram the point home, the authors of this introduction to the textbook continue by quoting Bauman:
Once we understand better how the apparently natural, inevitable, immutable, eternal aspects of our lives have been brought into being through the exercise of human power and resources, we shall find it much harder to accept that they are immune and impenetrable to subsequent actions, including our own. (Germov & Poole 2004:5)
This is an interesting statement. On the one hand, it could be taken to allow the possibility that our human powers are the powers vested in us as part of our nature. The immutable powers of our nature. This would make perfect sense. However my guess is that this is not the conclusion the reader is meant to draw. They are meant instead to assume that everything we think is natural and inevitable, including human nature, turns out instead to be something that has been brought about in a particular social context through the variable actions of particular humans exercising their unique will. In the Australian version of the excellent “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” (Haralambos, van Krieken, Smith & Holborn 1996), the small relevance of human nature to sociology is stated quite bluntly:
… culture is a ‘design for living’ held by members of a particular society. Since human instincts play only a very small role, if any at all, in shaping their actions, their behaviour is generally based on guidelines which are learned … To a large degree culture determines how humans think and feel; it directs their actions and defines their outlook on life. (Haralambos et al 1996: 5)
What is fascinating in this is the massive implausibility of the view that human nature plays a very small part in shaping actions. One wonders why people spend so much time growing food, and why execution is regarded as a sanction. The other interesting aspect of the statement is how the concept of human nature is stigmatized and undermined through the phrase “human instincts”. An instinct implies a biologically based pattern of action which is uniform in every situation, a kind of biological machine programmed to act to make an animal carry out a set of defined actions – for example how the weaver bird builds its nest, always with a large globular chamber and a small narrow tube for an entrance. So the exclusion of human nature from social science is based on one, very unlikely, view of how human nature normally operates. What follows is a display of the puzzling variety of culture – the Caribou Indians leave their old and infirm to die when the Caribou herd fails to appear when expected. It is the variety of human societies which is meant to show that human instincts can only play a small part in determining culture; otherwise all cultures would be the same; just like the nests of all weaver birds are the same.
Later the same textbook attacks sociobiology. The problem, they say, quoting Connell is that:
… human action cannot be regarded as determined by biological dispositions, because it is ‘highly structured in a collective sense; it is constituted interactively’. (Haralambos et al 1996: 457)
This is absurd on the face of it. If the argument is a good one, then actions involving more than one person cannot even be influenced, let alone determined by biological dispositions. Because in all these cases of interaction, they are saying, what comes about is constituted interactively. Yet in fact there is absolutely no problem in trying to explain an interaction by looking at the powers and properties of the things that are interacting. Think about how a physicist might explain a car crash by looking at the relative mass, speed and direction of the cars involved. Similarly there is nothing stupid about wondering how an interaction between people is influenced or even, if you must, ‘determined’ by their biological dispositions. The fact that you are examining an interaction does not rule such explanations out of court. The argument suggests that if biology determined human action, it could only do so by programming humans to behave in a certain way, regardless of the actions of those with whom they were engaged. Humans would have to act in a way that is compelled by their own internal drives, without reference to what is happening around them at all. This would be a very bizarre kind of human nature, not even the weaver bird making its nest has an instinct that is that oblivious to the nature of external reality. For example, they interact with the landscape to find twigs of just the right size to make their nest.
The textbook goes on to reinforce the argument by appealing to science:
… the human infant is born with relatively few of its neural pathways already committed. (Haralambos et al 1996: 457)
Accordingly, connection between nerve cells is based on experience. The impression this gives is that humans really can think about and desire anything at all and that it is a completely random, culturally variable, historically determined process. This is extremely unlikely. As I have demonstrated above and will come back to in this reflection, it does not accord with a large part of the way social scientists actually operate when they are explaining any particular social phenomenon.
How humans become social by transcending biology
Textbooks in sociology inevitably treat the topic of socialization and engage in various debates within sociology about that topic. However what seems to be the bedrock of agreement is that socialization is a process which so massively alters the biologically directed newborn infant that it becomes sensible from the point of view of social science to treat the socialized human being as a creature who is not moved by any biologically based nature, but instead is to all intents and purposes, “social”.
In “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” this theme is announced very early on; you cannot act too quickly to acquaint students with this foundation stone of the social sciences:
A newborn baby is essentially helpless, with few of the capacities we expect from ourselves and the people around us. Not only is it physically dependent on older members of the species, it also lacks the behaviour patterns necessary for living in human society. It relies primarily on biological drives such as hunger, and on the kindness of others to satisfy those drives. (Haralambos et al 1996: 5)
It is a baby before socialization which is ruled by biological drives like hunger. These are Marx’s ‘animal’ nature. If these are indeed admitted to be part of baby nature, what is not admitted is that there are any biological endowments of the human species which do not take the form of animal drives. That we have a biological capacity to enjoy music is clearly not something that rules the young baby on this account. The whole idea that informs the concept of ‘capacities’ that I have considered in previous chapters is foreign to this view because these do not immediately strike one as a ‘biological drive’. Do we have a biological drive to seek social approval? Clearly we do have such a drive and it is apparent in more detailed discussions of socialization that even these authors of textbooks see babies as operating out of this drive. Yet it is not the kind of thing that springs to mind when the term ‘biological drive’ is used. Instead we have the image of something which is innate and causes behaviour willy nilly, regardless of social influences; certainly not something which needs to be socially reinforced to flourish and will be socially shaped in its expression. What also comes about through this verbal device is that ‘hunger’ as a biological drive is not in itself considered as something that remains into adulthood and is itself shaped by socialization. Instead it is something we abandon as we become socialized into our adult social nature. Unlike babies, we do not rely upon biological drives like hunger. They go on:
The infant has a lot to learn in order to survive. It must learn the skills, knowledge and accepted ways of behaving of the society into which it is born. It must learn a way of life, what is often called the culture of its society. (Haralambos et al 1996: 5)
This demarcates two distinct fields. On the one hand there is the field of biological drives like hunger. The proper investigation of such things is clearly a matter for biologists and not something that social scientists need to be concerned with. Then there is the field of society and culture. This is the proper domain of social science. In this formula, the view that explanations of society and culture could rest on ideas about biological drives is not entertained. The example of wolf children shows that socialisation is “the process of becoming recognisably human” (Haralambos et al 1996:6). These wolf children (children supposedly isolated and brought up by wolves) have not become human; accordingly they are an example of what human nature – acting on its own outside society – will produce. By contrast normal people are examples of what society and culture produce. Again, what is elided is the possibility that the powers and capacities that make up human nature are in fact dependent on certain kinds of social circumstances to become fully operational; they are none the less part of our biological endowment for all that. We have evolved to be a species which depends on human culture to realize our biological endowment and the capacities conferred by that. The ability to use language is an obvious example.
Giddens’ mammoth textbook “Sociology” (2009) considers Mead’s theory of the social self. Socialization is actually necessary for us to become truly human – that is, self aware:
Mead insisted that a sociological perspective was necessary if we are to understand how the self emerges and develops … The ‘I” is the unsocialized infant, a bundle of spontaneous wants and desires. The ‘me’, as Mead used the term, is the social self. Individuals develop self-consciousness, Mead argued, by coming to see themselves as others see them, which allows for an ‘internal conversation’ between the individual ‘I’ and the social ‘me’. (Giddens 2009: 285)
Giddens interprets this investigation to reach the same conclusions considered above. The unsocialized infant is the one ruled by biology, the socialized human being has transcended this:
Mead’s theory of the social self has been criticized on several grounds. First, some argue that it effectively eliminates all biological influences on the development of self, when it is clear from biology and neuroscience that there is a biological basis to the human self. However, this criticism appears not to recognize that Mead’s notion of the ‘I’ represents the ‘unsocialized infant’. (Giddens 2009: 286)
In other words, what Giddens defends is the view that the unsocialized infant is someone influenced by biology while the socialized infant is nothing like this. He goes on to explain why Mead’s theory is genuinely sociological:
His was the first genuinely sociological theory of self formation and development, which insisted that if we are properly to understand ourselves, then we must start with the social process of interaction. In this way he showed that the self is not an innate part of our biology, nor does it emerge simply with the developing human brain. What Mead demonstrated is that the study of the individual’s self cannot be divorced from a study of society – and that requires a sociological perspective. (Giddens 2009: 286)
So the self is not “an innate part of our biology” because it can only come about through a social process; the process in which we take the viewpoint of the other. As before, this whole argument is based on a view of biology which is odd, to say the least. A human capacity cannot be biologically based, part of our biological endowment, if it requires a social process to become operational. No, anything that is shaped by society or requires social input to become realized as an active capacity must be “social” rather than “biological”. Well, maybe this is all in a name. Let us assume that Mead is perfectly right, and that self awareness is something that does not develop unless infants and young children are exposed to social interaction and come to take the position of the other. Let us also assume, which seems likely, that this understanding of the motives and points of view of others is also socially located in the sense that the infant and child learn self awareness at the same time as they learn about the specific and culturally specific motivations and feelings of others in their social world. From my point of view, what this theory is about is the particular qualities and mode of operation of an aspect of human nature – self awareness. It is human nature (if you like, it is biologically programmed) that humans have a capacity for self awareness. However this capacity is not expressed in early infancy but gradually develops as infants are exposed to social interaction. In this it is like many other aspects of our human nature, our capacity for language being the most obvious but also for example our capacities for music, art and dance. Just like our particular self awareness is shaped by our gradual understanding of the viewpoints of relevant others, so too is our particular musical awareness shaped by the music to which we are exposed.
Let us look at some of the few instances in which socialization is acknowledged to have some biological component. What is almost always emphasized here is the way that social forces can act to transform the biological body; what is never discussed is the way in which biologically universal aspects of human nature may have an influence on social life. For example in “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” they make this claim:
John Money (1990) has also pointed out that socialisation itself has a biological dimension, in that learning has effects which can be permanently ‘cemented into the brain’. (Haralambos et al 1996: 463)
In a similar discussion, Giddens points to the way society can act on bodies to create gender. He refers to a “growing number of sociologists” who argue that both sex and gender are socially constructed. The human body itself can be shaped by society. We can give our bodies different gender meanings from those which people imagine to be natural and can use regimes of bodily change to alter our bodies to fit, with anything from exercise to a sex change operation. The outcome is that:
… the human body and biology are not ‘givens’, but are subject to human agency and personal choice within different social contexts. (Giddens 2009: 608)
All of this is perfectly true, at least to a degree and depending on the technologies we have available to us. But what such statements do again is to suggest that the social sciences have no need of explanations based on our “biological” natures but instead the boot is really on the other foot; culture can even change biology.
The structure/agency dilemma
Every sociology textbook tells students the story of the structure/agency dilemma and surprisingly, since it is always represented as a controversy, they come to remarkably similar conclusions, as follows. Humans make their own history but in doing this their history also makes them. What I want to suggest is that the statement of this dilemma completely leaves out a third alternative. The dilemma as stated considers two options. The first option, the determinist option, says that human beings are so controlled in what they think and do by society that their actions are socially determined. The second option, the voluntarist option, says that as humans we determine ourselves and have choice and agency and in making choices we create society. I will give a few examples of statements of this dilemma before talking about how the discussion implies the irrelevance of human nature to the social sciences.
Bessant and Watts (2002) attribute the determinist view of action to writers like Durkheim. They describe it like this:
The classical sociological story assumes that all behaviour is learned and that all behaviour is routine and predictable. In effect, it implies that all we know, think or feel is ‘planted’ in us by ‘society’. (Bessant & Watts 2002: 124)
However this over simplified view cannot explain change, something which happens when people are not obeying the old, socially determined, script and do something completely new. It implies that socialisation is always completely effective in turning out a docile obedient member of society, whereas in fact people can behave very unpredictably, and differently, in response to similar social pressures. Accordingly, sociologists like Giddens:
… have consistently stressed our capacity for agency – for example, our ability to be self-aware, to know what we are doing, to choose what to do. (Bessant & Watts 2002: 129)
But this cannot mean that we have complete freedom to do anything at all. Agency:
… does not mean we can do or always act freely and have complete freedom about what we do. This has to do with the basic reality that we are constantly interacting with other people. (Bessant &Watts 2002: 130)
Accordingly, we need to steer a path between the Scylla and Charibdis of determinism and voluntarism:
We are neither the creature or ‘puppet’ of ‘society’, nor are we entirely free or autonomous ‘individuals’. (Bessant & Watts 2002: 132)
Haralambos, and his co authors make a similar statement of the dilemma and reach similar conclusions, referring to Giddens who they say considered:
… the dispute between determinists, who believe that human behaviour is entirely determined by outside forces, and voluntarists, who believe that humans possess free will, and can act as they wish. Giddens believed neither theory to be true, but he saw both as having some element of truth. (Haralambos et al 1996: 718)
Giddens in his textbook poses the dilemma like this:
… how far are we creative human actors, actively controlling the conditions of our own lives? Or is most of what we do the result of general social forces outside our control? (Giddens 2009: 87)
And concludes as might be expected:
Although we are all influenced by the social contexts in which we find ourselves, none of us is completely determined in our behaviour by these contexts. We possess, and create, our own individuality. It is the business of sociology to investigate the connections between what society makes of us and what we make of ourselves and society. (Giddens 2009: 9)
To me, what is extraordinary about these often repeated statements of a key question of social theory is an option that is always left out. To what extent is what we do an outcome of inside forces, outside of our control, located in our human nature and shaping a very large part of what we may desire and want? It is as though the two options of individual voluntarism versus social determinism completely exhaust the possibilities. Either society in its particular form at any place and time comes about because people make choices, based on their own particular, internal and uniquely individual set of desires. Or society comes about because individuals make the choices they do because of various social constraints and the social influences that shape their very desires, the external context of society as structure. The reality of social science, as I have been at pains to argue, is that the third alternative (the operation of aspects of human nature) is very frequently resorted to in the practice of explanations in the social sciences. It is commonly used without acknowledgement as such, in explaining why people come to have particular desires, why they respond to social constraints in particular ways and what might motivate them to oppose the social order and position in which they find themselves, thereby generating the social change which may alter social structures.
Dealing with the sociobiologists
Discussing the perspectives of sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, authors of sociology textbooks are sometimes called upon to answer theories of human nature with an alternative account. For example, sociobiologists argue that gender differences are not socially constructed at all, but arise from sexual difference as it has evolved in the human species. They argue that aspects of sexuality are equally innate and differentiated by sex. These arguments suggest the importance of biological nature and the biological distinction between the sexes – not a universal human nature, for sure but a sexually differentiated one. There are also many arguments circulating in psychology and in the media that relate racial, class, and intellectual differences to supposedly innate differences between people – not to a universal human nature, admittedly, but to biological determinants that differ between people. A similar argument suggests that different sexual orientations are also at least partly caused by genetic differences.
I want to suggest that the most general way in which these arguments are all treated in sociology textbooks is to pose the following dilemma:
Genetic differences cause differences in social condition.
Socially determined differences cause different social conditions.
The first viewpoint is treated as the view of sociobiology and usually rejected, though not always entirely dismissed. The second point of view is usually defended as the representing the more adequate insights of sociology. As in the dilemma of structure and agency, there is a missing third option. The discussion constantly leaves out the option that genetically similar traits in humans (human nature) may be invoked to explain various kinds of differences in social condition as they arise in particular social contexts, or indeed to explain some similar features of different societies. I will consider three issues in turn. One is the discussion of genetic racial difference, and IQ as determinants of social inequality. The second is the discussion of sexuality as innate and biologically determined, in both its constancy and variations. The third is the discussion of gender as biologically ordained.
Racism and IQ
Poole begins her discussion of these issues in “Public Sociology” by asking whether our behaviour is due to nature or nurture. From the context however, it seems that this is not really the question that she wants to address. It would be more correct to say that she is interested in whether the differences in our behaviour are due to differences in our nature or differences in our nurture. She begins by conceding a lot to psychological views that genetic influences are important in creating social differences:
Many of our individual characteristics are increasingly being explained by our genetic inheritance. Although many of these explanations are hotly debated, evidence has nevertheless been found to support claims for the genetic basis of characteristics such as intelligence, musical talent, sporting prowess, health and aggression. (Poole 2011: 90)
The statement excludes theories of human nature in a way that seems to say the opposite. In way, how could one deny that there is a genetic basis in human nature for the capacities for intelligence, music, sporting prowess, health and aggression that we all share? Yet so far from this being a possible issue, it is so unlikely to be considered important that the sentence can appear to mean this to the unjaundiced eye while it yet is obviously about something completely different. No, what she clearly means and intends is that our individual differences can be explained by genetic differences. She admits that this kind of talk is not very politically acceptable:
Since the Holocaust, there has been a sense of revulsion towards theories of human nature that seek to explain and justify racism, sexual differences, and social inequalities in society, in biological terms. (Poole 2011: 90)
Yet the above statement makes no bones about the idea that differences in aggression may be biologically based (presumably based in sex difference) and differences in intelligence may be biologically based (a key argument of racists and other apologists for social inequality). When she comes to ground such differences in evidence, she is astonishingly uncritical for a sociologist. If one identical twin is schizophrenic, there is 45% chance the other one will also be schizophrenic. If they are non identical the chances drop to 17%. But are these twins reared together with all the social implications of that or reared in ignorance of each other? We are not told. For her, the sociological point is that 55% of the variation must be socially caused, implying an “interaction between genes and the environment” (Poole 2011: 92) – meaning between genetic differences and the environment. In the middle of this is a comment that really should give all sociological authors of textbooks pause:
The genetic material in all humans is 99.9 per cent identical but that tiny difference of one-tenth of one per cent of DNA accounts for the differences between individuals, which are larger than those between groups. (Poole 2011: 92)
In other words, sociologists are quite happy to debate with psychologists about whether one tenth of one per cent of DNA difference is responsible for social structures like racism, gender and social inequality, without considering that these social structures may well be explained by the 99.9 per cent of human DNA which we all share. No. These differences in social condition are either created by genetic differences, as certain psychologists argue, or they are socially created.
Haralambos and his co-authors give a much more robust and typically sociological treatment of these issues:
Many stratification systems are accompanied by beliefs which state that social inequalities are biologically based. Such beliefs are often found in systems of racial stratification where, for example, Europeans might claim biological superiority over Africans and see this as the basis for their dominance. (Haralambos et al 1996: 29)
However a biological basis to this kind of social inequality seems unlikely. For example in feudal societies, people had to stay in the caste into which they were born, regardless of their personal biological abilities. They unpick the false assumptions that link race to IQ results and hence to intelligence in US studies. There are environmental factors that determine test scores, the tests are biased, what is regarded as intelligence is socially constructed. Biologically identical twins raised in separate households have different IQ scores. We can conclude that:
Biological factors assume importance in many stratification systems because of the meanings assigned to them by different cultures. (Haralambos et al 1996: 31)
This is all good stuff and I do not want to be critical of this, but what is absent is any discussion of whether there might be a biological basis to social inequality coming out of the similar human nature of those involved. This is clearly a part of the Marxist tradition in sociology which suggests that stratification is driven by material interests; that ruling classes exploit subordinate classes to live a better material existence. But in this context, that kind of discussion is not seen as relevant, it is not a “biological factor” in the sense being used here. Instead the impression intended for the student reader is that sociology can prove that the biological explanations used by psychologists are false without itself resorting to a biological explanation.
To an extent this topic is impossible to separate from discussions of gender. Sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists have argued that men and women have a different, genetically based, sexuality. They have also argued that differences in sexual orientation within the sexes are genetically based in differences between individual men or individual women – the so called “gay gene”. Recent thorough textbooks often treat both these issues.
“Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” begins their discussion of this with a strong defence of the sociological alternative. There is a huge variety in sexual identities in different cultures:
Although each culture patterns sexual behaviour into definite configurations, their ‘luxurious inventiveness, indicate that they are the produce of man’s own sociocultural formations rather than of a biologically fixed human nature’. (Berger & Luckmann 1971:67). (Haralambos et al 1996: 452)
What is expressed here is a version of the first strategy discussed in this reflection. If there is social variety, it cannot be the outcome of something as unvarying as human nature. I note that later on, in a discussion of Freud, they explain quite well how the luxurious inventiveness of sexualities could indeed be based in a common human nature. I will come back to that later. But this is a typical passage that would lead the student reader to conclude that explanations of sexuality do not require any assumptions being made about human nature.
The authors then go on to say that while this is the shared view of most social scientists, in the public arena there is a persistent belief that men and women have different sexual natures, and that this belief seems to be backed up with “scientific” support, which they put in scare quotes. To discuss this in more depth they consider the arguments of the evolutionary psychologists. This argument is that behaviour in humans and animals “is governed by a genetic instruction to maximize the chances of passing on their genes to the next generation” (Haralambos et al 1996: 455). Men want to impregnate as many women as possible to get their DNA to survive. They are innately promiscuous. Women, however, have to maximize the chances of their children surviving to the next generation, so it is in their interest to settle for one partner who can be guaranteed to be a good provider. So they are by nature monogamous. Men are also innately programmed to be jealous and to want to ensure that they are the only ones who might impregnate their wives – otherwise they could be putting their energy into looking after the child of another man, and not doing anything to maximize the chances of their own DNA getting into the next generation. Men compete with each other to gain access to women’s limited reproductive capacity, leading to male competitiveness and war.
The authors present two kinds of arguments against this perspective.
One is to argue that these supposedly universal and biologically programmed differences in the sexual behaviour of men and women are far from universal in fact. In many societies “women are the sexual aggressors and men are coy” (Haralambos et al 1996: 457). While sociobiology sees aggression and competition as universal features of male human nature, the reality is that systematic competitive aggression is socially structured – so that particular groups of males are at war with some men and not with others, there are men who are not aggressive and women who are armed combatants. They conclude that:
… sociobiologists try to portray as ‘universal’, behaviour which is not universal among humans, nor an accurate representation of any one society, nor even an accurate portrayal of animal societies. (Haralambos et al 1996: 457)
So what sociobiologists are doing is working out a post hoc evolutionary explanation of the “gender stereotypes” they draw from this society. What they do not seem to have noticed is that these behaviours and mores are far from universal. So it is hard to believe that we are programmed by evolution to behave in a way that is in fact only common and valued in some societies. So this argument engages with sociobiologists on their own terms and demonstrates that their particular view of human (sexed) nature cannot be correct.
Their other argument, the one they come up with first, is much more sweeping in its implications. It is no less than the view that human behaviour can never be explained to be the outcome of genetic inheritance. For example they state that sociobiological approaches:
… assume a direct link between patterns of genetic inheritance and behaviour in humans, but there is no scientific evidence that such a link exists. (Haralambos et al 1996: 456)
I am not entirely sure what they mean by the term “direct” here. Do they mean that if there was a direct link between genetic inheritance and behaviour, we would be able to demonstrate that all those with the same genetic inheritance behaved in exactly the same way? If this is what they mean, it leads to some strange conclusions. On this view there could be no direct link between our genetic inheritance and our predisposition to eat. We all have the same genetic inheritance as humans but our eating behaviour is quite different. Some people go on fasts and some use a knife and fork, while others eat with their hands. So on their view, we would not have a genetically based predisposition to eat. There is no direct link between eating behaviour in humans and what we share genetically. This seems far fetched.
Do they mean that there is no scientific evidence of a direct link between behaviour and genetic inheritance in all cases, or do they just mean that in this particular case, there is no evidence? The behavioural patterns that are supposedly linked to sex difference (genetic inheritance) actually are not linked to sex difference at all. For example, in some societies women take the sexual initiative and we can show that men are not always in aggressive competition with each other. In that case, why do they use the term “direct” – there is no evidence of any link between the behaviours in question and sexed human nature if their argument is correct.
What immediately follows this are the statements I have mentioned above – neural pathways of the newborn are uncommitted and human action “cannot be regarded as determined by biological dispositions” because what humans do comes out of interactions with other humans. So what all this achieves is a kind of pre-emptive strike against sociobiology of the most overwhelming kind. A pre-emptive strike that tells the student reader that social science has no need of any concept of human nature. You are certainly left with the impression that human conduct is completely “socially” constructed.
Giddens’ textbook also looks at the argument from sociobiology that maintains that women are programmed for monogamy and men for promiscuity. To address this, Giddens goes for the knock down argument that such a programme cannot be possible – as human behaviour is never simply the product of biology. He quotes Steven Rose who maintains that:
… unlike most animals, human behaviour is shaped more by the environment than it is determined by genetically programmed instincts: ‘The human infant is born with relatively few of its neural pathways already committed’ (Rose et al. 1984). (Giddens 2009: 579)
Accordingly, for humans:
… sexual activity is much more than biological. It is symbolic, reflecting who we are and the emotions we are experiencing. As we shall see, sexuality is far too complicated to be wholly attributable to biological traits. It must be understood in terms of the social meanings which humans ascribe to it. (Giddens 2009: 579)
So the fact that it cannot be wholly attributed to biological traits would suggest that at least biological inheritance is at least partly relevant to sexuality. However the conclusion is instead that sexuality must be understood in terms of the social meanings which humans ascribe to it. As though nothing else is required. This is because the human infant is born with relatively few of its neural pathways committed. Human behaviour is shaped by the environment, not by genetics. Yet, as I will show later, all explanations of the way human behaviour is shaped by the environment in fact depend on ideas about the way human behaviour is influenced by our shared genetic inheritance. It is not one or the other but necessarily both. The treatment of all genetically based behaviour as “programmed instincts” in these text books suggests a Nazi android, repeatedly raising its arm after the parade has passed. Anything more complex than this could not possibly come about through biologically based influences, these textbooks suggest.
The term “biology”, as used in these text book discussions is a treacherous minefield in itself if you look at it. Notice in the above, the way that what we think and our emotions are implied to be something different from “biology”. This use of biology thinks of biology as a science which cuts up material bodies and tries to analyse their observable properties. Since concepts like thought and emotion have no material referent in biological science then they cannot be “biological”.
But in fact, the term “biological” is currently used in a very different way in writing on society, as these text book authors are very aware. It is assumed that anything which we all as humans share as a species is “biological” since what makes us the same must be something that is an emergent property of our common biological nature, and for that matter our DNA. So in this context what is “biological” in humans is whatever is common to humans as part of our nature. It is the modern way of talking about what philosophers of the past referred to as “human nature”. So, within that context, our capacity for language is “biologically based”. We cannot cut it up and look at it in a microscope. We do not know yet which strands of DNA are responsible for this biological capacity or how they operate in the environment, but we can be certain that some capacity for language is biologically based – is part of our nature.
So sociology textbooks take cases where “biology” is being used as a way of talking about what we share as our nature, our biology, and ridicule them by inviting the reader to realize that these supposed capacities of humans cannot be “biological” because they are not something that could be cut up and displayed on a lab table. In this case here, where they talk about sexual activity being more than biological, we are invited to think of Masters and Johnson with their rulers and galvanometers measuring erections. Clearly no tape measure devised so far can tell us all there is to be known about sexual “desire”, but that does not mean that sexual desire is not a universal attribute of human beings and hence “biological” in some sense. That some kind of sexual desire and sexual activity is a cross cultural reality of all human societies, within the context of a great variety of neural pathways, suggests that in fact sexuality is a central component of human nature. An acknowledgement of this could be expected to be the starting point of a sociological discussion of the way in which this central drive is expressed and handled in different social settings.
We can note that in this discussion, all the burden of proof that sociobiologists are wrong about sex differences in sexuality (men are promiscuous and jealous, women are monogamous) is taken by general programmatic announcements about neural pathways. While “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” addresses this argument directly by cross cultural examples, we do not get such a treatment here.
For a really thorough discussion and refutation, the recent book by two psychologists, “Sex at Dawn” (Ryan and Jetha 2010) is quite convincing. These authors also give a cross cultural analysis. They point out that in societies that are somewhat similar to those in which humans evolved (egalitarian band societies), there is no possibility of men being sure that the offspring that they are caring for are their own genetic offspring. In these societies, marriage is a fairly loose arrangement and women usually have more than one partner. They may in fact be thought to ensure their own reproductive success by tying themselves to a number of helping male adults. Women often take the sexual initiative in these societies. Men do not appear to be particularly jealous and in fact “orgies” or multiple couplings are not uncommon. There are often ceremonial occasions on which women take partners who are not their husbands. Divorce and remarriage is common and easy to arrange. What is more, all the adult members of the band usually take an active role in the care of all the children of the band. Productive resources, such as meat, are shared in a way that makes it impossible for a father to favour his own offspring and “provide” for them at the expense of other members of the group. In matrilineal societies, women do not look to their sexual partners, their husbands, to look after their children at all, but expect their brothers to take that role. So the men in these societies are looking after the offspring of other men as a routine accomplishment.
They also compare our species to other apes and demonstrate the similarities in sexual anatomy which make us more similar to our closest genetic relatives, chimpanzees and especially bonobos. Humans and bonobos are the only apes that have sex face to face, tongue kiss and look into their partner’s eyes during the sexual act. Like us, they often have same sex contacts. For both chimps and bonobos, females have multiple sexual partners, completely ruling out the sociobiological contention that there is an evolutionary advantage in monogamy. In terms of sexual anatomy we are much more similar to chimpanzees and bonobos than we are to gorillas and gibbons. Gorillas have harem based sexual arrangements and gibbons are monogamous.
The next part of Giddens’ discussion of sexuality must be directed to refuting the idea that there is a “gay gene” which predisposes some men to homosexuality. Here he does not hesitate to use available cross cultural evidence. Among the Ancient Greeks, man/boy love was idealized. Among the Bataks of North Sumatra, boys leave the parental home and sleep in a house with older unmarried males, who initiate them into homosexual sex. Foucault points out that before the eighteenth century the concept of a homosexual sexual orientation was unknown in Europe. This cross cultural evidence makes it seem very unlikely that we need to postulate a genetic basis for male homosexuality. We have many examples of human societies where homosexual conduct by men is universal or there is no recognition of “homosexual men” as a sexually differentiated category at all. He also attacks the experimental psychology which has been used to back up the theory of the gay gene. Twin studies that seem to show that if one twin is homosexual, the other is more likely to be homosexual are compromised by methodological problems. These identical twins have been raised in the same family, meaning that their social identities are linked. This is a convincing discussion. It is not claiming that genetically based nature never influences human behaviour, merely that the supposed links are not backed up in this case.
Gender and sex
Let me start out by saying that this is a topic in which our sociology textbooks run into some very severe problems in their critique of sociobiology. As we have seen, the most convincing argument for the sociological view of sexuality is to point to the cross cultural evidence. There is no universal distinction between men and women’s sexuality that fits the model proposed by the evolutionary psychologists; there are far too many societies that do not fit their model for it to be at all plausible. Similarly, there are far too many societies that do not fit the model implied by the theory of the gay gene for that theory to be plausible. The fulminations and programmatic statements against biological theories of human conduct are really mere decoration.
However in the case of gender, there is a problem with the cross cultural argument. I will take the same two textbooks as examples – Haralambos et al and Giddens. What both books do is to state quite openly that there is at least one aspect of gendered behaviour which is remarkably similar across a great many different societies; in this at least, there is no cross cultural variation. What is worse, this pattern is not entirely unlike that proposed, and supposedly explained, by the sociobiologists. Yet the sociobiological explanation for this uniformity is unacceptable to the writers of these textbooks. So how is this issue handled?
After a long discussion in which Giddens argues that gendered behaviour is not biologically ordained he makes this statement:
Although the roles of men and women vary from culture to culture, there is no known instance of a society in which females are more powerful than males. Men’s roles are generally more highly valued and rewarded than women’s roles; in almost every culture, women bear the primary responsibility for childcare and domestic work, while men have traditionally borne responsibility for providing the family livelihood. The prevailing division of labour between the sexes has led to men and women assuming unequal positions in terms of power, prestige and wealth. (Giddens 2009: 614)
There is only one aspect of this summary that I would query. I do not think men have usually borne the responsibility for providing for the family livelihood. Women generally do more to provide for the family livelihood in terms of hours of work in any society, whether hunting and gathering, agricultural or industrial. A similar summary is offered by Haralambos and the co-authors:
Women produce children; women are mothers and wives; women do the cooking, cleaning, sewing and washing; they take care of men and are subordinate to male authority; they do essential productive work yet they are largely excluded from high status occupations and positions of power. These generalisations apply to practically every known human society. Some sociologists and anthropologists believe that there is not and never has been a society in which women do not have an inferior status to that of men. (Haralambos et al. 1996: 451)
My own view is that these two statements are a reasonably accurate summary of the situation. Most examples of societies that have been claimed to be egalitarian with respect to gender do not bear this out on close examination – for example the Mbuti, the !Kung, the Iroquois, the Menangkabau (see Friedl for a good summary of the anthropological evidence). Still, this is not to say that there may not be some examples that do stand up to scrutiny. As well, if we measure patriarchy by the standards of Victorian England, we will find a lot of societies which are considerably less patriarchal than that. Yet what needs to be explained is the prevalence of patriarchy, even if it is not totally universal or equally oppressive in all cases.
As Giddens points out:
… some authors hold that aspects of human biology, ranging from hormones to chromosomes to brain size to genetics – are responsible for innate differences in behaviour between men and women. These differences, they claim, can be seen in some form across all cultures, implying that natural factors are responsible for the inequalities between genders which characterize most societies. (Giddens 2009: 601)
This is clearly a challenge to sociology, and we can see two ways in which the text books deal with it. One is to argue strongly that the supposed similarities in gender conduct across societies are vastly exaggerated.
The diversity of gender constructions
Giddens argues that the amount of aggression expected of men varies between societies and similarly women are not expected to be passive and gentle in some societies. He points out that socialization theory argues that gender is socially produced.
Haralambos and the co-authors summarize a similar argument:
One very basic problem with seeing gender differences as ‘natural’ is the enormous diversity of gender roles across human cultures, a diversity that should not be possible if gender were based on biological nature. The cross-cultural evidence gathered by anthropologists, beginning with Malinowski, Benedict and Mead, indicates that there is no natural or inevitable division of labour or allocation of social roles on the basis of biological sex. (Haralambos et al 1996: 461)
Yet this is in astonishing contradiction to the earlier statement about the universality of men’s power. However differently gender is constructed in a variety of cultures, one aspect of gender seems very common. The social role of being the more powerful gender is usually allocated on the basis of biological sex, with men being universally the most likely to have more social power than women.
Haralambos and the co-authors go on to cite the work of Oakley, and include some of the following examples from Oakley’s book. There are societies in which women do lumbering and land clearance. There are societies in which women have been warriors and fought in battle. There are societies in which both men and women cook. Women with young children are not always tied to a domestic space by any means. Children accompany women in their gathering forays in hunting and gathering societies. In the Alor, women go to the fields, leaving infants with their fathers, siblings or grandparents.
What do we know about the gender order in different societies?
How can these contradictory statements be resolved? What is the point of all this evidence of gender variation if patriarchy is in fact universal despite that? The authors of the textbooks, as I have suggested, leave this question up in the air, never bringing these two divergent readings of the situation in close contact to each other. Let us summarize what their findings imply if they are considered in conjunction.
Before going into this, let me be clear about how social scientists generally use the term gender. As the term is used by social scientists, gender is always “about” biological sex (Connell 1987). Gender is the way society constructs identities, discourses, ideologies and practices in relationship to biological sex differences between men and women. This may be considered a controversial statement but let us look at one of the obvious exceptions and see how it fits. A considerable number of societies have a role for some biological men which includes them in the gender “women”. The hejiras of India, the berdache of North America, the fafafine of the Pacific are biological men who in those societies are considered to be women. So if gender is about sex, how come these biological men are being considered as members of the gender normally reserved for the other sex? Why do social scientists talk about this as an aspect of the gender regime, and not for example, as a case of ethnic difference? Because this identity for men is constructed as the same as what is socially constructed in that particular social order as the normal gender role for biological women. It is about sex in the sense that these biological men are being treated socially as though they were members of the other sex. Let me say that all this categorization is a categorization by social scientists working in our tradition. It may not be how these things are viewed from the inside, as it were. From the internal perspective of the hejira and her society, it may well be that the essence of femininity as a gender has little to do with sex. But we social scientists take note of the fact that all biological women have the social identity “woman” and only a few biological men (the hejiras) have the social identity “woman” and describe what is going on as gender. Yet if all biological men were hejiras, we would have to say that pre-colonial Indian society had no gender order at all, since both biological men and biological women would have been members of the same cultural and identity group – “women”.
In other words, the fact that gender is “about sex” is not some causal restriction on the diversity of social construction at all. It is not because social construction is compelled to organize social behaviour around sex that we have gender. It is purely a matter of definition. When a society organizes some of its social behaviour around sex, we social scientists talk about what is going on as “gender”. If it is not organized around biological sexual difference, we might call it ethnicity, or religion, subcultures, identity or even sexuality. Within the terminology being used here, the program for social change advocated by Judith Butler and others could be characterized as follows. We need to abolish gender and turn the cultural forms we now use as gender into subcultures or identities – they would cease to be attached to any appreciable extent to biological sex.
So now let us go to what the evidence presented by the textbooks indicates.
Firstly, the cross cultural evidence shows that there is much variation in gender. The implication is that much about gender is socially constructed; different gendered behaviour is not some kind of secondary manifestation of biological sex difference. There are societies in which women do not cut down trees and build houses and in which it is considered that women, because of their very nature, cannot do these things. There are other societies in which these activities are considered a normal part of a woman’s working day. There is no way that both of these very different social constructions can be mere expressions of a universal biological template.
Secondly, patriarchy is predominant despite these very different gender constructions. There is one thing about the social construction of gender that is remarkably similar in most societies. Biological men are the most powerful gender. This is a social fact that begs for some explanation, and the most obvious one, the one that is usually used to ideologically reinforce patriarchy, is that this construction of gender is compelled by biology, that it corresponds to and comes out of some real biological difference between the sexes.
How gender diversity refutes the sociobiological account of patriarchy
Let us take sociobiology as one possible version of a biological explanation of patriarchy. The claim of the sociobiologists is that it is hormones, brain structure, and genetic difference which cause patriarchy. Men are programmed by genetics to take over and run society and women are programmed to worry about the children. In other words, they believe there is an innate difference in personality and intellect between men and women which explains patriarchy.
Here is the point where the cross cultural attack on sociobiology makes sense. The cross cultural argument from Oakley and others is quite a convincing case against this particular theory of patriarchy. If men take control in society because they are more aggressive and competitive and can use violence, how is it that in some societies women have become effective warriors? Their hormones or brain structure should have made this impossible. If women are programmed to stay at home and look after the children, how is it that in many societies women are not restricted to the domestic environment? What about societies in which men take on a large part of the childcare? What about those women who do not have children? What about women who are socially powerful, whether they have children or not. What about women who are queens? What about Boadicea? All of these variations, you would expect, would be impossible because of men and women’s hormonal make up or brain structure. The point is that many of these variations are not exceptions in the societies from which the examples are drawn. Many men in today’s society look after children and nurture infants and babies. It beggars belief to think that they are all genetically different from “normal blokes” and there is certainly no evidence to that effect. In societies where women are armed warriors or soldiers, this is not just a role restricted to a few exceptional (and genetically different) women, but a normal social role for women in those societies. The basic problem with the socio-biological theory of patriarchy is that it implies a correspondence between gender and biological sex that is very close and is of a very specific kind. The particular features of this account do not match up with sociology, history or anthropology in their investigations into gender in different societies.
So we could use the evidence of cultural variation to attack the theory of patriarchy advanced by sociobiology, without denying that there is cultural invariability, at least in some respects. Despite variations in gender roles, societies tend to be patriarchal.
Ruling out biological explanations
The other way in which these two textbooks attack the socio-biological position on gender is to make general programmatic statements about how biology cannot possibly be the explanation of human behaviour. For example:
There is no evidence of the mechanisms which would link such biological forces with the complex social behaviour exhibited by men and women. (Giddens 2009: 602)
The problem is that without some other explanation of equal force, sociobiologists do not really need to show how sex determines social life. They have only to point to the common fact of patriarchy and ask, well, what else could possibly be bringing this about? They have certainly made some suggestions about the mechanisms that may be involved. Hormones, brain structure and so on. These accounts may all be completely wrong. But in a way that is not important. If there is no biological difference between the sexes that causes patriarchy to be widespread, you would expect it to be a 50% chance that a society would be patriarchal. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of different cultures formed by watching the History and Discovery channels will know that cannot be the case. Only a sociology student could be induced to believe that the sociobiologists are wrong – without an equally compelling explanation of patriarchy.
Haralambos and his co-authors rest their case on the evidence that gender is socially constructed by mechanisms which are quite patent:
Social scientists now generally agree that biological sex differences are a poor guide to the range of human behaviour. Indeed, a moment’s reflection would show that the role of biology must be a relatively minor one – a very elaborate cultural machinery of instruction (including sociobiology itself), example, imitation, rehearsal, supervision and inspection, constantly backed by sanctions varying from social disapproval to physical violence, seems to be necessary to anchor masculinity and femininity into our recalcitrant natures. (Haralambos et al 1996: 463)
This is certainly true and works well with the cross cultural demonstration of the variety of gender construction. Gender is not natural because we can see that it is different in different cultures. We can also see that the particular nature of gender in any given culture is determined by social forces and practices which are quite transparent and open to examination. But again, taken by itself, it does not create any alternative to the sociobiological explanation of patriarchy. The sociobiologists could well reply, well yes, societies do create a variety of forms of gender and socially reinforce them in the ways you say. Nevertheless, there is one respect in which they are mostly very similar. Men tend to have more power. Whatever socialization is necessary to achieve this effect, there must be some biological reason why this is so common. We explain it in terms of hormones and brain structure. What is your explanation?
Considering other explanations of patriarchy
Giddens does address this issue by considering other kinds of explanations of patriarchy, finally settling on Walby’s account as a sociologically acceptable one. Throughout all this we can see how he attempts to rescue sociology from biological reductionism.
His first discussion comes about in a refutation of the sociobiology view that our evolutionary heritage predisposes men to hunting and warfare, and consequently to controlling society through violence:
… because a trait is more or less universal, it does not follow that it is biological in origin; there may be cultural factors of a general kind that produce such characteristics. For instance, in the majority of cultures, most women spend a significant part of their lives caring for children and could not readily take part in hunting or war. (Giddens 2009: 601)
The question is, how does a cultural factor come to be of a general kind, if it is not brought about by biological factors? Why do women spend most of their lives looking after children if there is no biological basis for this? If it is not based in some biological difference we would expect men and women to take an equal share. Reviewing and comparing cultures across the board, it should average out at equal, even if there were some in which men took the majority role in child care and vice versa. Let us take it that what Giddens really means is that there is no basis for women’s role in child care that is biological in the sense of depending on a distinctively feminine intellect or temperament, laid down biologically. But typically, he overstates his case by refusing to admit any kind of biological explanation. In fact, this statement could be the basis for a more adequate theory of patriarchy, but it is just left dangling.
The next major discussion of the issue comes up in relation to “radical feminism”. Giddens tells the story of radical feminism and the theory of patriarchy advanced by Shulamith Firestone (1971), a founder of second wave feminism. According to Giddens she explains patriarchy as follows:
… men control women’s roles in reproduction and childrearing. Because women are biologically able to give birth to children, they become dependent materially on men for protection and livelihood. This ‘biological inequality’ is socially organized in the nuclear family. (Giddens 2009: 617)
I will avoid the temptation to argue the fine print on this rendering of Firestone’s work, but he is certainly correct that her key contention is that women’s role in childbirth makes them dependent on men, and that this is the basis for patriarchy. His reply to this is a complete classic of the sociological refusal to consider “biology”:
The main critique, perhaps, is that the concept of patriarchy as it has been used is inadequate as a general explanation of women’s oppression. Radical feminists have tended to claim that patriarchy has existed throughout history and across cultures – that it is a universal phenomenon. Critics argue, however, that such a conception of patriarchy does not leave room for historical or cultural variations. It also ignores the important influence that race, class or ethnicity may have on the nature of women’s subordination. In other words, it is not possible to see patriarchy as a universal phenomenon; doing so risks biological reductionism – attributing all the complexities of gender inequality to a simple distinction between men and women. (Giddens 2009: 617)
Let me begin by saying that the concept of patriarchy is in no way considered by radical feminists to be an “explanation” of women’s oppression. It is a term that is used to describe women’s oppression and take note of its cross cultural and transhistorical existence. The explanation of patriarchy given by Firestone is that women become dependent on men, because of their role as childbearers. I note this because what is obvious in Giddens’ discussion is the way we constantly slip away from any attempt to explain patriarchy and explain why it is so common. What you cannot doubt is that Firestone does present an explanation that could account for why it is so universal – and she does this without presuming, in the manner of socio-biology, that the main factor is some innate difference in temperament and intellect between the sexes.
The second thing to note, and this is truly bizarre, is that Giddens attacks the radical feminists for a viewpoint that he has himself stated quite baldly as a truth of social science. I remind the reader that he says “there is no known instance of a society in which females are more powerful than males” and later that men and women assume “unequal positions in terms of power, prestige and wealth” (Giddens 2009: 614). So why does he have a problem with the radical feminist claim that patriarchy is a cross cultural universal of human societies? The account of patriarchy given by Firestone, or the different accounts given by other radical feminists, do not imply that patriarchy could never vary. What they are saying is that this common cause explains a common effect. It is quite feasible that other factors intervene to intensify or reduce the effect of this cause and bring about different patriarchies. Or that different patriarchies construct different social structures of gender around race, class and ethnicity.
So, Giddens concludes that the basic problem with radical feminism is that it sees patriarchy as a “universal phenomenon”, something which he has himself clearly acknowledged. What is really going on here? The problem is that radical feminism transgresses a key foundational norm of sociology as these textbooks present it. It explains a social structure in terms of a biological reality and is hence guilty of “biological reductionism”. Enough said. Go away and find another theory. Giddens himself finds another theory in Walby; a theory that is sufficiently sociological. For Walby patriarchy is “a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women” (Giddens 2009: 618). A definition which no radical feminist would have trouble with. However what Walby does is reject the various theories of radical feminism in terms of explaining how patriarchy comes about:
Walby identifies six structures through which patriarchy operates. She recognizes that a weakness of early feminist theory was the tendency to focus on one ‘essential’ cause of women’s oppression, such as male violence or women’s role in reproduction. Because Walby is concerned with the depth and interconnectedness of gender inequality, she sees patriarchy as composed of six structures that are independent, but interact with one another. (Giddens 2009: 618)
Let us look at what is happening here. Radical feminism attempts to explain the cross cultural predominance of patriarchy. It does so by invoking some biological difference between the sexes. If these explanations make sense they certainly can claim to establish the “cause” of patriarchy. In that sense they constitute an alternative to the explanation of patriarchy offered by the sociobiologists – the sociobiologists say it is all down to an innate difference in temperament and intellect evolved as part of our sexed nature. What replaces radical feminism in Walby’s account is a theory which looks at how patriarchy “operates”; not at what causes patriarchy. In other words, what are the social structures through which patriarchy in different times and places fits into social structures to ensure men’s dominance in society? We can see the difference by asking this simple question. Why do the structures that Walby nominates ensure that men and not women come to control society? Why do these structures always end up with this outcome rather than varying from culture to culture and across history like other aspects of social structure – race, class and ethnicity for example?
One of Walby’s structures is the state. Well yes, in patriarchies men have control of the state. But why do they always control this and never women? What about societies in which there is no state and men still control political life? Another is men’s exploitation of women’s household labour. But why do men control women’s household labour and not the other way around? Another of her structures is the double standard of sexual morality. But why is it that women’s sexual conduct is stigmatized and men’s is not? Why not the other way around? Another structure is that cultural institutions favour men. True again, but why is this so common in very different societies, when everything else about the dominant cultural institutions of societies is so different, ranging from language to religion to fashion styles?
The only thing that could possibly induce one to believe that this is a theory that explains patriarchy is that it fits with what sociology allows within its discursive field. Walby’s theory, as Giddens represents it, is acceptable because each of these structures (the state, housework, sexual morality, cultural insitutions) is variable between societies and across time. Culture changes, the nature of the state changes and so on. Consequently each structure demonstrates the sociological point of view that society is socially constructed and cannot be “reduced” to biology. But precisely because of this very factor, this is not a theory that can explain the cross cultural predominance of patriarchy. It explains nothing about that.
A more adequate analysis of the prevalence of patriarchy
The best reply to Firestone’s explanation, and one which is also given sometimes in sociology textbooks, is that in many societies women are not dependent on men, regardless of their role in pregnancy, childbirth and wetnursing. There are many patriarchies in which women and men have a fairly independent economic life. They hunt, gather or garden in same sex groups, and their economic activities complement each other. Frequently women produce more of the products which are necessary to sustain life and to that extent men are depending on women. In many societies the care of children is shared by women and even men have some part in this. So in these societies, a woman’s role in childbirth does not make her dependent on men in general or a husband in particular. Individual women may depend on other women for a time or on the society as a whole. But women, taken as a group, are not dependent on men. Yet such societies are still patriarchal in that men have most control of violence, have more political and cultural clout, and generally use their power to gain what they consider a more leisured, high status and creative existence.
So maybe Firestone’s explanation of patriarchy has some problems. However another radical feminist theory from the same milieu of early second wave New York feminism can explain patriarchy quite well. Ti-Grace Atkinson paints the story like this. Men are advantaged in political struggles with women. The source of their advantage is that as a group, none of the men are burdened by pregnancy, childbirth or wetnursing. They are free to exercise their power in a situation where women, as a group, have a large number of their party disadvantaged if it comes to a power struggle with men. This, then, is a biological condition. What is necessary to make patriarchy come about is that men realize this, come to act as a group and take advantage of the situation to maximize their power relative to women. Why would they do this? My suggestion, which accords with the way these early radical feminists write about the topic, is that this is not because of any intellectual or temperamental differences between men and women. Men organize themselves to take control merely because, as typical humans, they seek to increase their well being according to the usual drives and capacities of human nature – to get autonomy, sexual fulfilment, comfort and food, creative work and social rewards. Of course, this is not the only thing going on if you want to understand the vast and complex scenario of gender, and the political struggles between men and women. But it is the answer if you want to know the basic reason why men have tended to come off best in all these different and complex situations.
Let me note a few things about this. This theory does not deny that patriarchy is socially constructed. Men make a political choice to organize society in this way; biological difference merely gives them an opportunity to do so. It is not inconceivable that the invention of patriarchy took place eighty thousand years ago and before that we lived just like the bonobos, without patriarchy. There is certainly no evidence to contradict this. Because patriarchy is a social construction, it could go away tomorrow if men started to think their interests were not being served by this social structure. Clearly it could also go away if women’s role in childbirth was no longer a political disadvantage. Firestone presents a solution like this in test tube babies, but that is just one option. There is no doubt that smaller family size, better maternal health, women’s education and birth control have shifted the terrain of these biological realities in the rich countries of the world.
What the radical feminist theory does achieve is to explain why patriarchy has been such a successful social construction of gender in a range of very different societies. But this explanation of patriarchy can never become accepted within sociology because it is a biological reduction in more ways than one. The outcome is that sociobiology occupies the field where popular culture is concerned, and sociological accounts of gender fight a rearguard action.
Human nature by the back door
My contention is that you cannot actually do social science without using the concept of human nature. You have to have some way of explaining what people are doing which is not just to say that it is part of their culture. Otherwise you cannot really account for cultural practices, except to note that they are different and you cannot account for social change, except to note that it happens. I will not argue this here, because I have given examples in other chapters. Here, what I am more interested in is this. If you look even a bit closely at the textbooks you will find examples where there are discussions of human nature. There are assumptions being made about what we humans share as predispositions. These predispositions presumably come out of our common biology, since sociologists certainly do not believe that they come out of a common human soul. What these discussions share is the absence of any patent acknowledgement that what is being discussed is human nature. The word “human nature” is almost never being used, and when it is it always in reference to a theory that the textbook dismisses (Bessant & Watts 2002: 124). Despite these limitations, I have found at least one place in these textbooks where the discussion suggests exactly how sociologists should be treating issues of human nature more generally.
Picking examples of the use of the concept of human nature is not very hard if you start looking. In the introductory chapter of “Public Sociology”, it states that Arlie Hochschild’s work “explores the outward manifestations of emotions such as shame and embarrassment” (Germov & Poole 2011: 42). In other words, Hochschild looks at the way society socially constructs the different ways in which these internal emotional states are displayed outwardly. What the statement assumes is that there is cross cultural reality in which all humans may experience the emotions of shame and embarrassment. In other words, it is an aspect of human nature as sociability that we can feel ashamed or embarrassed about the view which others may have of us. A tree could not feel embarrassed, a dog might and humans definitely may. In the later chapter by Poole in the same book, she endorses at least to some extent the view of some psychologists that genetic differences can account for such things as differences in intelligence, musical talent and the like. She goes on to point out that genetic material in humans is 99.9 per cent identical, so that such determinations of difference must come from a fraction of the DNA we carry. The implication would have to be that the 99.9 per cent which is identical must be having some serious impact on our conduct. This implication is never drawn. In “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” the authors are arguing that cultures handle common issues of the human condition differently. As an example of a cultural practice that the student may find unusual they cite the behaviour of the Caribou Indians at times when the Caribou herd does not arrive when expected:
… the old and infirm have been left to die, rather than draw on scarce supplies of food. (Haralambos et al 1996: 5-5)
In other words, humans have a common concern with food and with eating enough to stay alive. This is a common preoccupation that is part of our human nature. Using this as an explanatory tool, we can understand the reasoning behind this practice of the Caribou Indians which otherwise seems strange. They comment that in their social context the practices in question were regarded as “sensible and rational” (Haralambos et al 1996: 6). In other words, humans have a similar capacity to reason and are evaluating practices in references to a set of needs that we can understand because we ourselves have a similar set. Another example where the reference to human nature is even more clear is in the discussion of Giddens’ concept of ontological security. Haralambos and the co-authors write:
Giddens seemed to think that humans have a basic desire for some degree of predictability in social life. They have a need for what he called ‘ontological security’ or ‘confidence and trust that the natural and social worlds are as they appear to be’. He suggested tentatively that this may be connected to the human ‘basic security system’ – essentially a natural concern with the physical survival of the body. (Haralambos et al 1996: 717)
Here, it is not entirely clear what cross cultural evidence Giddens is assembling to defend this view of human nature. But the authors do not seem to have a problem with the fact that he is anchoring this hypothesis in something that is clearly part of human nature – our common desire for physical survival. In Giddens’ textbook there is a casual reference to “a biological imperative to reproduce”. He maintains that there must be such because without it “the human species would become extinct” (Giddens 2009: 579). This does not actually follow, there may be an urge to have sex, which in fact ends up in reproduction as one of its many outcomes. But there is no doubt that Giddens is advancing a theory of human nature here. Later he remarks that most people in all societies are heterosexual – “they look to the other sex for emotional involvement and sexual pleasure” (Giddens 2009: 579). This is a statement that heterosexual desire is a universal of human nature. In fact this seems unlikely. As we have seen, there have been societies in which all men looked to other men, as well as to women, for sexual pleasure. Moreover, it is not at all clear that men or women look primarily to their opposite sex partners for emotional involvement. Many social orders are homosocial to a large extent, with emotional intimacy most common between people of the same sex. But be that as it may, there is no doubt that Giddens here is also assuming two further aspects of human nature – the desire for emotional involvement and for sexual pleasure. In reference to these he is probably not mistaken.
The topic of socialization is an issue which frequently involves some reference to human nature. Poole talks about socialisation as a system driven by “reward and punishment” (Germov & Poole 2011: 92). Since it is assumed that the baby is not socialized at birth, it must be the case that socialization operates on human nature. Socializers encourage conduct by rewarding desires that are already part of human nature and discourage conduct by imposing sanctions that are already biologically programmed to be unpleasant. The specifics of this as spelled out in other textbooks make this point even more obvious. In “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives” we are told that the newborn baby has few of the capacities of adult people and relies:
… primarily on biological drives such as hunger, and on the kindness of others to satisfy those drives. (Haralambos et al 1996: 5)
So these biological drives are admitted to be the bedrock which motivates baby conduct. What then becomes clear is that these drives must explain socialization:
By responding to the approval and disapproval of its parents and copying their example, the child learns the language and many of the basic behaviour patterns of society. (Haralambos et al 1996: 6)
So here, it must be assumed that the baby also has a biological need to seek approval and to avoid disapproval. This is the most likely meaning of what they are saying. Or they could mean that the parents make use of other biological desires to reward conduct – for example feeding as a reward – in order to indicate approval. These systems of reward and punishment clearly operate more generally, if their discussion of gender is anything to go by. The role of biology in gender must be a minor one, they claim, because a cultural machinery is necessary to create it. This cultural machinery of instruction is backed up:
… by sanctions varying from social disapproval to physical violence. (Haralambos et al 1996: 463)
Here, the authors are making a cross cultural review of the methods by which gender roles are inculcated. In showing that “biology” has a relatively minor role, they actually presume that there is a common human nature which experiences social disapproval and physical violence as sanctions. But of course they are talking as though there is nothing biological about that! Giddens makes a similar comment explaining how it is that social facts may constrain people:
Social facts can constrain human action in a variety of ways, ranging from outright punishment (in the case of a crime, for example) to social rejection (in the case of unacceptable behaviour) to simple misunderstanding (in the case of the misuse of language). (Giddens 2009: 14)
That the author can survey societies and determine what are punishments itself depends on a theory of human nature. Looking at things as varied as executions, writing out the same sentence a hundred times, standing with a dunce’s cap in the corner of the class, imprisonment, being speared in the thigh, how do we know that these are all punishments? They are sanctions which the author can understand to be punishments in that they are particular examples of events which are experienced as unpleasant in relation to common aspects of human nature – the desire to live, the dislike of boredom, the stigma of social disapproval, the restriction of free movement, the pain of a wound. The explanation of the force of social facts working on aspects of human nature becomes even more apparent with the next example mentioned above, which refers directly to an aspect of human nature, the desire for social approval.
For the most part, these are all cases where theories of human nature are taken for granted or need to be assumed for the argument to make sense, but where explanations are not acknowledged openly to be about human nature. We have noted that quite a few aspects of human nature have been mentioned in one way or another and made use of in accounting for what takes place socially – the desire to satisfy hunger, the desire to live, the desire for social approval (and the shame and embarrassment that may occur with disapproval), the desire to avoid pain, sexual desire, the desire for emotional intimacy, and the desire for ontological security. A tool of human nature is also mentioned, the ability to reason and provide sensible arguments to explain what you are doing. The common failure to take note of the fact that these kind of arguments are arguments based on ideas about human nature makes sense if we take into account the claims I have been considering in the first sections of this chapter. In these programmatic claims it would appear that sociology has no need of a theory of human nature because what humans do can be explained “sociologically” rather than as coming out of our human nature. Biological urges are something that babies have and that are transcended in the adult and replaced by socially created desires or by agentic conduct, a random wilfulness that creates de novo, or by some combination of these. Yet clearly in the fine print it is not that simple.
An interesting example of a discussion of human nature appears in “Sociology: Themes and Perspectives”. This is the consideration of Freud’s view of sexuality. Haralambos and the co-authors quote Freud’s analysis of sexuality with approval and contrast it to the biological determinism of sociobiological theories of sexuality:
For Freud there is thus only a drive towards some sort of sexual activity, but no instinct for anything in particular – the form taken by human sexuality could only be determined at the level of society and culture. (Haralambos et al 1996: 460)
They go on to talk about Kinsey’s research which found surprisingly high rates of stigmatized sexual practices in the USA of the fifties, homosexuality, masturbation and oral sex for example. They argue that this shows that human sexuality is a continuum in which there are a variety of possibilities. How is Kinsey’s evidence an argument for Freud’s view that humans are by nature “polymorphous perverse” in their sexuality? Despite the strong social controls in the United States that worked towards the normalisation of heterosexuality and reproductive sex, the human drive for sex, in its polymorphous perversity, meant that people went right ahead and engaged in forbidden sexual practices. So they engaged in practices which are precisely the practices that were not encouraged by society and culture. The implication, which the authors do not draw directly, is that sexuality is not just what is socially constructed at all. The drives and capacities of human nature are just the kind of thing that can lead people to conduct which is not socially encouraged or even socially determined in every respect. It is the widespread nature of the transgressions which provides some evidence of the soundness of Freud’s theory of the nature of the human sexual drive.
Their statement of Freud’s position here is a useful guide to how to deal with issues of human nature and social construction. In so far as human nature is composed of drives that normally get some expression, these drives are fairly general in their character. The specific expression of the basic desires of human nature is very variable and is certainly developed socially. The basic desires of human nature are not instincts which invariably produce totally similar behaviour. On the other hand, there is certainly something about the various expressions of these desires which leads us to assume some causal power, a drive of human nature, operating behind these different expressions. This clearly makes sense for sexuality but it is also relevant even for hunger and certainly for creativity, sociability and autonomy.
The elephant in the room
In this chapter I have been looking at the ways in which sociology textbooks present a case for sociology. In doing this they constantly reaffirm the view that social science does not need a theory of human nature and is carried out perfectly well without one. The great variety of human societies supposedly shows us that nothing so invariable as human nature could possibly be useful in analyzing this variety. What we may think of as natural and unchanging in society is not. While babies may be driven by biological urges, the theory of socialisation supposedly shows us that beyond this early stage, humans fall under the influence of society and it is that which shapes their nature, varied as it is from society to society. The structure agency debate is set up to exclude human nature as any kind of influence on conduct. People behave as they do either because they are influenced by society or because their individual will and agency determine their conduct. Human nature plays no part.
In relation to the sociobiologists, the textbooks concentrate on the ways that sociobiologists try to explain different social conditions by saying that they come out of differences in biological make up – between gays and straights; between men and women; between races or classes. Sociology is the science which says that these biological explanations are mistaken.What is more, the textbooks argue, nothing as complex and varied as the cultural behaviour of real people could possibly be explained by reference to biological mechanisms. The textbooks argue that all these variations in social condition can be better explained by reference to social differences between the parties in question. While most of these arguments make sense, the programmatic statements that accompany them suggest again that sociology has no need of any view of human nature and that social scientists do not believe that human nature plays any important role in human conduct.
I have argued that there is one important case in which the ban on “biological” explanations has done huge damage to our ability as social scientists to explain a fundamental social structure – patriarchy. Not only do we say nothing convincing about it; we leave the field to people who want to prove that feminism is a big mistake.
As I have also pointed out, the reality of these textbooks is that various kinds of statements about human nature do pop up constantly. Ideas about human nature are assumed in a variety of explanations of social conduct. Whether these are “biological” explanations depends on what you mean by biology. There are certainly plenty of places where people’s desire for survival, to eat or to avoid pain are mentioned, as well as less obviously “biological” urges, such as the desire for social approval. There are also more or less explicit discussions about the nature of human beings. For example the supposed desire for “ontological security”. These are conducted as though there is no contradiction between such discussions and very categorical dismissals of the influence of “biology” on human action.
Sociology does not need to develop a theory of human nature. It already has one. It is the elephant in the room. It would be more useful to start looking at the theories of human nature that are implicit in the work of social scientists and to nominate them as such.
It would also be useful to realize that social scientists are not debating the psychologists and sociobiologists in terms of a dispute between biological and social explanations of conduct at all. The debate is always about specific theories of how human nature operates in society. While sociologists seem to be operating solely to demolish the view that biology is relevant to human society, this is a very partial way of viewing what is going on. They are actually engaged in refuting specific theories of how human nature operates in terms of yet another set of theories of how it operates.
Let us look at what I mean here through an example. In the metropole, the rich capitalist countries, the social institution of the stay-at-home housewife has been influential, if not dominant since the nineteenth century. Men go to work and get paid and “support” their families, while women spend more time at home, do less paid work and get paid less. Let us consider, without being too cavalier, what sociobiologists and sociologists might say about this.
Sociobiology would argue that this insitution came about as an expression of deep seated and largely unconscious biological forces laid in the down in the DNA to maximize reproductive success. They might acknowledge that this is a particular version of a pattern laid down by these biological forces, but would see it as just one instance of a cross cultural universal. They would argue that women maximize reproductive success by spending time raising children and getting some man to support that project. They would argue that men maximize reproductive success by competing with other men and ensuring that their own wife is restricted to the domestic environment and is protected from sexual adventures with other men. These are unconcious motivations in that no one thinks of themselves as acting in these ways to ensure reproductive success. According to the sociobiologists these biological programs operate to cause us to make choices that fit with this pattern.
Sociologists, as I have explained, question this partly in terms of the supposed cross cultural universal that is implied by the explanation. They would instead argue that the institution of the unpaid stay-at-home housewife is actually unique to modern capitalist societies. In feudal societies there was no such division, with almost all productive work going on in the domestic space. There was likewise no distinction of outdoor and indoor work by gender. Agricultural work was done by both sexes. There was usually no money paid for any work, so the whole division of the sexes by income was not an issue. However in capitalist society all this changed. It is capitalism that separates the home from work and creates the problem of how to reconcile paid work with domestic work. Capitalist society creates a market in labour and also concentrates paid work in sites like the factory, that are readily supervised by managers. In this context, it is patriarchy which ensures that it is women rather than men, who are allocated to the domestic work place and work without pay (Zaretsky, Bloch, Hartmann, Weinbaim). At least this is a typically sociological explanation of what is going on.
So all this seems to present a particular “sociological” explanation that gets away from biology by looking at particular historical social constructions of society. Yet my point is that these sociological explanations themselves make assumptions about human nature, which we take for granted as we read these explanations as plausible accounts. For example, why do members of the capitalist class strive to maintain their competitive position in relation to other capitalists by supervising their paid labourers more successfully, by concentrating workers in factories? Why don’t they happily embrace the prospect of bankruptcy? Why do workers go to jobs where they can get paid and use the money to buy food, rather than happily starving in their handloom cottages? What is the method by which the new culture of women’s domesticity and sole responsibility for childcare is imposed on women to the point where the housewife and moral mother role comes to seem natural and a duty? How are people motivated to embrace this new social role if not by a process of socialization, which as we have seen, operates on people’s desires for approval, their avoidance of physical punishment and their desire to eat, among other things? Furthermore, why is it that patriarchy, which we can see operating in Feudal societies, is maintained and continued into capitalist societies? Why does it not just vanish away along with armour and jousting contests? What motivates the new trade unions of men to oppose women working in factories if not self interest, the desire to maintain their social power and the advantages which patriarchy brings to men?
In other words, sociology does not do away with biological explanations at all. It is just that the assumptions it makes about human nature are such common sense and obvious assumptions that they fly below the radar. People seek food and physical comfort. They want to survive. They seek sexual pleasure and creative expression. They like to be approved by other people and to enjoy good company. They seek autonomy. The difference between the sociobiological explanation and the sociological one is this. The sociobiologists postulate a hidden DNA evolutionary explanation to account for social conduct which they presume has a universal pattern corresponding to a universal genetic basis. The sociologists believe that this postulated hidden genetic drive is not necessary to explain conduct. In fact, despite the assertions that biology is not relevant, the sociologists assume human nature functions in ways we are all more or less aware of. To understand particular social events we need to see how these aspects of human nature are operating in the particular social context which has been historically created through a chain of events leading back into the past. It is this chain of events which sociologists concentrate on and the particularity of that chain of events is what they really mean when they claim that they do not explain things by biology – they do not believe social life is always the same corresponding to some basic invariant biological pattern.
In its most general form, the sociological reply to sociobiology is that we do not need their complex theory of human nature to understand what is going on; our common sense understanding of human nature, informed by a close study of the cross cultural evidence, is sufficient. It is Ockham’s razor. We do not need to suppose that we are driven by evolutionary mechanisms from our DNA which are totally opaque to us. Such explanations from the sociobiologists make up an evolutionary just so story, which is completely ad hoc, and takes little account of the cross cultural or cross species evidence. They suppose a biological mechanism which has not yet been discovered in our DNA in order to explain a mistaken view of what is actually going on.
Yet as we go ahead pointing this out we seem compelled to shout loudly on all occasions: “This shows that we can understand society without resorting to biological accounts”. This is Quixotic in its unreality, and does not represent our own practice in general or the true nature of our dispute with the sociobiologists.