April 21, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich
Biosocial: A brief conceptual history
I have recently come across the word ‘biosocial’ in various social science debates about epigenetics and other advances in the life- and bio-sciences. A chapter in a book on ‘social epigenetics’ (and the ‘biosocial’) says for example: “Epigenetics has considerable potential to transform social science by embedding mutually regulative reciprocal connections between biological and social processes within the human activities it studies.”
So I thought I’d do a bit of conceptual digging, just to see where the term comes from and why it might have become so popular. It turns out to be older than I thought.
A brief conceptual history
The Oxford English Dictionary online dates the word back to 1893 (Merriam Webster to 1892). After indicating that it is chiefly used in the social sciences, the OED gives the following definition: “Of, relating to, or involving the interaction of biological and social factors” – so far so uncontroversial. It then provides the first example of its use in context:
1893 F. C. French tr. E. DeRoberty La Recherche de l’Unité in Philos. Rev. 2 v. 602 Governed by the psychologic or bio-social law of the identity of absolute contraries, the supreme illusion lead us to take two subjective aspects of the same reality for two different objective realities.
This extract is, it seems, from a book review of La Recherche de l’Unité by the Russian sociologist Eugène de Roberty de la Cerda. I had a brief peak at the review and smiled when the reviewer talks about “a harsh and crabbed jangle of words”. I had the same impression. Another sentence was of more interest though, as it made reference to “[m]odern experimental psychology based on biology and sociology”. This didn’t surprise me, as the turn of the century was marked by almost continuous interactions between emerging disciplines.
The OED goes on to cite a few more uses of ‘biosocial’:
1894 J. Izoulet La Cité Moderne i. i. 1 (title) Livre Premier. Exposé de notre hypothèse bio-sociale.
1895 Monist 5 iv. 604 The guiding thought of his [sc. Izoulet’s] work is to trace psychology and morals to biological conditions, to found a psychology and system of ethics which shall be ‘bio-social’.
According to French Wikipedia, Jean Bernard Joachim Izoulet was professor of ‘social philosophy’. His chair in that subject was created at the Collège the France in 1897 ‘against Émile Durkheim’ (interested people could do a bit more digging here).
The next entry in the OED refers to social psychology:
1927 L. L. Bernard Introd. Social Psychol. i. v. 79 The physico-social and bio-social environments are intimately connected with human behavior.
Then we jump into more modern times and the beginnings of biosocial anthropology, discussions about evolution (which were beginning in ‘sociobiology’) and so on:
1975 L. Leibowitz in R. Reiter Toward Anthropol. Women 22 Anthropologists and sociologists have picked up on these views and tied them to renewed investigations of biosocial evolution.
Following various clues on Google, it seems that the term ‘biosocial’ was fashionable for a while (see image above), especially in psychology, with a peak in the 1950s and more sustained interest from the 1970s to 1990s. Overall, the term seems to have quite long roots in social, behavioural, evolutionary and clinical psychology (as well as criminology, anthropology, and so on). It is sometimes used in juxtaposition with ‘biophysical’. One book refers to William James as an early exponent of a biosocial approach in psychology.
The biosocial turn in STS
This, albeit extremely superficial, conceptual history was interesting to me, as I had only recently become aware of the term when reading contributions to Science and Technology Studies (STS) and related fields.
In his book Nature, Culture, and Society: Anthropological Perspectives on Life (2015), the anthropologist Gísli Pálsson devotes a chapter to ‘The biosocial turn’. Here the early French anthropologist (nephew and disciple of Durkheim) Marcel Mauss is mentioned as using an early precursor of the concept. He is said to have used the phrase “biologico-sociological” in his essay Techniques du Corps (Techniques of the Body) published in 1934 – although I can’t find it in the original French text (in the English translation of 1973 it appears on p. 86). I assume that the concept relates to Mauss’s theory of the ‘total human being’ or ‘l’homme total’ (as a physiological/biological, social and psychological being) (posited in contradistinction to some aspects of Durkheim’s sociology).
Pálsson goes on to describe the history of the term ‘biosocial’, which is also summarised more briefly in the editorial introduction to one of the most recent contributions to the ‘biosocial turn’ in STS, namely The Biosocial: Sociological themes and issues, a collection edited by Maurizio Meloni, Simon Williams and Paul Martin (2016). They retell what seems to be the canonical story of the term’s provenance: “…when the Eugenics Quarterly, organ of the American Eugenics Society, changed its name in 1969, it became renamed Social Biology (today Biodemography and Social Biology). Three years later, in 1972, the American Eugenics Society was renamed the Society for the Study of Social Biology. In parallel, and even more significantly given the choice of our title, The Eugenics Review, organ of the Galton foundation, ceased its publication in 1968 only to be resuscitated in 1969 as the Journal of Biosocial Science. So, labels like ‘social biology’ and ‘biosocial’, which we use in our title, are not free of historical connotations.” This is certainly true!
The editors of The Biosocial volume say that “this novel biosocial approach … challenges the reductionisms of sociobiology and cultural constructionism alike (dissolving the pole of nurture into nature and vice versa, respectively), and puts forward an integration of ‘the social and the biological … ontogeny and phylogeny, organism and context, being and becoming’ (Ingold and Palsson, 2013: 243)”. They also talk about “the continuing persistence of older deterministic views” which they want to challenge.
There seems to be a ‘biosocial turn’ in STS in response to developments in epigenetics and neuroscience. Here ‘biosocial’ is used to reframe “biology/society debates within the sociological disciplines”. However, as we have seen, there was a long tradition of exchanges between biology, physiology, sociology and psychology, a tradition that can, I think, not easily be reduced to reductionism, determinism and two supposedly discrete and insulated ‘poles’.
If one had time, it might be quite rewarding to look more closely at the history of the term ‘biosocial’ in sociology, psychology, biology and other related disciplines. One might want to look again at early works by Izoulet, James and Mauss for example.
Most importantly though, it might be wise to avoid creating straw men or straw persons (or even straw walls or divisions), such as determinism and reductionism. In a recent blog post, the virologist and blogger Stephen Curry said: “I’ll confess to a certain amount of reductionism but that’s an investigative necessity, not a crime.” This might be something to keep in mind when writing the history of the term biosocial.
Image: Google Ngram viewer