Cognitive Micro-Foundations for Theories of Social Change

One of the core questions addressed by my PhD has been what I’ve termed ‘the biographical dimensions of social change’ and the methodological implications of how personhood is conceptualised for how these theories are deployed in practice. I’ve argued that one of the (many) problems with the ‘individualization’ and ‘detraditionalization’ literature is that in the absence of an account of reflexivity as mediating between structure and agency, the use of this body of ideas to make sense of empirical data will tend to simply amalgamate the macro and the micro rather than linking them in an explanatory way. One of the most obvious signs of this is a tendency to vacillate between the particular and the general, with concrete states of affairs contextualised in terms of broader processes but not specifically explained in terms of them. I’m increasingly framing my point here in terms of cognitive micro-foundations. My problem with the detraditionalization literature is because it is founded upon Giddensian cognitive micro-foundations, which leave no real space between depth psychology and social practices. This leaves it construing the ‘biographical dimensions of social change’ in terms which are over or under socialised. I’m wondering if I should go back and reframe my opening chapters in these terms or if this is a potential time waster. I do think it would make the thesis hang together more coherently than it does at present.

3 thoughts on “Cognitive Micro-Foundations for Theories of Social Change

  1. I guess the question here, Mark, is how ‘biological’ you want to be.

    I have a lot of time for the work of Jaak Panksepp (see e.g. Panksepp and Biven [2012] The Archaeology of Mind: Neoevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, WW Norton). The nice thing about his work is how it can be linked to other ‘higher’ levels of argument, i.e. it is not reductionist but rather helps expand understanding. For example, one of his seven basic brain systems he calls SEEKING (caps to separate this from common sense usages). Unlike many simplistic theories that see SEEKING as driven by the consummatory reward to which it may lead, he sees seeking as a system in itself. I corresponded with him briefly about this and the exchange may interest you as an illustration:

    SKM: “I expect you have thought of this idea—and/or had others say it to you—but just in case that is not so… Your points about SEEKING in Archaeology, esp. around p. 142, seem very closely linked to (indeed, arguably provide the underlying architecture for) FLOW as described by Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. I liked his work, and have experienced flow—and the subjective state you describe as arising from SEEKING many times—playing chess, researching ideas, etc. Of course this is not consummatory, you are spot on. It is anticipatory …”

    JP: “Yes, flow indeed! As long as it is not combined with arousal of negative affective systems, which can then contribute to obsessive-compulsive patterns. More than anything the SEEKING System also is surely the foundation for Spinoza’s conatus. Strange that it is still called “The Brain Reward System” by many, when there are various rewarding systems in the brain, and it has been evident for decades that this one does not mediate consummatory pleasures.”

    Thus, I’d say, if you really wanted a biological grounding for individual cognition, you could well start with Panksepp’s 7 systems ( SEEKING, RAGE, FEAR, LUST, CARE, PANIC/GRIEF and PLAY—systems he argues that are discernible in all mammalian brains) and look at how they are linked with behaviour, always knowing that different socio-cultural contexts would harness/hobble these in multiple and varied ways.

    Personally, I take the view that this takes one back, in a way, to the nub of Durkheim’s argument about social facts as things. He wanted us not to link to individual psychology but instead see the social as a reality sui generis. Hence as we know Suicide is about the conditions for differing rates of suicide not about understanding individual self-harm. I think that is a do-able enterprise: that is, one could simply take the 7 systems as givens and explore the social contexts that do this harnessing and hobbling in their myriad ways. But this is not what I see many sociologists actually doing. More often I see Durkheim’s position implicitly or explicitly waved around as an excuse not to engage in-depth with psychology and cognitive/biological studies while at the same time creating (in blithe ignorance) implicit or explicit models of individual motivation (etc.) that stray into those areas and are, frankly, often naïve and sometimes just plain ‘wrong’. As an example, I think sociologists frequently stray back towards a Cartesian dualism with a view of some disembodied ‘mind’, albeit as a receptacle for various contextually provided beliefs more than pure reason. (In a way I think this is what Garfinkel was on about in coining the idea that Parsonian mainstream sociology saw people as ‘cultural dopes’.)

    So, I’d recommend Panksepp. He is not easy reading but well worthwhile and if this does take your fancy there is a good start to be had by listening to some podcasts from Ginger Campbell’s interviews with him at 🙂



  2. Hi Stephen, I just wrote a long reply to your post, accidentally deleted it, wrote another slightly shorter reply and then accidentally deleted that as well – frustratingly by making exactly the same key combination that causes wordpress to discard the open comment and edit the one it’s a response to… so apologies for the brevity, which is something I wrote on the previous and much less brief comment as well…

    Basically I’m with you for 90% of the way on this. I’m just not willing to take the psych model as a ‘given’ – I think there’s a homologous trend across quite a disparate array of areas (the most recent ones I’ve encountered being psychosocial studies and manuel castells discovering cognitive science) which amount to amalgamation as a strategy to bridge the explanatory gap between individual psychology and social processes. So psychoanalysis and cognitive science respectively are being deployed to overcome a perceived explanatory deficiency. I have no practical alternative (yet!) but rather than combining a model from A and a model from B, I’d like to better understand the gaps and occlusions in both A and B which result from their disciplinary histories. As a practical project to try and flesh this out a bit, I’m planning a (friendly) sociological critique of Robert Kegan’s work, though have no idea when I’ll get started on this. I’m very aware of needing to engage with substantive detail to flesh out my abstract argument.

    To put it another way: I think your notion of contextual ‘harnessing and hobbling’ needs unpacking. I realise you’re using short hand but it still seems to suggest that observable variability is a matter of social factors inflecting otherwise uniform responses. This may very well be true but my point about amalgamation is that without overcoming the disciplinary divide, this is built into the approach from the outset as an implicit model. I’m far from certain about how to do it or if it’s possible but my intuition is that we need to take a hammer to the whole disciplianry architecture of how the individual social is construed and put the pieces back together in a new way.

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