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in explaining the development and

growth of the organism during its lifetime) and

much more attention to the developing organism

in its social and ecological context. P. Dickens

outlines some of these alternative perspectives in

Social Darwinism (2000).

Despite their continuing problems, evolutionary

psychology and sociobiology have managed

to shake social theory out of thinking it has a

unique purchase on human behavior and that

the biological world is of no explanatory importance.

The focus of future research must be that of

combining ideas from biology, psychology, and

social theory in more nuanced ways, recognizing

the complexity of their interactions. This would

certainly entail recognizing the importance of

genes and biology in affecting the overall growth

and psychic propensities of human beings. But it

would also recognize that households, educational

systems, work hierarchies, and the like all

deeply affect how these biologically based tendencies

work out in practice. Similarly, the human

mind is almost certainly less “hard-wired” and

inflexible than the proponents of evolutionary

psychology suggest. Different kinds of psychic

structure come into play according to the social

relations which the mind encounters and indeed

contributes to. PETER DICKENS

evolutionary theory

Evolution and learning are two principal mechanisms

of adaptive self-organization in complex

systems. Learning alters the probability distribution

of behavioral traits within a given individual,

through processes of reinforcement and observation

of others. Evolution alters the frequency distribution

of individual carriers of a trait within a

given population, through differential chances of

selection and replication. Selection depends on

heterogeneity which is replenished by random

mutation in the face of replication processes that

tend to reduce it. Selection pressures influence

the probability that particular traits will be replicated,

in the course of competition for scarce resources

(ecological selection) or competition for a

mate (sexual selection).

Although evolution is often equated with ecological

selection, sexual selection is at least as

important. By building on partial solutions rather

than discarding them, genetic crossover in sexual

reproduction can exponentially increase the rate

at which a species can explore an adaptive landscape,

compared to reliance on trial and error

(random mutation) alone. Paradoxically, sexual

selection also tends to inhibit ecological adaptation,

especially among males. Gender differences

in parental investment cause females to be choosier

about mates and thus sexual selection to be

more pronounced in males. An example is the

peacock’s large and cumbersome tail, which attracts

the attention of peahens (who are relatively

drab) as well as predators. Sexually selected traits

tend to become exaggerated as males trap one

another in an arms race to see who can have the

largest antlers or be bravest in battle.

Selection pressures can operate at multiple

levels in a nested hierarchy, from groups of individuals

with similar traits, down to individual

carriers of those traits, down to the traits themselves.

Evolution Through Group Selection (1986) was

advanced by V. C. Wynne-Edwards as a solution to

one of evolution’s persistent puzzles – the viability

of altruism in the face of egoistic ecological counterpressures.

Prosocial in-group behavior confers a

collective advantage over rival groups of rugged

individualists. However, the theory was later dismissed

by George C. Williams in Adaptation and

Natural Selection (1966) which showed that between-

group variation gets swamped by withingroup

variation as group size increases. Moreover,

group selection relies entirely on differential rates

of extinction, with no plausible mechanism for

the whole-cloth replication of successful groups.

Sexual selection suggests a more plausible explanation

for the persistence of altruistic behaviors

that reduce the chances of ecological

selection. Contrary to Herbert Spencer’s infamous

view of evolution, following Charles Darwin, as

“survival of the fittest,” generosity can flourish

even when these traits are ecologically disadvantageous,

by attracting females who have evolved a

preference for “romantic” males who are ready

to sacrifice for their partner. Traits that reduce

the ecological fitness of an individual carrier can

also flourish if the trait increases the selection

chances of other individuals with that trait.

Hamilton introduced this gene-centric theory of

kin altruism in “The Genetic Evolution of Social

Behaviour” (Journal of Theoretical Biology, 1964),

later popularized by R. Dawkins in The Selfish Gene

(1976, 1989).

In “The Cultural Evolution of Beneficent

Norms” (Social Forces, 1992), Paul Allison extended

the theory to benevolence based on cultural relatedness,

such as geographical proximity or a

shared cultural marker. This may explain why

gene–culture coevolution seems to favor a tendency

to associate with those who are similar, to

evolutionary theory evolutionary theory


differentiate from “outsiders,” and to defend the

in-group against social trespass with the emotional

ferocity of parents defending their offspring.

This model also shows how evolutionary

principles initially developed to explain biological

adaptation can be extended to explain social and

cultural change (see social change). Prominent

examples include the evolution of languages, religions,

laws, organizations, and institutions. This

approach has a long and checkered history. Social

Darwinism is a discredited nineteenth-century

theory that used biological principles as analogs

for social processes such as market competition

and colonial domination. Many sociologists still

reject all theories of social or cultural evolution,

along with biological explanations of human behavior,

which they associate with racist and elitist

theories of “survival of the fittest.” Others, like the

sociobiologist E. O. Wilson, believe “genes hold

culture on a leash” (On Human Nature, 1988), leaving

little room for cultural evolution to modify

the products of natural selection. Similarly, evolutionary

psychologists like Leda Cosmides and John

Tooby search for the historical origins of human

behavior as the product of ancestral natural selection

rather than ongoing social or cultural


In contrast, a growing number of sociologists

and economists are exploring the possibility

that human behaviors and institutions may be

heavily influenced by processes of social and cultural

selection that are independent of biological

imperatives. These include Paul DiMaggio and

Walter Powell (the new institutional sociology),

Richard Nelson and Sydney G. Winter (evolutionary

economics), and Michael T. Hannan and John

H. Freeman (organizational ecology). One particularly

compelling application is the explanation of

cultural diversity. In biological evolution, speciation

occurs when geographic separation allows

populations to evolve in different directions to the

point that individuals from each group can no

longer mate. Speciation implies that all life has

evolved from a very small number of common

ancestors, perhaps only one. The theory has been

applied to the evolution of myriad Indo-European

languages that are mutually incomprehensible

despite having a common ancestor. In sociocultural

models, speciation operates through

homophily (attraction to those who are similar),

xenophobia (aversion to those who are different),

and influence (the tendency to become more similar

to those to whom we are attracted and to

differentiate from those we despise).

Critics counter that socio-cultural evolutionists

have failed to identify any underlying replicative

device equivalent to the gene. Dawkins

has proposed the “meme” as the unit of cultural

evolution but there is as yet no evidence that

these exist. Yet Darwin developed the theory

of natural selection without knowing that phenotypes

are coded genetically in DNA. Perhaps

the secrets of cultural evolution are waiting to

be unlocked by impending breakthroughs in

cognitive psychology. MICHAEL MACY

exchange theory

The social division of labor is mediated by exchange.

Exchange theory conceptualizes this as a

bargaining process that reflects the relative dependence

of the parties involved. Not all social

interactions involve bargaining and exchange.

Peter M. Blau, who developed the field in 1964

with Exchange and Power in Social Life, warned that

“People do things for fear of other men or for fear

of God or for fear of their conscience, and nothing

is gained by trying to force such action into a

conceptual framework of exchange” (1964: 88).

Yet Blau did not regard most social relations as

outside this framework. “Social exchange can be

observed everywhere once we are sensitized by

this conception to it, not only in market relations

but also in friendship and even in love” (88). Social

exchange differs from economic exchange in

three important ways. First, the articles of exchange

are not commodities but gifts. No money

is involved, nor credit, nor contract. Giving a

gift is a “selfish act of generosity” in that it creates

in the recipient the need to reciprocate with something

that is desired by the giver. Both parties

to the exchange “are prone to supply more of their

own services to provide incentives for the other to

increase his supply” (89). Simply put, a gift is not

an expression of altruism; it is a way to exercise

power over another. Second, the terms of exchange

are unspecified (91). One side offers something

the other values, without knowing how or

when the partner will return the favor. Third, the

exchange is not instrumentally calculated. Without

a quid pro quo and in the absence of explicit

bargaining, one cannot know if the gift is optimal

in a given transaction. Instead, optimization takes

place through incremental adjustments to behavior

in response to experience. These need not

be conscious adjustments but could be experienced

merely as feelings of satisfaction or dissatisfaction

with the relationship, such that the terms

of exchange emerge as a byproduct of a learning

evolutionary theory exchange theory


process. Each partner evaluates the outcomes from

the exchange relative to a “comparison level”

corresponding to what the actor expects to receive

from their best alternative relationship. When the

value falls below this standard, the individual is

dissatisfied and seeks alternative partners whose

offers are perceived as superior. On the other hand,

according to Susan Sprecher in Social Exchange Theories

and Sexuality (1998: 34), “if the outcomes they

are receiving from their current relationship are

better than what they expect to receive from their

best alternative(s), they will feel dependent on the

relationship and become committed to it.”

These differences with economic exchange

make social exchange applicable to emotionally

charged behaviors where instrumental manipulation

of the partner would ruin the experience for

both. Social exchanges can be experienced as acts

of generosity towards those we love and trust. In

particular, trust is necessary because of the unspecified

terms of exchange. Attraction and trust

increase when the generosity is satisfactorily reciprocated

and decrease when it is not.

Although social exchange lacks explicit terms

of trade, enforceable contracts, or a monetary medium,

it nevertheless follows the basic principles

of economic bargaining over the price of commodities,

such as the “principle of least interest,”

summarized by Karen Cook and Richard Emerson

in “Power, Equity and Commitment in Exchange

Networks” (American Sociological Review, 1978):

“The party who is receiving the least comparative

benefit from a trade has the greater bargaining

power to improve upon that trade. If that power is

used . . . then the terms of the trade will shift until

power is balanced” (724).

This theory applies to the balancing of power

in exchanges between workers, neighbors, friends,

business associates, and marriage partners, as

noted by Ed Lawler and Shane Thye in “Bringing

Emotions into Social Exchange Theory” (Annual

Review of Sociology, 1999): “Whether it is two lovers

who share a warm and mutual affection, or two

corporations who pool resources to generate a

new product, the basic form of interaction remains

the same . . . Two or more actors, each of

whom has something of value to the other, decide

whether to exchange and in what amounts” (217).

One of the best-known examples of the general

principles of exchange is Gary Becker’s Treatise on

the Family (1992) which models mate selection as a

marriage market in which people exchange

status, sex appeal, wealth, or intelligence.

Although numerous studies of the “law of attraction”

have found strong tendencies towards

homogamy based on age, race and ethnicity,

religion, education, and occupational status, exchange

theory provides an alternative explanation.

Homogamy may reflect not a taste for

similarity but rather constraints on the ability to

attract a partner who has more valued resources.

From an exchange-theoretic perspective, romantic

relationships are formed through a matching

process in which women and men look for the

best “catch.”

Exchange theory has also been applied to the

exercise of power in the family. The principle

of least interest predicts a positive effect of relative

socioeconomic position on conjugal power

in decisionmaking. For example, studies show

that women in high-paying occupations are less

dependent on their husbands and thus have

more power in marital exchange than do women

without such occupations.

Marital exchange is an example of dyadic exchange.

In contrast, generalized exchange involves

three or more actors who each provide

valued resources to others with no expectation

of direct reciprocity. In Social Exchange Theory:

The Two Traditions (1974), Peter Ekeh distinguished

between “group generalized exchange” in which

resources are pooled and then redistributed,

and “chain generalized exchange,” which is illustrated

by kula, a ceremonial exchange of wreaths

of flowers for food or betel-nut, as described

by Bronislaw Malinowski in his studies of the

Trobriand Islanders. Although both these systems

appear to depart from rationally self-interested

behavior, exchange theorists have shown that

this need not be the case, especially where reputation

and status depend on exhibitions of generosity,

or where gifts have far greater value to others

than to the giver.

Social networks are of central importance in

exchange systems. A variant of exchange theory,

called “network exchange theory,” predicts power

from actors’ locations in network structures. For

example, in a “3-Line” network (B1-A-B2), A has

power over B1 and B2 because A has access to multiple

exchange partners, each of whom has access

only to A. But if we simply add a link between B1

and B2, A loses its structural advantage. In this

triangle network, all three actors now have equal

power because all are excluded with the same

probability. The predicted effects of network structure

have been strongly supported in laboratory

studies of bargaining behavior. In Network Exchange

Theory (1999), David Willer reviews these studies

and provides an overview and history of the field.


exchange theory exchange theory


experimental method

Experimental research constitutes a minority of all

sociological research. The experimental method is

a research paradigm borrowed from the physical

and natural sciences. Experiments are studies

employing the hypothetico-deductive method

specifically designed to determine whether there

is a cause and effect relationship between two or

more phenomena. Other forms of sociological research

have accordingly divergent goals. Thus, for

instance, survey-based research is designed to provide

descriptive information about a topic of interest,

as it pertains to a specific sample of persons,

and ethnomethodological studies are designed to

provide formal descriptions that display the features

of the cultural machinery assumed to have

produced these features.

The experimental method entails the systematic

variation in the levels of one or more independent

variables, and then the measurement

of the effects of this manipulation according

to one or more dependent variables. The manipulation

of the independent variable is achieved

by altering the qualitative or quantitative levels

of this variable. The levels of a qualitative independent

variable are often established by the presence

or absence of a particular variable (for

example exposure to anti-racism training, or no

exposure to anti-racism training); or by measuring

the effects of various different kinds of training.

In all such cases, the groups in question do

not experience different amounts of the independent

variable, but rather the presence or absence

of a particular treatment or experimental condition.

In contrast, the levels of a quantitative

independent variable entail quantitatively different

amounts of exposure to that variable. For

example, Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis, expounded

in The Nature of Prejudice (1954), would

predict that the amount of time spent exposed to

minority groups (given certain other necessary

conditions) should systematically reduce the level

of prejudice expressed towards that group. Thus,

subjects may be divided into groups that spend

one week, two weeks, and three weeks interacting

with minority group members under such conditions.

The dependent variable (expressed prejudice)

would be measured before and after these

quantitatively different amounts of exposure

to the independent variable. These three levels of

the independent variable are expressed according

to a quantitative dimension, time.

However, as these examples perhaps make

clear, it is only possible to infer a cause and effect

relationship between variables if all other variables

remain constant. If conditions are not held

constant, an uncontrolled source of influence – or

confound – may affect the dependent variable(s),

and thus interfere with the expression of the independent

variable(s) – either through offering an

alternative account for its effects, or through

masking the expression of an effect. In the social

scientific community, attention to identifying

the effects of potential confounds arguably reflects

a positive level of skepticism towards too

readily inferring causal relationships between


In order to identify potential confounds, one

should pay close attention to those other factors –

besides the independent variable – that may systematically

vary during the experiment (for

example, students from a particular socioeconomic

area may already have experienced different

levels of exposure to racism, compared to

students from a different socioeconomic area,

thus potentially confounding the effects of antiracism


Another major concern for experimental social

scientists is that of ecological or external validity.

This form of validity (see sampling) refers to

the ability of the researcher, on the basis of the

experimental results, to generalize from the experimental

context to the equivalent real-world

situation. Further, work on the sociology of scientific

knowledge has demonstrated that, in practice,

the experimental method is by no means

culture-free and objective.



Most sociologists seek to explain. Explanations

often draw on counterfactual thinking, trying to

assess the impact of x by imagining what would

have happened if x did not occur.

There are many types of explanation, and little

consensus exists as to what kind of explanation

is preferred. A common type of explanation is

a causal one, but there are various types of causal

explanation and causal inference. Some causal

explanations are mechanistic. They explain a phenomenon

by referring to the fact that it was

caused by other social factors, but without a precise

reference to the mechanisms or powers at

stake. For example, a mechanistic explanation

for the rise in suicide rates may refer to the rise

in unemployment figures. Alternatively, people’s

dissatisfaction at work might be explained by

reference to the technology involved in their

experimental method explanation


employment. Some commentators argue that such

mechanistic accounts are not explanations because

they fail to answer why- and how-questions.

Rather than providing answers, they seem to beg


Other causal explanations are intentional. In

intentional explanations, people’s purposes or

reasons are treated as causes for their actions. Sociologists

subscribing to methodological individualism

use intentional explanations. Methodological

individualism is a research program that focuses

on how individuals act purposefully while producing

not just intended but also unintended and

unanticipated effects. Max Weber and Karl Popper

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