Social Categories and Social Networks
A. What social roles and categories might our evolved social cognition predispose us to use? Can we seek evolutionary explanations for how humans carve up the world in terms of gender, kinship, race, ethnicity, prestige, class? Or is this too controversial? The presenter may choose one social category to discuss or cover several topics at a higher level.
The questions this week attempt to provide a bridge from the theoretical discussions of the first few weeks to the more empirically grounded research that will be discussed in the remaining weeks. In the first question we will attempt to use some of the theoretical tools that we have discussed previously to answer questions about a fundamental aspect of human social life: social cognition, or how we think about the societies in which we live.
Anthropologists in the past have used various social categories to analyse the complexity of the societies that they have studied—concepts like gender, kinship and class. Some theorists, such as Susan Gelman and Lawrence Hirschfeld, have suggested that these categories represent not just universals of social life, but universals of social cognition: that is, we have more or less innate, domain-specific biases that predispose us to think about societies in these terms. This is associated with the theoretical position known as essentialism, which argues that humans are predisposed to see the categories that they use to analyse the world as deriving from essential differences between the members of those categories—for example, to see men and women as being “cut from different cloth”, as it were, or to think about racial differences in the same terms as differences between species.
Other, more culturally minded scholars tend to argue that these social universals—if they are indeed universal, and not just mappings of categories that exist in large-scale societies—result from either shared ecological constraints or family resemblances between all (or most) human societies. So as well as bringing in the theoretical ideas about domain specificity and modularity that we discussed in Week 2, we can see here certain parallels with the debates about linguistic universals that we covered this week.
B. Evaluate Dunbar’s account of the relationship between language and social networks. What are the main strengths and weaknesses of his argument? In what ways has new technology (especially the internet and mobile phones) affected people’s everyday social interactions? Is new technology likely to expand individuals’ effective social network size, or is it more about connecting sub-networks together in a more overlapping way?
The second question, as usual, goes in the other direction, asking how our cognitive architecture might be adapted to life in complex social networks. Dunbar’s argument is that language is an adaptation to the problem of living in larger and larger social groups. This is a slightly different approach from the detailed evolutionary analyses of language discussed this week, since it tackles the question of why language evolved in the first place.
However, the current question is more concerned with the issue of whether humans are adapted to life in certain kinds and sizes of social networks: to support cliques, sympathy groups, and band and tribe levels of organisation. Intuitively, it seems like recent technological innovations (mobile phones, the internet, but also going back to landline telephones, the telegraph, railways, and even writing!) have the capacity to expand the size of individuals’ social networks. But is this actually the case, or does new technology simply broaden the geographical range of social networks, which are still subject to psychological constraints (and indeed to the time constraints of “keeping up” with so many different people). In other words, it is perfectly possible to have more than 150 “friends” on Facebook, but is it possible to have more than 150 real friends on Facebook?
Finally, I’d like you to consider (if you have time) the effect that all this new technology has had on the interconnectedness of social networks: how might this have affected cultural evolution? And where do you think this drive to increase social network size came from in the first place. Can we tie it in with Boyd and Richerson’s theory of cultural group selection?