Perhaps the most frustrating, yet pervasive, error in sociological thinking is to dichotomize the social and the biological. This error shows up all the time in discussions of genetics and heritability, for example.* Discussions of race provide some of the clearest examples: (some) sociologists argue that race is a social construction and therefore has no biological reality. This argument is problematic for at least three reasons.**
First, humans are biological through and through. Sociologists know this, but sometimes we go beyond emphasizing the indeterminacy of the map between particular biological features and particular social (racial) categories, and go so far as to argue that race is “purely” social. This might be a useful move when trying to get undergrads to think critically, but it has severe limitations and can lead to a rejection of sociological insights as being hopelessly post-modern or anti-materialist.
Second, recent research in biology suggests that contemporary racial classifications do, probabilistically, map on to some underlying genetic features. Shiao et al (2012, Sociological Theory) discuss recent research on racial genomics and how sociologists ought to reevaluate our claims about race in light of these findings. Here’s one key line from their abstract: “In this article, we provide a theoretical synthesis that accepts the existence of genetic clusters consistent with certain racial classifications as well as the validity of the genomic research that has identified the clusters, without diminishing the social character of their context, meaning, production, or consequences.” Check out the paper for details.
Third, and a direct consequence of the first, is that social categories leave biological traces. Humans are material things***, and because of that, it’s at least possible that we could detect social categories in, for example, patterns of neurons firing. These biological traces are not evidence against social construction arguments, but rather signs of its success. The social is inscribed in the biological. A recent post on SocImages tackles this subject nicely, quoting a recent Atlantic article. A group of researchers has shown that the biological threat reaction experienced by individuals when viewing members of other racial groups is learned, and specifically, that kids growing up in more diverse environments don’t experience it (as described by the Atlantic):
[P]eople who want to argue that racism is natural have tried to buttress their position with evidence that racism is in some sense biological. For example: studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats.
Well, whatever power that kind of argument ever had–which wasn’t much, since the fact that a psychological reaction has a biological correlate doesn’t tell you whether the reaction is innate–it has even less power now. In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14.
What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.”
The more we come to terms with the always-biological**** character of the social, the easier it will be to refute arguments like the one that motivated the research (that because we see a biological reaction to race, race must not be a social construction).
* For a fantastic example of how to think seriously about the intersection of genetic and sociological explanations, see Freese 2008.
** And the audience here could surely come up with several more!
*** “Ugly giant bags of mostly water.”
**** And technological!