July 04, 2013

Psychology is Social

RaskoffBy Sally Raskoff

The world is interdisciplinary. In education and academia, we’ve divided the world up into multiple perspectives or academic disciplines; it’s good to be reminded that we’re all looking at the same things from different perspectives – and that those perspectives sometimes converge.

I’ve encountered some news stories and books that illustrate that the more research we do, the more we realize that psychological issues and sociological concepts converge. While we typically reserve the field of social psychology for those areas in which psychology and sociology overlap, recent research confirms that psychological issues involve social contexts – and sociological concepts – more than previously thought.

For example, David Greene and Shankar Vedantum did a lovely piece on whistleblowers on NPR. They discussed the classic psychological research and individualistic issues of the person who becomes the whistleblower but concluded, using recent research, that the environment- the context or situational factors - are more predictive of such behavior. Altruism does not rest with one’s individual psychology, but is more closely connected to one’s social environment and dynamics.

I’ve been reading The Mindful Brain: Reflection and Attunement in the Cultivation of Well-Being, by Dr. Daniel Siegel, as a counterpart to my Mindfulness Meditation classes and practice. Expecting a purely psychological perspective, imagine my joy in reading about how the brain – especially the frontal cortex – is wired to be social.

According to Siegel, the secure attachment style depicts a strong relationship in which a parent and child are attuned to each other. This secure attachment or attunement affects the prefrontal area of the brain and grows more fibers in that area. Research on mindfulness practice shows the same structural results in the brain that are seen in parent-child secure attachments; Siegel depicts these as attuning to oneself. These patterns are important as they are found to be “promoting the MindfulBrain_LGcapacity for intimate relationships, resilience and well-being,” notes Siegel on page 26.

This research, like much of the research on genetics and the brain, is discovering that biology is not necessarily destiny – biology responds to our experiences rather than just the other way around. Genetics may show a potential for diseases to develop or other characteristics but it’s not a given – the findings are reported as statistical chances.

I’m not saying that  nurture is more important than nature. Pitting one against the other, nature versus nurture, is not useful as it assumes that the complexity of life can boil down to one type of explanation over another alone.

Auguste Comte, the nineteenth century sociologist, pointed out a long time ago that sociology is a science that incorporates many of the other sciences. He believed that science and research could solve most problems. While he may have overstated it a bit and many don’t pay that aspect of his thought much attention today, he may have had something there.  The sociological perspective often includes or at least acknowledges the perspectives and contributions of social (and other) sciences.

What sociological work have you seen that specifically includes psychological or anthropological concepts? On the flip side, where else do you see the other sciences including a sociological view? What other psychological theories inculcate sociological concepts whether overtly or indirectly? Identifying these convergences can help us better understand the unique contributions of the disciplines and their perspectives.


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The level of shyness has gone up dramatically in the last decade. I think shyness is an index of social pathology rather than a pathology of the individual.


Time perspective is one of the most powerful influences on all of human behavior. We're trying to show how people become biased to being exclusively past-, present- or future-oriented.


I beg to differ. I think shyness can just be an anxiety thing which is quite often based on a biological condition. For example we now know what an unhealthy microbiome can create anxiety (just 1 example)

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