Introducing Social Theory for Nonhumans

This project aims to rethink forms of social analysis by tapping natural sciences research on other social species. The basic idea is that we have a skewed understanding of sociality from focusing strictly on its human manifestations. Granted, ours is uniquely shaped by state structures and market economics, but other species have divisions of labor, too, and even engage in cross-species practices of domestication. More fundamentally, human sociality still turns on micro-interactions between networked subjects, in a manner quite similar to that of copious other species, from birds to bacteria. But grasping this requires an ongoing engagement with genetic, biological, and ethological research produced on such species, brought into dialogue with philosophical and social science traditions of theorizing culture and sociality.

Social Theory for Nonhumans (STNH) envisions an open-access discussion of what counts as sociality via an ongoing posting of and commentary on newly published natural sciences research. The platform’s content will principally feature my writings on a set of analytical themes, ranging from intelligence to cooperation; these will largely be generated from my ongoing efforts at multispecies analysis but will also consistently draw from recent studies and field reports concerning on nonhuman cultures and sociality. This project surveys and summarizes the variety of mediums in which sociality is studied across species, then synthesizes this work and directs it towards theorizing this fundamental dynamic in a way that disrupts assumptions that equate culture and society with what makes humans unique. The aim here is to level interdictions that impede thinking about equivalences between humans and nonhumans.

The questions here are manifold. What mediums of sociality—from communicative channels to networks of kin and allies—are readily recognizable across taxa? What forms of intelligence are requisite for establishing and maintaining groups over time and space? What are the limits to seeing commonalties in various species, and what philosophical concerns are slighted or elided in the production of lab- and field-based data on nonhumans? These questions are at the core of this project, but they cannot be answered emphatically or abstractly. The answers will be provisional, based on a two-part interplay of source material from the natural sciences worked through a mode of social science theorizing. The distinctive feature of the latter is that it includes a critical component, which is ever attentive to allegorizing tendencies and the ideological operations that seek to ground social orders in naturalistic conditions and entities. Hence, stnh, promotes an open-format of dialogue and exchange by which my efforts at theorizing sociality develop in a series of fluid, revisable formulations.

Readers will be guided in how to navigate between theoretical concepts and the surging reams of research on social species, in the process achieving the capacity to pursue and apply species thinking in a range of other context. Key concepts and relevant taxa are listed below. My ongoing writing will take three forms: (1) annotated postings of recent natural science research, highlighting interesting claims and findings that contribute to a wider rethinking of social theory; (2) keyword entries, developing a set of concepts equally applicable to humans and nonhumans that elaborate on various dimensions of sociality; (3) early chapter drafts that synthesize all of this material into a format that articulates a range of theoretical perspectives on the social. My aims in each of these modes or writing are as follows: (1) pertinence to understanding sociality generally; (2) basis for cross-species comparisons (homologies or analogies); (3) potential relevance to multispecies ethnography or openings for collaborative engagement with researchers; (4) modeling sociality in experimental frames, discussing assumptions and limits; (5) critical assessment of possible ideological projections (e.g. “biological markets); (6) potential for thinking about biological and genetic dimensions of sociality and culture. The principal audiences and interlocutors I envision for this project are: (1) those engaged in animal studies, particularly multispecies ethnography, sounding out and discerning openings for nonhuman subjects that speak directly to long-standing concerns in the humanities and social sciences; (2) natural sciences researchers who may be interested in expanding and enhancing their basic sensibilities about what counts as social, how it manifests and how its activities can be analyzed; (3) STS scholars interested in questions of knowledge production and data generation.

Core Concepts

Theory (Social or Otherwise)

Since Emile Durkheim, efforts to theorize the social have involved both drawing distinctions from disciplines like biology and chemistry while also insisting upon fact-based inquiry and claims to the scientific method. But the enduring gesture of delineating distinct orders of fact (natural and social) is increasingly undermined by dynamics such as epigenetics, by which bodies register differential impacts of social inequality that can be passed on inter-generationally without being inherited genetically. Still, theorizing the social involves basic questions of how examples are selected and developed as means of perceiving patterns of interactions that cannot be explained via an attention to individuals, whatever the species. The species used to model this subject is crucially important to the formulations of its dynamics that follow—what assumptions they reproduce, what conversations they engender (particularly comparative ones), how they perpetuate or challenge accounts of sociality in other domains?


Sociality is most clearly evident in individuals assembling and undertaking coordinated efforts that exceed calculations of self-interested actions and goals. As in humans, other species also exhibit forms of kinship, reciprocity, and mutualism, in activities as varied as collective child-rearing and foraging or hunting. But do these function in similar manners across taxa, particularly in relation to forestalling or counter-balancing forms of competition and conflict? What biological, genetic, or ecological conditions influence or enable such behaviors? To what extent do these social interactions depend on distinctive communicative channels? And how do cooperative acts complicate our understanding of rational and irrational actors in trans-species economic models. A primary focus here are practice of grooming and how they might be equated similar human activities.

The Social Brain

Intelligence and consciousness were long reserved as unique human features, but the multiply instances of tool-use and the capacity to innovate among nonhumans has challenged that delineation. “The social brain” then became a means to redraw distinctions between us and nonhumans, in terms of a theory of mind (the capacity to attribute intentions, feelings, and thoughts to others). Now that aptitude is also being recognized in other species (from birds to dolphins), generating surprising re-articulations of concepts like intelligence, emotion, and stress. Studies on this subject highlight the management of conflict and competition in group settings and equate intelligence with perceptive capacity to recognize or anticipate fraught emotional developments.


Of all these topics, networks seems to open the most potential for theorizing forms of human activity, as well. Just as “swarming” in bees and fish is being used to model distributed forms of computing, the synchronized and “contagious” dimensions of interactions among conspecifics of various taxa provokes new ways of thinking about what it is we do as our neurons are firing as we gaze into strands and screens of social media. The questions of causality and agency, affect and consciousness are similar in efforts to understand sociality for humans and nonhumans. Here the question of potential projection, by using studies of other species to ratify versions of our current or pending technological orders, is probably most intense and warrants critical reflection.


Language remains a point of steadfast insistence for those most concerned to maintain the uniqueness of human. But thanks to emergent theories on biosemiosis (Kohn), the versions of communication we delimit as language (grammar, syntax, innovation) are being recognized in other sensorial mediums and registers. The role of scents and other chemical compounds as modes of signaling that may comment on or impel the behaviors of others is evident in a range of social species, where interactional dynamics seem often to hinge on the interpretive assessments of spectators. This opens the possibility of performative dimensions of self in nonhumans, particularly in those in fission-fusion societies or in social orders where rank and dominance are fluid rather than fixed.

Niche Construction

This is a crucial concept for biologists and ecologists who are trying to revise Standard Evolutionary Theory (SET), because it argues that organisms modify their environments in such a way that the variations that follow are not based solely on random mutations. But it also maps closely to the place-based aspect of “local cultures” that are the foci of ethnography. This concept is also analogous to that of “infrastructure,” which has become the focus of analytical attention in anthropology recently (Larkin). Studies of social insects and mammals that address niche construction are choice means for formulating a mode of equivalence across the social and natural sciences.

Plasticity (Biology and Genes)

A distinctive aspect of social species is that their physical being can be altered by or responsive to local circumstance, partly through niche construction but also processes of social transmission. Phenotypic plasticity is most extreme in morphological changes in reproducing divisions of labor but they are evident, too, in a variety of milder manifestations, each in some regard hinging on social dynamics, from operations of dominance to practices of care. In the emerging Extended Evolutionary Synthesis, plasticity displaces the “gene-centric” perspective of SET, suggesting “that organisms co-direct their own evolution by systematically changing environments and thereby biasing selection” (Laland et al).

Homology & Analogy

In the natural sciences today, these key concepts are the means for thinking about forms of equivalence across species, which are seen as either the product of a shared lineage of common descent or as independent evolutionary adaptations. But these concepts have a long history, certainly within in literary studies but also in early versions of natural history (Goethe). drawing on the concept’s career—both in biology and before it crossed the “scientific threshold”[1]—suggests, contrarily, that homologies are more than social constructions; they identify commonalities that undercut a strict delineation of the human and nonhuman, as indicated by comparative genomics. As these commonalities extend beyond the strictly evolutionary, into the forms that are shaped socially, the capacity to think in terms of and to deploy homology opens up the potential of breaching the insistence upon humans as inescapably ensconced in a hermetically sealed domain of culture.


Since all vertebrates have rituals—“stereotyped behavior at times of change or crisis that allays anxiety and prepares an organism to act” (Moore)—they are a leveling analytic that applies across species. With humans, we focus on their meaning, which has allowed us to not recognize this important commonality that links us with nonhumans. Researchers analyzing nonhuman sociality are increasingly focusing on the multiple forms of ritual interaction, particularly in greeting and departing. That these might be conventional (established locally) and meaningful provides an opening to rethinking the way “meaning” has been used to differentiate humans and nonhumans. Here I will be tapping Erving Goffman’s approach to micro-interactions (which he initially developed by drawing on ethological techniques of observation and analysis) to consider how that might work in drawing out more equivalences in sociality across species.


This anthropological concept will be crucial to maintaining an attention to the interested, symbolic investments humans (scientists included) make in certain animals, rendering them as “natural” objects that reify power-laden social categories. These tendencies require constant vigilance in purveying and accessing natural science data and findings. The counterbalance this project provides is in the excessive scope and quantity of our underlying similarities—recognizing that our species being is paralleled in other species should shift reflections on these other collective life forms away from ways of principally articulating and inscribing social difference (totemisms/ideology). But some species (particularly “charismatic” ones) are consistently subject to greater investments of attention and support, so I will actively deploy the concept of totemism as a critical means of analyzing how such investments are generated and reproduced.


For decades at least, cultural analysis has been opposed to evolutionary analytics and arguments about natural selection. Aside from the fact that Darwin’s line between artificial and natural selection is increasingly difficult to maintain in the Anthropocene, evolutionary theory is being actively rethought by a variety of natural scientists who are finding that social dynamics (rather than individual competition) are consequential to the survival of many species. Kevin Laland encapsulates this perspective: “Living things do not evolve to fit into pre-existing environments, but co-construct and coevolve with their environments, in the process changing the structure of ecosystems.” (“Does Evolutionary Theory Need a Rethink?” Nature 514, 7521: 161–64.) My approach to rethinking evolution draws from my past work on formulating biocultural perspectives on race, which tapped the surging research on epigenetics. But principally my concern is with explaining how a vision of sociality (in contrast with a reductive focus on competitive individuals) is developing across the natural sciences (see also, Meloni, Maurizio. 2016. “From Boundary-Work to Boundary Object: How Biology Left and Re-Entered the Social Sciences.” The Sociological Review Monographs 64 (1): 61–78.)

Initial Taxa


Our close “cousins” make the clearest and easiest case for nonhuman forms of culture and sociality. But they also raise the question of the extent to which our versions of these are evolutionarily conserved and not entirely unique or novel. In historical terms, most efforts to discern local (place-specific, socially-transmitted) cultures in nonhumans, starts with the patterned behavioral diversity among chimpanzees. But the sheer variety of social structures and relations within this order continues to generate challenging new perspectives on sociality beyond the human.


Featuring large brains and neural structures quite similar to humans (and once assumed to be exclusively possessed by hominids), whales and dolphins evidence various forms of social conduct, from cooperative foraging to managing and contesting shifts forms of alliance and aggression. Their range of communicative capacity in acoustic registers quite outside humans’ scope of detection or production challenge assumptions about what constitutes language and social communication.


Like humans, horses in bands exist in a world of social encounters. Group life in horse societies is shaped by complex, long-term relationships that must be maintained over wide distances of time and space. Bands interact in contending for limited resources (water and forage); band-belonging shifts through fission/fusion dynamics, fueled by daily micro-interactions during which status is asserted and contested, or the boundaries of group identity are reproduced or challenged. Ethologists have assembled a corpus of observational techniques for recording these interactions, and they link such data to questions concerning sociality more broadly, analyzed across a variety of species. This perspective could be highly relevant for multispecies ethnography, yet, ethologists fixate on establishing “natural” settings for observation. I have a current ethnographic project underway, studying wild horses in Galicia, Spain, which will serve as a touchstone for evaluating new research on this species.

Birds (Aves)

In contrast to elephants and cetaceans, the manifold forms of sociality among birds suggest the social brain is not a matter of sheer size. “Avian brains have higher neuron packing densities than mammalian brains,”[*] which prompts a reconsideration of intelligence and the networking of information. Their demonstrated capacity for social learning and innovating highly complex local dialects extends already interesting formulations of the social in relation to swarming phenomena and developed networks in bird species.

Fish (Craniata)

Though forms of sociality among fish have long been evident—their collective structures range from loose (shoals) to tightly synchronized (schools)—focused attention to interactional dynamics and cooperative is fairly recent. Experimental work on these subjects is examining signaling processing and perception in innovative ways that, as with birds, shift assumptions about how to understand social intelligence. These experiments focus on foraging tactics and strategies, as well as differential stress levels for isolated fish and those in schools.

Social Insects (Hymenoptera)

Species within this order (particularly ants and bees) have been a focus of attention since the very earliest efforts to theorize the social. The complexity represented by colonies and the intense levels of cooperation they require clearly evidence sociality on a scale that parallels divisions of labor in humans—often implying troublesome questions about the naturalization of race and/or caste. But the fact that these forms of eusociality have multiple evolutionary origins within these species open up just a many suggestive questions about the basis for sociality.


Sociality at this level is quite sophisticated and intriguing, ranging from intraspecies dynamics of swarming to multispecies formations (biofilms) and interactions that also result in morphologically distinctive developments of division of labor. Bacterial colonies are often supported through the transport of fungi or other microorganisms as food and fuel to the interior spaces of these complex structures. But because bacteria occupy the guts and niches of all the above taxa, their roles in defining and revising understandings of the social are quite profound.

Taking all of these in concert raises the question of how “the social” is developed as a mobile form of attention across a range of taxa? In considering how to access and apply research on each of these life forms, I will also be evaluating how researchers stage the social—in labs or in field observations—in order to think about it comparatively. What types of assumptions are active and how are they encoded into the structure and results of experiments? But this questioning will unfold in concert with my larger aim: to defamiliarize the social and disrupt the beliefs or conceits linking it principally to humans.


1. See the range of discussions that reengage philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Metamorphosis of Plants (1790), such as Marcel Carnier Dornelas and Odair Dornelas, “From Leaf to Flower: Revisiting Goethe’s Concepts on the ‘Metamorphosis’ of Plants,” Brazilian Journal of Plant Physiology 17, no. 4 (2005): 335–343, and Gordon Miller’s critical introduction to his translation of Metamorphosis (2009).