Learning from Social Species

Humans’ capacity to recognize and analyze sociality—the task of social theory—is perhaps at a transformative moment. The contours are clear in the frustrations and uncertainties over the role of theory in guiding analysis of the large forces, of our own making, working upon humanity at this moment. After a phase heralding the “death of theory,” scholars are reengaging fundamental questions about what constitutes proper subjects of social analysis and how to guide our thinking and vision in theorizing an array of forms and forces that shape daily interactions among our species.[1] The great intuitions that initiated this mode of thinking—the arbitrariness of conventions guiding our actions and beliefs; the impersonal differentiation of conspecifics into unequal roles and positions—arose as industrialization and urbanization were transforming the planet. As cultural anthropologists scoured remote reaches of the planet to find humans seemingly yet untouched by these developments, sociologists largely worked within the crucible, documenting how institutions came to dominate and determine individuals’ fortunes. What they shared, then and now, is an understanding that some “whole,” greater than its “parts,” contours our behaviors and beliefs.

How to theorize that whole is an ongoing concern, momentarily generating rough forms of consensus which are soon undermined and revised. Consistently, though, the core subject or focus has been our species. This may have been understated and obvious for sociologists, while many cultural anthropologists assented to a conceit that “culture” is what makes our species unique. Increasing evidence of nonhuman cultures, though, is assailing that notion, and the very endeavor to comprehend the gamut of similarities in modes of sociality in animal, plant, and insects worlds are opening a breach that allow us to think differently about the social.[2] Instead of limiting our efforts to theorize sociality to our own species, why not look more broadly, letting our thoughts range more widely? The counterpoint is that such a quest draws us into direct confrontation with that which formed the oppositional basis for the articulation of the social sciences at their inception—the natural sciences.

Despite various recent manifestations of the “species turn”—efforts in the humanities to disrupt anthropocentric assumptions that disregard nonhumans—it is unclear this enthusiastic gesture will generate much capacity to extend our thinking about other species. This is simply because these projects remain ensconced within various trappings of human social theory, as inherited intellectually, and for the lack of really effective means for knowing nonhumans. The latter, of course is the purview of the natural science, and this knowledge base is similarly ensconced in a theoretical orientation from which the social sciences, largely, have tried to break—evolution. Since Darwin, numerous social theorists have tried to carve out a space apart from the evolutionary maw: the unique capacity of the human mind or our varied social structures were regarded as not subject to the same processes that produced every other species. The arbitrariness of convention and the power-laden operation of institutions are not directly influenced by natural selection. But evolutionary theory is undergoing an array of challenges, many of which involve thinking more socially about selection.[3] The transformative moment I imagine here is that these oppositions may be managed and calibrated such that when we in the humanities say “social” we do so from a much broader knowledge and incorporation of nonhumans.

What is required for social theory—as derived from decades of work in anthropology and sociology—to take on a wider scope, to draw from and generate claims that pertain to social species widely?[4] Acquiring a capacity to think across an array of life forms involves suspending some creedal touchstones while learning to adopt unfamiliar techniques and concepts. This starts with “culture.” Though cultural anthropologists are loathe to agree to any concise and consistent definition of this concept, and are even ambivalent about deploying it in relation to their own subjects, they are generally absolutely certain that it serves as a screen of representations that prevents us from ever knowing nonhumans directly. In this view, culture assures that we only engage with symbols and signs, discourses and narratives, never accessing anything “outside” of this dense “web” of signification. This stance is well-supported and valuable but has limitations. The principal drawback is that it constrains what we can learn from other species; if they are only ever representations, projections of our social order, than there is nothing of import we can take from encounters with other life forms.

The “species turn,” particularly as expressed through “multispecies ethnography,” suggests a dissatisfaction with this too narrow view of sociality. But how to proceed in developing reliable accounts of such encounters if “critique” is your inherited mode of intellectual engagement? Cultural anthropologists critique ideologies and reveal the operation of power to which, perhaps, our social subjects have been oblivious or purposefully ignorant. This role will endure, but it is an insufficient basis to challenge anthropocentric definitions of sociality. To think the social as broadly as possible, and perhaps to revise long-standing assumptions about its operation among humans, requires expanding the conceptual and methodological repertoires to which we are habituated. That protracted process is the central concern of this project, Social Theory for Nonhumans, and it results in a familiar perceptual and cognitive transformation. When I learned cultural anthropology I developed the capacity to see commonalities across distinct groups within humanity (cultures); seeing the social across distinct species involves a similar transformation. Here the foundations are different—this vision derives from Darwin’s intuition that humans are part of, rather than detached from, the web of life. But of all those species out there, only some are social. What can we learn from them about the wholes that constitute our daily lives; what might we be able to see differently based on these commonalities?

What is Social Theory?

This question concerns a subject broad in scope and quite nuanced. But for the sake of brevity it can be rendered via some basic strokes.[5] The triumvirate, Durkheim, Weber, and Marx, developed a perspective on the global tumult of Nineteenth Century by discerning the role of unseen forces infusing and impinging upon the lives of humans. Unlike chemical properties and biological processes, which could all be ocularly rendered, social processes shaping the division of labor in emergent capitalist societies were not visible in a reductive manner. Legible, certainly, in the growth of cities and the exploitation of colonies, but only by detaching from sensory-based empiricism and cultivating a capacity to perceive patterns where most people only recognized distinct, unique individuals lives. For sociology, this entailed generating statistics—the type of data Durkheim relied upon to reveal in that most personal of all gestures, taking one’s own life, the influence of social factors. For anthropology, attending to conventions—how they are imbibed and reproduced—involved tracking structures (kinship and language) and analyzing rituals. But these respective approaches entailed seeing more than meets the eye in a social setting—seeing patterns informing the words and thoughts, gestures and actions of individuals, of which they themselves are not entirely aware.

In this sense, theory in the social sciences was characterized less by its predictive capacity—as in the natural science—and more for its original connotations in Greek—to see. Eventually, and largely through critique, that capacity to see was revealed as distinctly raced, gendered, and classed—white, male, and privileged. Though social theory can be somewhat distinguished from the “god trick” of objectivity in the natural sciences, it certainly embodied a series of advantaged positions and perspectives within the orders it sought to analyze. And as those social orders changed—as Fordism stabilized productive forces in the Twentieth Century, until giving way to our neoliberal mode of Flexible Accumulation (Harvey, 1991)—the subjects, who wielded this form of theory and to which is was applied, also changed. Until recently, when it seemed to have run its course or at least fractured into schizophrenia. In cultural anthropology George Marcus declared, “there are no new ideas and none on the horizon,” after concluding that the “theoretical surges” from “feminist studies, media studies, postcolonial and subaltern studies, science studies, etc.” had entirely “dissipated” (2008:3);[6] even as a series of “turns”—in addition to species, see the affective, new materialist, ontological, post-humanist turns—generated new ways of thinking. Broadly, these turns involve some aspect of non-representational theorizing (Thrift, 2008), turning away from meaning and language as a model for sociality, flattening the subject and thinning descriptions that previously were championed for being “thick.” Bruno Latour, at first, argued for dissolving “the social” altogether as an analytic (1999), then grudgingly sought to reassemble it through a series of strategies that incorporate an array of nonhuman actors (2007). But if “everything” becomes social in this flattening, this subject becomes hard to think about and recognize.

Pendulums only swing so far, and the case for social theory is raised again by new voices. As those debates continue, this is an opportune moment to suggest a more fundamental reorientation of projects theorizing sociality. Granted, human societies are distinct, with states and market economies, but are the social dynamics underlying them all that different from those operating in other social species? Answering this question involves extending the comparative perspective that made possible a vision that aligned hugely different groups and tribes . . . now to other species. What I propose is developing a close attention to current research on social species in the natural science, in order to learn something about these other life forms but also to question what is constitutive of the social. Is there a genetic or biological basis, such that these strata may reveal homologies or analogies between versions of sociality? Contrastingly, is the social consistently some form of emergent phenomenon that phase shifts into something greater than its individual components? Can we think these two questions in concert, and to what effect?

In order to learn from social species, I’m suggesting two directions. First, resort to some of the simplest, “classic” articulations of social theory. For that work I’m tapping Gabriel Tarde and Erving Goffman. Second, consider three modalities of sociality in concert; these are nonhuman cultures, the realms of domesticated species, and the division of labor as constituted among bacteria and eusocial insects. Tarde and Goffman each thought about sociality across species lines, so they offer excellent starting points for considering these distinct modalities, which each involve different scales and dynamics of social interaction; but each prods at nettlesome questions about how we can talk and think about something like sociality as operating in highly differentiated species simultaneously. But given concerns about the ideological and political status of “nature,” turning to the natural sciences in this way entails a multi-leveled form of attention. In reading science journals and annotating articles for their relevance to rethinking social theory, I will be deploying a multi-tiered form of attention, focusing on: (1) keeping up with recent research on nonhumans, developing a current knowledge base; (2) reading for “interesting” ideas or findings, guided by how this material might enliven or revise aspects of social theory; (3) watching critically for instances of “naturalizing” or “biologizing” social hierarchies or concepts; (4) looking for opportunities to think and theorize across species; (5) considering what types of cross-disciplinary literacy is necessary for pursuing approaches such as multispecies ethnography. Of these reading stances, number 2 is perhaps the most challenging to articulate; “interesting” is a word that’s used so loosely but consistently to do delineate what is worth thinking about or not. “Interesting” will hinge upon the kinds of audiences this project will potentially generate. But taken in concert, these suggest a dual role for cultural analysis in the life science—maintaining an attention to the socially interested (or “loaded”) aspects of scientific objects while also learning (through gleaning and rearticulating) new means of looking at and developing interesting accounts of the world.


1. For a summary of the “death of theory” polemic, see Benton (2005) http://www.chronicle.com/article/Life-After-the-Death-of-Theory/44910, Eagleton’s After Theory (2004), and Dirks et al. 1998. The “revival” of social theory is perhaps best demonstrated in exchanges on The Sociological Imagination website, (Jana Bacevic, “Theory as practice: for a politics of social theory, or how to get out of the theory zoo,” June 30, 2017) http://sociologicalimagination.org/archives/19419 and the upcoming conference, “The Practice of Social Theory,” at Cambridge University (September 2017); also see Abend 2008 and Swedberg 2016.

2. For a survey of nonhuman culture, see De Waal 2016.

3. On this transformation, see Meloni 2014.

4. In contrast to a generic stance that ‘everything is social’ (Ingold and Palsson 2013), it matters to understand and think through why only some species are social.

5. There are copious compendiums of social theory; for this undertaking, I used Law 2015, as my touchstone.

6. On this dour view, also see Comaroff 2010.


Abend, Gabriel. 2008. “The Meaning of ‘Theory.’” Sociological Theory 26 (2): 173–99.

Benton, Thomas H. 2005. “Life After the Death of Theory.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 29. http://www.chronicle.com/article/Life-After-the-Death-of-Theory/44910.

Comaroff, John. 2010. “The End of Anthropology, Again: On the Future of an In/Discipline.” American Anthropologist 112 (4): 524–538.

De Waal, Frans. 2016. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? New York: Norton.

Dirks, Nicholas. 1998. In Near Ruins: Cultural Theory At The End Of The Century. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Eagleton, Terry. 2004. After Theory. New York: Basic Books.

Goffman, Erving. 1982. Interaction Ritual-Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. New York: Pantheon.

Harvey, David. 1991. The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change. Oxford England; Cambridge, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell.

Ingold, Tim, and Gisli Palsson, 2013. Biosocial Becomings: Integrating Social and Biological Anthropology. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Latour, Bruno. 1999. Pandora’s Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

———. 2007. Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press.

Law, Alex. 2015. Social Theory for Today: Making Sense of Social Worlds. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Marcus, George E. 2008. “The End(s) of Ethnography: Social/Cultural Anthropology’s Signature Form of Producing Knowledge in Transition.” Cultural Anthropology 23 (1): 1–14.

Meloni, Maurizio. 2014. “How Biology Became Social, and What It Means for Social Theory.” The Sociological Review 62 (3): 593–614.

Swedberg, Richard. 2016. “Before Theory Comes Theorizing or How to Make Social Science More Interesting.” The British Journal of Sociology 67 (1): 5–22.

Tarde, Gabriel de. 2009. The Laws of Imitation. New York: BiblioBazaar.

Thrift, N. J. 2008. Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect. New York: Routledge.