Monday, July 04, 2011

Mirror neurons and the social sciences

At first sight mirror neurons look relevant only for sciences that study the individual, like psychology where they can help explain and understand many phenomena. But how about the social sciences, for example sociology? Social sciences have collective phenomena as their objects, explaining why many people together behave or act in a certain way. This can be group behaviour, for example when a sociologist studies organisations; it can be aggregated individual behaviour, for example when a sociologist studies voting patterns related to the sociological background characteristics of the voters; or it can be a mixture of both, for example when a sociologist studies social movements. And there are many other themes, too, in which collective behaviour plays a part in some way play (peace research, for instance). But how could such an individual phenomenon as mirror neurons be useful here? Isn’t it a well-known fallacy to see collective phenomena, social phenomena, just as individual phenomena packed together?
If I would plead for a reduction of collective phenomena to a mere piling up of individual actions and pieces of behavior without interactions, I would walk into that fallacy, indeed. Moreover, I do not want to say that mirror neurons are relevant for every theme in the social sciences. Despite that, there is a place for them, I think. There are several sociological approaches, but wasn’t it Max Weber who in a famous definition of sociology founded social action on individual actions? For he defined sociology as: “the science whose object is to interpret the meaning of social action and thereby give a causal explanation of the way in which the action proceeds and the effects which it produces. By ‘action’ in this definition is meant the human behaviour when and to the extent that the agent or agents see it as subjectively meaningful ... the meaning to which we refer may be either (a) the meaning actually intended either by an individual agent on a particular historical occasion or by a number of agents on an approximate average in a given set of cases, or (b) the meaning attributed to the agent or agents, as types, in a pure type constructed in the abstract.” (Economy and Society, § 1; italics mine; translation Wikipedia). Seen this way, for instance, I think there is room for mirror neurons in order to understand and explain social phenomena. Mirror neurons can help us make clear for what reasons and from what causes people react to other people, to people around them, anyhow, and why they react in a certain way. They help us understand and explain why people don’t ignore other people but why they pay attention to them and why they react to them. As I see it, mirror neurons are the “missing link” between individual and group, between individual and society. It is a bit as if mirror neurons glue individuals watching each other together.

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