Social determinism

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Social determinism is the theory that social interactions and constructs alone determine individual behavior (as opposed to biological or objective factors).


Consider certain human behaviors, such as committing murder, or writing poetry. A social determinist would look only at social phenomena, such as customs and expectations, education, and interpersonal interactions, to decide whether or not a given person would exhibit any of these behaviors. They would discount biological and other non-social factors, such as genetic makeup, the physical environment, etc. Ideas about nature and biology would be considered to be socially constructed.

Social determinism and ideology

The socially determined actions of an individual can be influenced by forces that control the flow of ideas. By creating an ideology within the society of the individual, the individual's actions and reactions to stimuli are predetermined to adhere to the social rules imposed on him/her. Ideologies can be created using social institutions such as schooling, which "have become the terrain upon which contending forces express their social and political interest", [1] or the mass media, which has "significant power in shaping the social agenda and framing of public opinion to support that agenda". [2]

By creating a social construction of reality, these forces directly create a hegemonic control over the future of individuals who feel like the social construct is natural and therefore unchangeable. Their actions become based in the context of their society so that, even if they possess an innate talent for a sport, if the social construction implies that their race is unathletic in general, or their nation or state does not produce athletes, they do not include the possibility of athleticism in their future. Their society has successfully determined their actions.

Social determinism can favor a political party's agenda by setting social rules so that the individual considers the party's agenda to be morally correct, an example being the 2010 G20 summit riots in Toronto. The media, controlled by corporations and the governments with agendas of their own, publicizes the riots as violent and dangerous, but the goal of the rioters, to rebel against those whose position in power enables them to abuse the system for personal gain, is lost because the focus is on the violence. The individuals' view on the subject are then directly influenced by the media and their reactions are predetermined by that social form of control. "We have been taught to think that censorship is the main mechanism of how the media uses information as a form of social control, but in fact what is said, and how it is selectively presented, is a far more powerful form of information control." [2]

Social determinism was first studied by Emile Durkheim (1858 - 1917), French philosopher considered as the father of the social science.

Social determinism

Social determinism is most commonly understood in opposition to biological determinism. Within the media studies discipline, however, social determinism is understood as the counterpart of technological determinism. Technological determinism is the notion that technological change and development is inevitable, and that the characteristics of any given technology determine the way it is used by the society in which it is developed. The concept of technological determinism is dependent upon the premise that social changes come about as a result of the new capabilities that new technologies enable.

The notion of social determinism opposes this perspective. Social determinism perceives technology as a result of the society in which it is developed. A number of contemporary media theorists have provided persuasive accounts of social determinism, including Leila Green.

In her book Technoculture Leila Green examines in detail the workings of a social determinist perspective, and argues “social processes determine technology for social purposes”. [3] She claims that every technological development throughout history was born of a social need, be this need economical, political or military. [3]

According to Green, technology is always developed with a particular purpose or objective in mind. As the development of technology is necessarily facilitated by financial funding, a social determinist perspective recognizes that technology is always developed to benefit those who are capable of funding its development.

Thus social determinists perceive that technological development is not only determined by the society in which it occurs, but that it is inevitably shaped by the power structures that exist in that society. [3]

Arguments against social determinism

Scientific studies have shown that social behavior is partly inherited and can influence infants and also even influence foetuses. Wired to be social means that infants are not taught that they are social beings, but they are born as prepared social beings. The infants are born with an inherited social skill.

Social pre-wiring deals with the study of fetal social behavior and social interactions in a multi-fetal environment. Specifically, social pre-wiring refers to the ontogeny of social interaction. Also informally referred to as, "wired to be social." The theory questions whether there is a propensity to socially oriented action already present before birth. Research in the theory concludes that newborns are born into the world with a unique genetic wiring to be social. [4]

Circumstantial evidence supporting the social pre-wiring hypothesis can be revealed when examining newborns' behavior. Newborns, not even hours after birth, have been found to display a preparedness for social interaction. This preparedness is expressed in ways such as their imitation of facial gestures. This observed behavior cannot be contributed to any current form of socialization or social construction. Rather, newborns most likely inherit to some extent social behavior and identity through genetics. [4]

Principal evidence of this theory is uncovered by examining Twin pregnancies. The main argument is, if there are social behaviors that are inherited and developed before birth, then one should expect twin foetuses to engage in some form of social interaction before they are born. Thus, ten foetuses were analyzed over a period of time using ultrasound techniques. Using kinematic analysis, the results of the experiment were that the twin foetuses would interact with each other for longer periods and more often as the pregnancies went on. Researchers were able to conclude that the performance of movements between the co-twins were not accidental but specifically aimed. [4]

The social pre-wiring hypothesis was proved correct, "The central advance of this study is the demonstration that 'social actions' are already performed in the second trimester of gestation. Starting from the 14th week of gestation twin foetuses plan and execute movements specifically aimed at the co-twin. These findings force us to predate the emergence of social behavior: when the context enables it, as in the case of twin foetuses, other-directed actions are not only possible but predominant over self-directed actions." [4]

See also


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