The Biological Traces of the Social Construction of Race

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!

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1 Comment

  1. Drew Foster

     /  October 31, 2012

    Dan Hirschman, you need to read my pub paper proposal!

    I couldn’t agree more that (some) sociologists are over inclined to dichotomize the social and the biological. I think the important addendum that critique entails, though, is that — in practice — sociologists actually tend to be pretty on board with a resonant relationship between the social and corporeal. Bourdieu’s theory of social reproduction offers us what I think is a prime example: as manifest in the habitus, different social classes produce different bodily forms. In other words, for Bourdizzle and for a whole bunch of other sociologists, social categories are literally inscribed upon and reflected by individual bodies in one way or another. (Take your pick from anything from industrial line workers who developed ‘K-legs’ (Marx) to docile bodies (Foucault) to historically contingent ‘body techniques’ (Mauss) to more recent stuff on anorexia or fitness obsessiveness.)

    The really interesting question for scientists (social and otherwise), then, is HOW does that inscription process take place? I recently discovered Arthur Kleinman (a medical anthropologist) and his late wife (a Sinologist), who wrote a delightful piece back in 1994 criticizing sociologists for collectively avoiding this very question and, instead, taking the occurrence of sociosomatic processes as an article of faith. “This intellectual stratagem,” they argue, “transforms what is at heart a basic and very difficult question into an accepted intellectual position.” In other words, a problem becomes a presupposition.

    This is where I think that stuff like Shiao et al and the piece from the guys at U of O get super, super interesting. In many ways, if our goal is to get to the bottom of the presumed, we’re-pretty-sure-it’s-there, just-look-at-all-this-evidence-we’ve-amassed resonance between the social and the corporeal, it might be unavoidable to ask our friends in neuroscience and biology to fill in some of the gaps. And like you said, biological traces of social categories need not be evidence against social construction! In solidarity with the Kleinmans, I think the first step is to get over the disciplinarily manufactured imperative amongst social scientists to avoid psychophysiological explanations per se and, instead, sharpen our capacity to argue for the causality of social forces in the face of phenomena that, at first glance, seem biological.

    In other words, I say we need to work on convincing explanations that the biological/bodily is at once irreplaceable in explanations of social phenomena AND epiphenomenal/secondary to the social.

    (I’ll note that everything I just said is sort of contingent upon a conflation of the biological/genetic with the corporeal per se. I also seem to have gone kind of astray from the whole race thing…)