What is social behavior, and how has that changed?

Consider someone praying, alone, in front of an altar.  Is this a social behaviour?  Most psychologists working before 1950, certainly 1920, would probably have answered ‘yes’; the activity is demonstrably being shaped by, and takes the form it does, because of that person’s previous social experiences and group membership.  It seems exceedingly unlikely that someone who had never been immersed in the traditions of the church would find themselves praying at this alter, in this physical position…

If you were to ask experimental social psychologists and neuroscientists the same question today, we would find the opposite answer most frequently given: praying is not a social behaviour.  The reason for this is that, within today’s experimental psychology and neuroscience, the social is characterised by two features.  Firstly, within contemporary thinking, the social refers toobjects of cognition (the things which our cognitions are directed towards) and not forms of cognition (the particular shape of those cognitions).  Cognitions, or behaviours, which are present, or altered, by group membership (such as praying) are not social under this framework.  Instead, a social cognition is simply one related to the understanding of other people in the immediate vicinity…

An exception to the rule that we are inherently social creatures is believed to be found in autism.  As described in the introduction, social abnormally is taken to be a, or even the, primary symptom in autistic spectrum conditions.  At the most general level, I think we can easily show that the description of autism as social disorder is reliant upon the contemporary construction of the social, outlined above.  In psychology’s first sense of the social, where praying is social, individuals with autism are demonstrably able: as noted earlier in this essay, many individuals with autism take part in one of the most significant self-advocacy movements of all time.  People with autism are clearly able to join groups, have their behaviours shaped by membership of those groups, and so forth.  It is only when the social is understood as being related to interpersonal conduct that autism becomes conceivable as social disorder residing within an individual who has difficulty with, for example, feeling empathy.

A fantastic essay on the intersection of our ideas of sociality, how those ideas have changed, and autism.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s