A Transdisciplinary Framework for Understanding Human Sociality and the Biological and Social Sources of Mental Illness

Tuesday, 12 July 2016: 09:00
Location: Hörsaal 6B P (Neues Institutsgebäude (NIG))
Oral Presentation
Russell SCHUTT, University of Massachusetts Boston, USA
Émile Durkheim and Max Weber rejected Spencer’s social Darwinist interpretation of evolutionary theory and instead developed a non-biological foundation for sociology based on recognition of the importance of altruism and group affiliation.  But the development of multi-level selection theory in evolutionary biology and of the interdisciplinary field of social neuroscience suggest a new foundation based on understanding human sociality as a biological necessity and reason and emotion as inherently connected.  This paper reviews the history of sociological perspectives on biology, identifies the major tenets of the non-biological paradigm that came to be accepted for much of the twentieth century, and identifies the findings in evolutionary biology and social neuroscience that provide the basis for the new transdisciplinary framework and improved understanding of mental illness.  The paper also highlights two debates—both anticipated by Durkheim and Weber—that are shaping the implications of this new framework for sociology and its perspective on mental illness: (1) Does the evolved propensity for bonding within groups require intergroup conflict and intragroup suppression of deviance in order to maximize cohesion?  Although there is overwhelming evidence of the value of cohesive social groups for organizations ranging from airplane crews and military units to group homes and college classrooms, implications for the larger social order are unresolved.  (2) Is emotional connection necessary for sustained human sociality?  Social neuroscience accords emotions a central role, but some explain the advantage of group cohesion in relation to member self-interest or superior cognition emanating from cooperative social groups.  Examples are drawn in part from research on homelessness and mental illness and interdisciplinary research in social neuroscience and mental health. The paper concludes with discussion of the potential for sociology to make a paradigmatic shift to reframe the importance of social relations as rooted in the biology of human sociality.