March 08, 2010

The Nature/Nurture Debate

 new sally By Sally Raskoff

I’m reminded today that the world is an interdisciplinary place. National Public Radio (NPR) interviewed journalist Shankar Vedantam about his book, The Hidden Brain, in which he discusses how prejudice is based on brain functioning. No social science perspective on this cultural phenomenon was included the NPR story; prejudice is framed as something we are ”hard-wired” to do, since children’s behavior mirrors their observations rather than what they are told.

As a social scientist, I am often appalled by the dearth of social science research used by the media and policy makers. In our society at large, we seem to either use no scientific perspective when trying to explain something or we rely on the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, genetics) or economics. (Why economics is the only social science used in the public realm is a topic for another blog post.) clip_image002

Vedantum’s book looks interesting, but I haven’t yet read it or checked his sources. (It’s important to do that with everything that claims to explain something – including this blog!) His Washington Post columns regularly reference sociologists and other social scientists, so his journalistic writing has a wide scientific perspective. However, the news stories about this book frame its findings as a biological reality rather than as a hypothesis informed by multiple scientific perspectives.

His discussion of brain studies and the “hidden brain associations” can help us explain how implicit associations are formed and how things like prejudice and discrimination are maintained in a culture. When people see mainly men, white, or straight people in positions of power and respect (and women, people of color, and gays and lesbians in more subordinate or deviant positions), the different social esteem that we assign to these groups are reinforced.

What those associations can explain is how prejudice and discrimination are perpetuated through subconscious or unconscious processes. They can also help us better understand how cultural norms function as social patterns reinforce psychological impressions about those patterns.

The “hidden brain associations” can explain the results of the controversial Implicit Association Test, which Vedantum mentions in his book. That so many people have biases about particular social groups, including those within those groups, is disturbing. Knowing that our subconscious does pay attention to social cues about how people in those groups are treated both in the media, in occupations, and in our daily lives, helps explain how such biases are created and persist. clip_image004

People are also puzzled when they learn that people within a group participate in perpetuating the biases against those same groups. Hidden brain associations based on what people notice happening in their societies can explain why some women have sexist attitudes and may discriminate against women, why people of color can be prejudiced against their own groups, or why gays and lesbians themselves might internalize homophobic beliefs. Since women, people of color, and gays and lesbians are not treated well by our society and since people in those groups are not expected to attain esteemed or powerful positions, one’s subconscious can come to some specific conclusions about one’s status.

What “hidden brain associations” can’t explain is how those cultural realities have come to be. Without more analysis –and a more social scientific perspective – these associations alone cannot explain why societal patterns emerge or the many variations in prejudice and discrimination. Prejudice and discrimination don’t always occur together; bigots are not always the discriminator and those who discriminate are not always prejudiced.clip_image006

Brain and genetic studies have not found definitive results that ”nature” rather than “nurture” can explain our behavior or social realities. In fact, the outcome of the Human Genome Project and similar studies typically reinforce the interaction of nature and nurture rather than the primacy of one (or the other), illustrating that biology alone is not destiny. Our behavior exists within an environmental and cultural context. Thus, only looking at the biology without also analyzing the larger societal context is, by definition, a partial perspective.

To develop a more complete perspective, we need to include social science perspectives when we analyze human phenomena. This would include not only psychological theories, which often incorporate biological realities, but also sociological theories. Sociology gives us more information on the societal foundation, the social context, and how individuals navigate through such social, biological, and environmental complexities.


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I agree with you, Sally, that when we analyze human phenomena, all social science perspectives must be included. This is because many humans go through a big tragedy that affects their lives and how they think, so things like that need to be considered when analyzing them.

i agree with you on human phenomena. In all human phenomena you need to include social science perspective. You also may need to find out about the culture and what the people around them belive. I dont really think that we will ever totally understand why people think the way they do.

i agree with this article, because in the case of human phenomena, all aspects must be taken into consideration, and i believe it is true that socialization plays a great role in the "nurture" of people.

hope on the left / tyranny on the right side of the link // and the exposure from our spiritual experience, you don't have to con fess you have to complain

I agree with you Sally, because when you're analyzing human phenomena, it's always in your best interest to include social science perspectives. Economics, biology, and chemistry are usually what people look at, but those can not always be accurate. In order to get the best results you have to include every science. Socialization can really affect a persons nurture, or upbringing.

The article inspires me that the social science are connected to each other, involving all the necessary social science perspective is a proper way to study human and society. After this, we will get a full-scale results, and then it helps to find a way to overcome the problems in order to build a more healthy and harmonious society.

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