As cohorts of doctoral students in anthropology at Teachers College know well, the second Thursday of the first year colloquium is dedicated to pondering “social facts” and rules for studying them. What those students do not know at this point, and will struggle against throughout the session, is that they were set up to reveal a social fact: that the major points to be made are about the same points that were made the year before, and the year before that, going back to my first participation in the colloquium in a time that now appears to me “immemorial” (actually probably in the Fall 1991). Specifically, the students will resist separating the social from the individual in the name of the individual (with due apologies to individual differences in the manner of this resistance).
They are of course in very good company.
Ah! The individual! The mind! The brain!
The same week, I read a somewhat popularized book by David Eagleman, a “neuroscientist.” In his Incognito: The secret lives of the brain (Pantheon, 2011), he summarizes what excites people in his discipline. I picked up the book after reading a summary of its argument: much that happens in the brain far below “consciousness.” As Eagleman notes in his appreciative comments on Freud, this is not an original statement as such. His point is that there is now a large body of experimental evidence that this is so. Eagleman reviews evidence mostly from the fields of motion, perception, moral judgement, etc. He does not review evidence from his colleagues concerned with language processing but this work would point in the same direction. Driving a car, recognizing a face, making a value judgment, in the real time of everyday life (as it can be modeled in experiments) depends on processes that can be measured to happen on a scale much shorter than is required when any one of these matters are brought to consciousness. This is also true of both the syntagmatic and paradigmatic processes we use when speaking.
And then he starts a major chapter by discussing Mel Gibson.
In an infamous incident in 2006, the actor is arrested for drunken driving. As he is, he makes a violently antisemitic rant against the arresting officer. In the following days he issues two apologies stating (through his publicist) “Please know from my hear that I am not an anti-Semite. I am not a bigot” (Aug 12, 2006 – CBS News video). Which is the “real” Gibson? Elsewhere in the book, Eagleman reports on a study (Wojnowicz, Ferguson, Dale & Spivey 2009) involving moving a computer cursor:
Imagine that you start with your cursor positioned at the bottom of the screen, and in the upper corners of the screen you have buttons labeled “like” and “dislike”. Then a word appears in the middle (say, the name of a religion), and you are instructed to move the mouse as quickly as you can to your answer about whether you like or dislike people of that creed. What you don’t realize is that the exact trajectory of your mouse movement is being recorded-every position at every moment. By analyzing the path your mouse I raveled, researchers can detect whether your motor system started moving toward one button before other cognitive systems kicked into gear and drove it toward the other response. So, for example, even if you answered “like” for a particular religion, it may be that your trajectory drifted slightly toward the “dislike” button before it got back on track for the more socially appropriate response. (Eagleman 2011: 60-61)
What Eagleman never considers (and neither did the authors of the research) is the question of what makes a response more appropriate than another. This also characterizes all his discussions of morality. Actually it also characterizes his discussions of apparently purely cognitive tasks. Early in the book he discusses plane spotters during the Battle of England of the Second World War. But he does not ask: What led to this war? Why should spotting planes be important (and why might it not have been important during the First World War?
Now, of course, asking such questions led Durkheim to consider the possibility of “social facts.” Asking similar questions leads recent sociologists and anthropologists claiming Durkheim as an ancestor to ponder the mechanisms for establishing that this is disapproved, or for enforcing the disapproval (policemen, anti-defamation leagues, etc.). In Gibson’s case one might also ponder where the alcohol comes from (when, how, through whom did Tequila enter Hollywood?). And, of course, how did antisemitism become something to sanction when the reverse had been true for so many centuries?
But, a keen doctoral student might ask, is it not the case that neuroscience confirms Bourdieu (and Parsons, etc.) on the foundations of sociability and the reproduction of social patterns?
More on that another day…
Wojnowicz, M. T., Ferguson, M. J., Dale, R., & Spivey, M. J. (2009). The self-organization of explicit attitudes. Psychological Science, 20, 1428-1435. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9280.2009.02448.x