Exploring Genetics and Social Structure

Bearman, Peter Shawn

Just about every week the Science Times—one of the places where science meets the public enthusiastically reported on new research findings that revealed the genetic basis for something (intelligence, voting behavior, obesity, depression, sexual behavior, religiosity, orgasms, altruism and egoism, generosity, thrift, and, of course, earwax type). Aside from the earwax, the phenomena reported to be “genetic” were largely of sociological interest. Yet sociologists were rarely discussed in these articles. Meanwhile, the prevailing sentiment of the discipline appeared to be that the emphasis on genetic expression as explanation for human behavior and social outcomes was at best undermining sociological perspectives and at worst a return of the eugenicist project of the first half of the 20th century. The two reactions—enthusiastic embrace and uncritical adoption (as represented in the Science Times) and fear and loathing (from sociologists)— appeared to be in some tension. However, thinking about it a little more, one realizes that they arise from the same source: a naive overvaluation of “genetics.”


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American Journal of Sociology

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Academic Units
Interdisciplinary Center for Innovative Theory and Empirics
University of Chicago Press
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February 18, 2015