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Nature and Nurture Explanations of Human Behaviour

While not denying the role of biology in explaining some aspects of human behaviour, sociology very much emphasises the role of society (nurture) rather than nature in explaining human action. The material below forms part of lesson one of an eight lesson introduction to Sociology. 

naturenurture

Nature explanations of behaviour

In Sociology, we are looking at human behaviour. Human behaviour is the term we use that refers to all of the things that people do. There are many ways of explaining why certain people do things in particular ways.

Some biologists and psychologists think that people behave as they do because they are animals who primarily act according to their instincts. This is known as the “nature theory” of human behaviour. Other scientists and psychologists are researching whether our behaviour is “genetic” i.e. certain types of behaviour are passed down from parent to child. Again, this is a nature theory of human behaviour because it supports the belief that our behaviour is pre-programmed to a large extent. For example, it has been debated whether there is a criminal gene which means some people are more likely to commit crime.

Nurture explanations of behaviour

Nurture arguments focus on the way people are brought up and how their environment moulds their personality and behaviour. Sociologists argue that some people are brought up to be kind and caring, and others are brought up to display very different forms of behaviour. An individual’s personality and identify are moulded and developed in response to their social environments and the people they meet. They are by taught others around them telling them what is right and wrong, including teachers, siblings and most importantly parents. This is why sociologists study the family and education (the two topics on the AS course) amongst other topics because it allows to investigate how these institutions effect human behaviour.

Why do sociologists believe nurture arguments are more accurate?

We have two different ways of explaining human behaviour. One uses nature to explain behaviour, the other uses nurture. The question is, which is the best explanation? If you explain human behaviour as being the same as animal behaviour, that means that humans would all behave in the same way. French cats behave in the same way as British cats. Do British people behave like French people? People in Britain do tend to behave in a similar way. They do similar things and wear certain types of clothing. Do all people all over the world behave in the same way? Sociologists tend to say ‘no’ and use three types of evidence to prove the point.

1) Historical Evidence against Nature theories

Nature arguments suggest human behaviour isn’t dissimilar to animal behaviour, which is based on automatic responses and pre-determined modes of behaviour or that our behaviour is pre-determined by our genes. However, human behaviour has changed significantly throughout history whilst animal behaviour has changed only slightly over a very long period of time. This suggests humans interact with their environments in a unique manner, both moulding and being moulded by it.

changing gender roles
Rapidly changing gender roles are one example against nature theories of behaviour

 

2) Anthropological Evidence against Nature theories

The second argument uses anthropological evidence. Anthropologists are people who study and compare societies from all over the world. If our behaviour was in our genes then people all around the world would behave in the same way. This is because other than the external physical difference between humans, the actual biological difference between people from different parts of the world is tiny. However, anthropologists show that people behave differently in different societies.

nature and nurture
Tribal societies with different norms and values are good evidence against nature theories of behaviour

So we can see that someone’s gender, ethnicity and class can strongly affect their life chances. Society, through institutions such as the family, media, education and the police effects different group’s behaviour. This is a fact, because we can very accurately make generalisations about the expected behaviour of these groups in society. Your behaviour isn’t as unique and individual as you think.

The Analaysis podcast below demonstrates the importance of nurture over nature explanations of human action…

I should be a psychopath, but I’m not?” 5:30 – 11:44 http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b010mcl1 (2011)

  1. What was the pattern in the professor’s family history?
  1. What genetic pattern did the professor have?
  1. What factors does researcher suggest prevented him from becoming a killer, criminal etc?
  1. How do the researchers view of genetics vs surroundings explanations of behaviour change?

NOTE – the Nature Vs. Nurture debate is hotly debated topic. No side can claim to provide compelling evidence that entirely disputes the other i.e. neither side can completely disregard nature or nurture in explanation of human behaviour.

Related Posts 

All of the links below take you to introductory posts designed to provide a feel for what Sociology is, and what A Level Sociology looks like. 

What is Sociology?

AS and A Level Sociology – At a Glance

Core Themes in AS and A Level Sociology

Assessment Objectives in AS and A Level Sociology

Good resources for exploring AS and A Level Sociology further

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Post and Late Modern Perspectives on Society and Identity

This is intended to be an uber-brief summary, for fuller accounts please see other relevant posts. 

The postmodern view of society 

  • Globalisation destablises social structures
  • Consumer culture floats free from other institutions
  • The media and hyperreality are important
  • There is much more diversity
  • The End of Metanarratives

The corresponding postmodern view of identity

  • Individuals identities are no longer constrained by traditional norms (such as locality, social class or gender)
  • Leisure and consumption, not work are what bind us together and what we use to actively construct our identities
  • Individuals are free to construct their own identities in any way they see fit.

The Late Modern view of society 

  • Globalisation remains structured
  • Abstract Systems are important (T$E)
  • Uncertainty is everywhere
  • Institutions are reflexive
  • Therapy is important.

The corresponding Late Modern view of Identity 

  • Individuals are not so much free to construct their own identities – they have to do so.
  • This is because the lack of a stable structure and rapid pace of social change means identity is no longer provided at birth, work, or locality.
  • Thus people are forced into devoting time and money to ‘constructing their selves’ reflexively – and they have to do so continuously.
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Giddens: Modernity and Self-Identity – Introduction and Chapter One (A Summary)

modernity and self identityAnthony Giddens is one of the world’s leading sociologists and one of the main critics of Postmodern thought – and should be taught as part of the second year A level Sociology module in Theory and Methods. Below is a summary of one of his major works – Modernity and Self-Identity (the introduction and chapter one). 

Introduction – An Overview of the Whole Book –

Modernity is more complex and interconnected than ever before and modern institutions are more dynamic than at any previous point in history – at both an institutional level and in terms of how they impact on the individual and intimate life.

In modernity there is an increasing interconnection between two extremes – the global and personal dispositions (extensionality and intentionality).

The new mechanisms of self-identity shape and are shaped by the institutions of modernity and Sociology is a fundamental part of the institutional reflexivity of modernity.

There is a basic dialectic between modern institutions which encourage the repression of ‘living out’ existential questions in day to day life and the emergence of life-politics which seeks to manifest them.

Late Modernity has the following characteristics:

  • It is more intensely reflexive.

  • There has been a profound reorganisation of time and space – disembedding mechanisms change the nature of day to day social life.

  • It institutionalises radical doubt – all knowledge takes the form of a hypothesis – claims which may be true are always potentially open for revision such that the self has to be continuously (re-) made amidst a puzzling array of possibilities.

  • In circumstances of uncertainty and multiple choice the notions of risk and trust become central. Trust is necessary to form a protective cocoon so that we may ‘go on’ with our day to day life. Risk is also central – in modernity the future is continuously drawn into the present by means of the reflexive organisation of knowledge environments. Modernity makes some areas of life safer, but also opens up new risks.

  • The influence of distant happenings on proximate events become more and more common place – the media is common place and is what binds us together in this (against hyperreality).

  • Because of all of the above ‘lifestyle’ becomes central – reflexively organised life planning becomes a central feature of the structuring of self-identity, which normally presumes a consideration of risks as filtered through contact with expert knowledge.

  • The Pure Relationship is the main type of relationship.

  • Re-skilling becomes central to life.

  • The construction and control of the body becomes central.

  • Science, technology and expertise play a more fundamental role in the ‘sequestration of experience’. The overall thrust of modern institutions is to create settings of action ordered in terms of modernity’s own dynamics and severed from external criteria’ – as a result action becomes severed from existential questions.

  • Mechanisms of shame rather than guilt come to the fore in late modernity. Narcissism and personal meaninglessness become the main problems of self-development – ”authenticity’ is frequently devoid of any moral anchoring.

  • Yet the repression of existential questions is not complete – and life politics emerges in response.

  • Baudrillard confuses the pervasive impact of mediated experience with the internal referentiality of the social systems of modernity – these systems become largely autonomous and determined by their own constitutive influences.

  • The construction of self identity does not float free – class and other divisions can be partially defined through differential access to opportunities for self-actualisation.

GIddens Late Modernity

Chapter One – The Contours of High Modernity

Starts with the example of divorce to illustrate the gist of the chapter.

The experience of intimate life is not separate from social life. High modernity demands that we continually remake ourselves, and so it is with many relationships – as evidenced in the persistent high divorce rate, which is simply a consequence of the ‘pure relationship’ being the main type of relationship today.

Divorce is not necessarily a tragedy – for some it is an opportunity to further develop themselves, while for others they retreat into a resigned numbness. To make a ‘success’ out of divorce, one has to mourn it, accept that the marriage is ended, and move on!

Modernity: Some general considerations:

Modernity has the following features –

  1. It is industrial – social relations are rooted in the widespread use of material power and machinery in production processes.

  2. It is capitalist – we live in a system of commodity production which involves both competitive product markets and the commodification of labour power.

  3. There are significant institutions of surveillance – the supervisory control of subject populations – both visible and in terms of the use of information to coordinate social activities.

  4. We live in the context of the industrialisation of war – modernity has ushered in a context of ‘total war’ – the potential destructive power of weaponry, most obviously nuclear arms, is immense.

Modernity produces certain distinct social forms – most obviously the nation state, or a system of nation states, which follow coordinated policies or plans on a global scale – nation states permit and entail concentrated reflexive monitoring.

Modernity is also characterised by extreme dynamism – the current world is a runaway world – the pace, scope and profoundness of changes is significantly greater than any time before.

The peculiar character of modernity consists in the following:

Firstly the separation of time and space and the emptying out of time and space – the clock being the most obvious manifestation which presumed deeply structured changes in the tissue of everyday life, which were universalising, on a global scale. This is a dialectical process – the severance of time from space allows for new formations – such as the ‘use of history to make history’ – as in the significance of the year 2000, just because it was the year 2000.

Secondly the disembedding of social institutions – the lifting out of social relations from local contexts. There are two main ways this occurs – through symbolic tokens (such as money) and expert systems (therapists) and each of these permeate every aspect of late-modern life, and both depend on trust. Trust, a leap of faith is essential – because in a disembedded system we cannot know everything. Risk is also part of this.

Institutional reflexivity is the third feature of late modernity – the regularised use of knowledge about circumstances of social life as a constitutive element in its organisation and transformation.

The local, the global and the transformation of day-to-day-life

There is a dialectic between Modernity’s universalising efforts and the actual consequences: In the attempt to know and predict everything, in fact competing knowledge systems have emerged, and there is no way of knowing with any certainty which is correct, thus uncertainty lies at the heart of daily life.

The mediation of experience

Today, virtually all experience is mediated, but this does not result in post-modern fragmentation – in fact mediation is precisely what unifies all of us – pre-modern life is what was truly fragmented. We are now all painfully and persistently aware of the various modern problems which we cannot escape.

The Existential Parameters of High Modernity

The Future is the driving force of high modernity – or rather the attempt to colonise it based on the use of knowledge. We do this in the context of risk – We are all confronted with uncertainty because the rise of competing expert systems just makes us more uncertain. Expert knowledge has failed to make the world more predictable.

Why Modernity and Personal Identity?

Because never before has there been a time when so many people have been unified into the demands to reflexively make themselves – it is the institutional context of modernity which makes this possible – Globalisation, and abstract systems demand that we engage in self-construction, and therapy becomes central to this.

Anthony GIddens
Anthony Giddens

Related Posts 

Modernity and Self Identity – Chapter Two Summary

Giddens’ Modernity and Self Identity – summarised in 14 bullet points

Some introductory questions on Giddens’ Sociological Thought – to get students thinking (dangerous, I know)

Theory.Org has a useful outline of Giddens’ thought

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Giddens – Modernity and Self-Identity

A brief summary of Anthony Giddens’ work on the relationship between the self and society in late-modern age.

Self-identity, history, modernity.

Drawing on a therapeutic text – ‘Self-Therapy’ by Janette Rainwater – Giddens selects ten features which are distinctive about the search for self-identity in the late modern age:

  1. The self is seen as a reflexive project for which the individual is responsible. Self-understanding is relegated to the more inclusive and fundamental aim of rebuilding a more rewarding sense of identity.

  2. The self forms a trajectory of development from the the past to the anticipated future. The lifespan rather than external events is in the foreground, the later are cast as either fortuitous or throwing up barriers which need to be overcome.

  3. Reflexivity becomes continuous – the individual continuously asks the question ‘what am I doing in this moment, and what can I do to change?’ In this, reflexivity belongs to the reflexive historicity of modernity.

  4. The narrative of the self is made explicit – in the keeping of an autobiography – which requires continual creative input.

  5. Self-actualisation implies the control of time – essentially, the establishing of zones of time which have only remote connections with external temporal orders. Holding a dialogue with time is the very basis of self-realisation, and using the ever-present moment to direct one’s future life course is essential.

  6. The reflexivity of the self extends to the body. Awareness of the body is central to the grasping of the moment. The point here is to establish a differentiated self, not to dissolve the ego.

  7. Self-actualisation is understood as a balance between opportunity and risk. The individual has to be prepared to take on greater levels of risk than is normal – to change is to risk things getting worse.

  8. The moral thread of self-actualisation is one of authenticity… Personal growth depends on conquering emotional blocks and tensions that prevent us from understanding ourselves – recover or repeat old habits is the mantra.

  9. The life course is seen as a series of ‘passages’. All such transitions involve loss.

  10. The line of development of the self is internally referential – it is the creation of a personal belief system by which someone changes – one’s first loyalty is to oneself.

    Giddens now asks how can we connect up these ten features of self-identity to the institutional transformations characteristic of the late-modern world?

Lifestyle and Life Plans

Therapy (and it’s focus on self-identity reconstruction) is a response to the backdrop to the existential terrain of late modern life which consists of the following features:

  • it is reflexively organised

  • it is permeated by abstract systems (money/ time)

  • the reordering of time and space has realigned the global and the local.

This has resulted in the following societal level changes 

  1. We live in a post-traditional order, the signposts offered by tradition are now blank

  2. We have a pluralisation of lifeworlds – the milieu which we are exposed to are much more diverse.

  3. Experts do not agree, so there is no longer a certain source of knowledge.

  4. The prevalence of mediated experiences – the collage effect of the media – we have new communities and shed loads of new possibilities.

All of this has results in the primacy of lifestyle (and thus lifestyle planning and therapy)

A lifestyle may be defined as a more or less integrated set of practices which an individual embraces because they give material form to a particular narrative of self-identity. A lifestyle implies a plurality of choices – it is something which is adopted rather than handed down (and should not merely be conflated with consumerism in this instance).

(NB Giddens also says that we do not all have complete freedom of choice over our lifestyles – we are restricted by work, and by class etc… and moreover, the lifestyle pattern we choose limits what we can do if we wish to maintain an authentic narrative of the self.

Life planning becomes essential in the above social context – life planning is an attempt to ‘colonise the future’.in conditions of social uncertainty – which is precisely what modern institutions do at the societal level.

Thus life-planning and therapy kind of ‘mirror’ a broader (globalised) social context which is itself reflexive.

Two things in particular become central to ‘life planning’– (1) The Pure Relationship comes to be crucial to the reflexive project of the self and (2) the body becomes subject of ever greater levels of personal control, which I’ll cover in the next blog post or two.

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Gender Identity and Education

This post looks at how the experience of school can reinforce children’s gender identities

Gender identity

Research on the development of gender identity has shown that children become keen to demonstrate their awareness and knowledge of gender at the age of five to six. Consequently, seven to eight year olds have a relatively well-established sense of gender identity. For children, being accepted as a ‘typical boy’ or a ‘typical girl’ tends to be important. School is an important arena in which one can act out one’s gender identity and affirm one’s masculinity or femininity and thus affirm one’s gender identity.

Sociological research shows that there is pressure in school to conform to traditional gender identities. If one is a boy, one is often expected to display aspects of traditional masculinity such as enjoying sport and being competitive; and if a male student displays traditionally feminine traits they are criticised. Similarly, girls who act masculine may be subject ridicule. This handout looks at ways in which traditional gender identities are reinforced in school

Male Peer Groups – reinforce the idea that working hard is unmasculine for boys

Mac an Ghail’s study of Parnell school (1994) found that Male peer groups put boys under pressure to not take school work seriously. There were differences across social classes

Working class boys – genuinely didn’t make an effort – part of being male for them meant being cool, and not caring about school work. For them ‘real boys don’t try hard at school’ and are more interested in dossing around (like the Lads Paul Willis studied in 1977). These boys referred to boys that wanted to do well as ‘dickhead achievers’ ‘queer’ or ‘gay’.

Middle class boys – Behind the scenes, many middle class boys would try hard to succeed but in public they projected an image of ‘effortless achievement’ – pretending they were weren’t really making any effort and being smug when they did well because of this.

In terms of identity then, not working hard is part of working class masculinity and being seen to not working hard is part of middle class masculinity

In Shaun’s story – Dianna Reay (2002) demonstrated how Shaun, an 11 year old white working class boy, struggled to redefine himself as a hard working pupil when he moved from primary to secondary school. In primary school, an important part of Shaun’s identity was being one of the toughest guys in school and being a good footballer. When he moved up to secondary school he saw this as an opportunity to redefine himself as a ‘good student’ but found this difficult because he still valued his relationship with his old friends and his identity as a tough guy and a good footballer.

Female peer groups reinforce ideas of traditional femininity

Louise Archer – Interviewed 89 young people, looking at the identities of young working class girls. She found that girls that didn’t conform to traditional gender identities (passive and submissive) were at a disadvantage because they came into conflict with the school. For most of the girls, constructing and performing a heterosexual, sexy feminine image was the most important thing to them. Each of the girls spent considerable money and time on their appearance, trying to look sexy and feminine which gave the girls a sense of power and status. The peer group policed this.

Archer also interview one Laddette – who felt as if the school had a grudge against her. Over one summer she transformed her identity to a classically feminine one and got on much better with staff at her new college as a result.

Carolyn Jackson argued that Laddishness amongst girls is on the increase – girls are increasingly loud, aggressive and drink excessively. She argued that the advantages of this behaviour are that this allows girls to seam carefree about education, reducing the risk of them losing face if they fail.

Verbal Abuse can reinforce traditional gender identities

Connell argues that verbal abuse is one way in which dominant gender and sexual identities are reinforced.

Paetcher (1996) argued that male pupils use terms such as ‘gay’ or ‘queer’ in a derogatory manner. Such labels are often given to students who are disinterested in or bad at sport or who prefer traditionally feminine subjects.

Sue Lees (1986) found that boys called girls ‘slags’ if they appeared to be sexually available and ‘drags’ if they didn’t, negatively labelling girls for being promiscuous or not. According to Lees this is one way in which male dominance starts to assert itself.

Teachers reinforce traditional gender identities

Research shows that teachers also play a part in reinforcing dominant definitions of gender identity. Chris Haywood (1996) found that male teachers told boys off for ‘behaving like girls’ and teased them when they gained lower marks in tests that girls. Teachers also tended to ignore boys verbal abuse of girls (calling them slags etc)

There is also some evidence that male teachers sometimes display a protective attitude towards female teachers, coming into their class to rescue them from disruptive pupils who display threatening behaviour

John Abraham’s research found that teachers idea of a ‘typical girl’ was of her being welll behaved and studios, whereas their ideas of ‘typical boys’ were of them being troublemakers – thus boys received more negative feedback than girls which could reinforce their notion of masculinity being associated with messing around in school.

Tutors and subject advisors

If male students want to do traditionally female subjects, tutors are more likely to question them critically asking them if they are really sure about their decision, meaning students are under more pressure to avoid those subjects that do not fall into their traditional ‘gender domains’

Gender identities can be different for different ethnic groups…

Sewell and Mac An Ghail

Sewell argues that African Caribbean males are more likely to form anti-school subcultures

Mac An Ghail agreed but argued that this was a response to institutional racism

Girls outperform boys in all ethnic groups at GCSE and are more likely to go to university than boys in all ethnic groups

But Bangladeshi and Pakistani girls are less likely to attend university than their male peers. Research suggests this is due to cultural pressure to stay close to home and get married