Monday, August 25, 2008

Universals of Human Behavior

Physical/"natural"/hard scientists often downplay the importance of social science on the claim that human behavior is too variable. In other words, we social scientists cannot identify universal laws about how human beings function, comparable to, let's say, gravity or evolution.

I believe a lot of sociologists buy into this logic. For example, those who buy into the relativism inherent in much postmodern scholarship. Or, on a less extreme, and more valid, note, those who argue that no two events are ever the same, etc.

However, I do believe that we sociologists have the ability to claim certain fundamentals about the way life works, if we're willing to rigorously utilize and test theory. So far, I believe the social psychologists are the best at this, and this is not because I am a social psychologist. Some of the most general, and robust theories in sociology are social psychological.

On the metatheoretical level, there is no disputing that humans are meaning-makers, and that we interact with others based on shared meanings. These meanings become social reality. There are multiple studies corroborating various tenets of symbolic interaction, and there are a long line of rigorous thinkers whom I would consider social psychologists: Mead, Cooley, Berger, Goffman, etc.

On the theoretical level, the group process tradition has produced quite a few robust theories that have been tested in the laboratory. Power-dependence theory provides a basic, but powerful (no pun intended) observation regarding relationship dynamics: as power increases, dependence decreases, and vice versa. This important insight is seen over and over again from the dyadic to the national level.

Status construction theory and status characteristics theory also highlight processes that work in both laboratory and non-laboratory settings, although the scope restrictions of status characteristics theory have still to be relaxed and tested in non-task group situations. From these two theories, however, we can understand how material resources and social rank become twinned (status construction theory), and how status hierarchies develop in group situations (status characteristics theory). Both of these insights have great applicability at both the micro and macro level.

All too often, I believe macro sociologists do not pay enough attention to micro sociologists. This not only means that they are missing important insights that could help inform their work, but that they may be prone to overstate the limitations of sociology.

We are a young science, and I firmly believe that we have the ability to discover universal human laws, given the time and the inclination. Let's not sell ourselves short.

Friday, August 22, 2008


So, I have been quite lax with this blog, but I find myself surrounded with newness, and I'm going to make a fresh start with Unraveling. In the past three months, many things have changed: I have my Ph.D., a new job, a new house, a new city. It's exciting, and adventurous, and I'm starting to love sociology again. Getting a Ph.D. can often inspire extreme dislike of one's subject area (or extreme like, if you're lucky). This happened to me, but in creating a new course for my new job, sociology is slowly curling it's way into my lap again. It feels pretty good. I'll sit with it for awhile, and try to post more.