Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality

Studying Human Behavior: How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality

by Helen E. Longino

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In Studying Human Behavior, Helen E. Longino enters into the complexities of human behavioral research, a domain still dominated by the age-old debate of “nature versus nurture.” Rather than supporting one side or another or attempting to replace that dichotomy with a different framework for understanding behavior, Longino focuses on how scientists study it, specifically sexual behavior and aggression, and asks what can be known about human behavior through empirical investigation.   She dissects five approaches to the study of behavior—quantitative behavioral genetics, molecular behavior genetics, developmental psychology, neurophysiology and anatomy, and social/environmental methods—highlighting the underlying assumptions of these disciplines, as well as the different questions and mechanisms each addresses. She also analyzes efforts to integrate different approaches. Longino concludes that there is no single “correct” approach but that each contributes to our overall understanding of human behavior. In addition, Longino reflects on the reception and transmission of this behavioral research in scientific, social, clinical, and political spheres. A highly significant and innovative study that bears on crucial scientific questions, Studying Human Behavior will be essential reading not only for scientists and philosophers but also for science journalists and anyone interested in the engrossing challenges of understanding human behavior.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226921822
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 01/18/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Helen E. Longino is chair and the Clarence Irving Lewis Professor in the Department of Philosophy at Stanford University. She is the author of Science as Social Knowledge and The Fate of Knowledge.  

Read an Excerpt

Studying Human Behavior

How Scientists Investigate Aggression and Sexuality
By Helen E. Longino

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-49287-2

Chapter One


Efforts to understand human behavior take many forms. Philosophers have argued about the extent and nature of will: Is it free, or are our choices the outcomes of natural events beyond our consciousness? Can our commonsense understandings of human action and behavior be reconciled with our understandings of how the physical world works? Novelists and playwrights have examined the relations of character, situation, action, and outcomes. Scientists have investigated evolutionary history to find out about the emergence of distinctively human forms of behavior and investigated the brain and nervous system to understand the neural underpinnings of action. They have studied the parental and pedagogical environment in which children acquire habits and dispositions to understand the role of social environment in the development of individuals, studied intrafamilial similarities to understand the role of shared genes in engendering dispositions, and proposed various ways of integrating the understandings gleaned from such studies. What is entertained in any of these arenas has a bearing on the plausibility and implausibility of ideas entertained in any of the others, but, for the most part, the philosophical, creative, and scientific inquiries carry on quite independently. In spite of this independence, when it comes to designing institutions, selecting policies, and adopting therapeutic practices, we place priority on being informed, where possible, by scientific research.

Given the variety of approaches to studying human behavior scientifically, by which should we seek to be informed? How should we even go about answering this question? And what do different ways of answering it assume about the nature of scientific knowledge? Just as there is an age-old question about the nature of the will, so is there a distinct, but equally old, question about human differences and similarities: are we humans products of nature or of nurture? There are more refined ways of asking this question, and we will encounter them in this book. But the question, crude as it is, animates the public and media interest in scientific research on behavior. Its salience also shapes the overall pattern of relations among different research approaches to the study of human behavior.

In this book, I examine a set of research approaches that are in one way or another engaged with the debate to understand their epistemological structure (investigative methods, assumptions, basic concepts), the kinds of knowledge they provide, and the pragmatic aims they can be seen to advance. My aim, unlike that of many recent writers on this subject, is not to enter the nature/nurture debate. Focusing on that dichotomy and on research that seems to favor one side or the other distracts both researchers and the public from attending to other questions about human behavior that may be just as valuable in addressing the pragmatic concerns we look to the sciences to help us resolve.

My examination is informed by the social epistemological account of scientific inquiry for which I have argued in earlier books. This philosophical account treats scientific knowledge as an outcome of critical interaction among different perspectives as well as of empirical engagement with a given subject matter. On this view, philosophical appraisal of research should encompass the full range of research approaches pursued in order to evaluate any one of them. This enables the analyst to see the full range of data that are collected, the range of hypotheses under consideration, and the assumptions in light of which data acquire evidential relevance to those hypotheses. While in some cases, one approach may turn out to be more empirically successful than the alternatives, in other cases, inquiry may sustain a multiplicity of viable approaches, each generating some knowledge. The question becomes not which is the best or better, but what each contributes—both in terms of positive results and in terms of critical perspectives on the others—to our overall understanding of a given phenomenon. This openness to plurality of approaches constitutes a philosophical pluralism.

The subject matter of my study is empirical research on behavior. I ask what can be known about human behavior through empirical investigation. I examine classical and molecular genetic approaches, social-environmental approaches, neuroanatomical and neurophysiological approaches, several approaches that attempt to integrate the factors studied in the aforementioned approaches, and, finally, what I call population or human-ecological approaches. Empirical research must have an object that can be observed and measured. Behavior is too vague a notion to constitute the subject of a study. Empirical studies look at particular behaviors, operationalized in specific ways that permit measurement. I have analyzed research on two families of behavior: aggressive behavior and sexual behavior. In part this is a matter of convenience and history: their study was the partial subject of an earlier book and I was consequently familiar with some of the issues. But these behaviors are also subjects of intense interest, both scientific and social, with the result that there are many studies representative of the various research approaches, studies that have generated sufficient material to make comparative analysis feasible. Furthermore, in the course of this project, I have become convinced that understanding the structure of research on these behaviors, in particular, holds very important lessons for our mode of reliance on scientific research in the design of policy and institutions.

Political Contexts

Worries about crime and violence. The politically charged character of the nature-nurture debate is evident in a controversy that overtook what started out as an attempt to assess genetic research on aggression. Rates of violent crime in the United States rose steadily through the late 1970s and 1980s, peaking in the early 1990s and beginning a slow decline in the mid- to late 1990s. In 1992 a conference entitled "Genetic Factors and Crime" was scheduled to take place on the campus of the University of Maryland with funding from the United States National Institutes of Health. Plans for the conference attracted the criticism of Peter Breggin, a psychiatrist and vocal opponent of biological psychiatry and the use of psychotropic medications. His charge of racism in the conceptual and theoretical foundations of the conference got the United States Congressional Black Caucus involved. The Caucus exerted pressure on the National Institutes of Health, which ultimately withdrew funding for the conference. Conference organizers responded by threatening a lawsuit against the NIH. The ensuing negotiations resulted in the rescheduling of the conference. It was held three years later, in 1995, in a less prominent location—a university-owned conference center on Maryland's eastern shore—and with a broader range of participants, including academic critics of biological research on social behavior and researchers working from other perspectives. Uninvited "political" critics also showed up and voiced their concerns both to conference participants and to journalists covering the affair.

The main concerns of the protesters were possible racist uses of the work or racist agendas underlying the funding of the research. There were at least two reasons for this concern. The first resides in the social milieu of the conference and of much of the research being discussed. Even now, researchers in this field include few African Americans. Americans not of African origin still carry stereotypes of African American men as bestial and as prone to criminality. Unemployment among African Americans is twice that of white Americans, and periods of unemployment for African American individuals last longer. In the United States, men of African origin are represented in the prison population at a far higher rate than in the general population. In the late 1980s and early 1990s about one-third of African American men between the ages of twenty and twenty-nine were either in prison, on probation, or on parole at any given time. Now, there are many ways to account for the disparity between African American and white arrest, conviction, and incarceration rates. Racial bias in the criminal justice system is one such factor. The overrepresentation of African Americans among the urban poor is another. In spite of significant formal gains since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the election of an African American to the presidency of the United States in 2008, much remains to be done to achieve full racial equality, and the psychological residue of formerly legal racist bias persists.

The worry about genetic research in this context is that, to the extent that it located the springs of violence within the individual, thus making it associable with other individual properties such as race, it would support treating the disparity as an outcome of natural differences. This would direct attention away from social factors and, hence, weaken support for alleviating poverty and eliminating racism in the judicial system. These concerns are similar to those that were generated by earlier research attempting to correlate race and intelligence. There the issue was whether the differential performance of members of different racial groups on standardized tests was a function of innate, genetically determined abilities, rather than a function of differential access to education or of cultural bias in the tests themselves or in the circumstances of test-taking. The critics of the violence conference recognized that the very fact that the genetic question is taken seriously by scientific researchers confers legitimacy on this view, whatever the eventual outcome of the research. This is the case regardless of the explicit motives of the researchers. That such uses might actually be part of the agenda was made plausible by ill-considered remarks by the then director of the Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, Frederick Goodwin, likening inner cities to jungles. He was undoubtedly trying to underscore the urgency of the issue of crime, but the suggestion of aspects of social Darwinism was not lost on critics of the conference.

A secondary concern derives from the more restricted context of psychoneuropharmacology. Persons opposed to what they perceive as psychiatric overreaching are concerned about the abuse of pharmacological intervention on those identified as "at risk" for engaging in antisocial behavior. They are concerned, that is, about a pharmacological normalization or pacification of the population. The primary and secondary concerns interact in political activists' expressed worry that African American children will be medicated on a wide scale as a consequence of this research. One might be tempted to dismiss this concern as unfounded or outdated. That this fear has had such currency in many sectors of African American society, however, is a sign of the deep mistrust with which African Americans regard the governing establishment in the United States and, as such, is not to be lightly dismissed.

Debates about sexual orientation. The nature-nurture debate swirls too around sexual orientation, as controversy about homosexual clergy roils established religious denominations like the Lutherans and Episcopalians, as some countries and local jurisdictions extend marriage rights to gay couples while others act to bar any such change, and as some continue to expel those who are open about their sexuality. Political operatives in the United States have notoriously used antigay sentiments to motivate socially conservative voter turnout. Until the late 1960s there was an unspoken compact in the United States concerning issues of sexuality. Monogamous heterosexual marriage was the norm. Exceptions were taken as evidence of immorality or psychological deviance and were not spoken of in polite company. Psychiatric classification of homosexuality as a mental disorder and the criminal status of homosexual sex acts consigned men and women in same-sex sexual relationships to social invisibility, leaving them vulnerable to blackmail, job loss, and thuggery. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders removed homosexuality from its list in 1973, and the United States Supreme Court declared laws against sodomy unconstitutional in 2003. The compact of silence broken, modern industrial societies have become more open to and tolerant of same-sex sexual relationships, while antigay voices have become increasingly strident.

The lines of public debate concerning the causes of homoerotic and homosexual orientation are complicated. Whereas most African Americans see as injurious research purporting to show a genetic basis for group differences in intelligence test performance or, potentially, aggression, gay activists differ in their appraisal of genetic and biological research into the etiology of sexual orientation. Researcher and activist Dean Hamer claims that acceptance of a genetic basis or cause for homosexuality will dissuade people from homophobic attitudes and make them more supportive of extending civil rights to gay people. He sees genetics and choice as the two alternative causal narratives: a choice can be punished or morally condemned, while a genetic outcome cannot be and hence must be tolerated. Other activists counter that the scientific research does not support a general thesis about the biological basis of sexual orientation and that identifying such a basis would do little or nothing to moderate homophobic tendencies. Belief in such a basis would simply encourage research into biological "cures" for homosexuality. And were a gene or gene complex found to be associated with homosexuality, parents might opt for fetal testing that would enable them to abort fetuses carrying it, just as parents in countries with a cultural preference for offspring of one or the other sex now engage in prenatal sex identification and selective abortion.

* * *

Given these social contexts, one might think it impossible to conduct impartial research into the nature and causes of behaviors covered by the rubrics of aggression and sexual orientation. But any perusal of journals of human genetics, behavioral science, psychiatry, social science, aggression, or sexuality reveals an ocean of research articles, meta-analyses, and review articles concerning such behaviors, along with theoretical and programmatic statements defending the various frameworks under whose aegis the research is conducted. This book is an effort to sort through a significant subset of this literature. My aim is to delineate the evidential and argumentative structure of empirical research on human behavior that either employs one or another biological approach or is claimed to present an alternative to such approaches. Public discussion of this research usually frames the issue as a substantive question about the causes of behavior or of differences in behavior. Among researchers the debates are understood somewhat differently: as debates about what subfields (if any) of the biological and related sciences are best adapted, most appropriate, for the study of human behavior, or, to put it another way, what research tools are most useful for such studies. Positions regarding methods, however, involve assumptions about the substantive matters. The latter, then, cannot be dismissed as part of a public (mis)understanding of scientific research.

I argue for and elaborate three principal theses, one epistemological, regarding the character of knowledge generated in this research, one ontological, regarding the object of knowledge, and one social, regarding the differential uptake and diffusion of knowledge. Epistemologically, the relation among the different research approaches is neither competitive, reductionist, nor additive but is best understood in a pluralist framework. Each approach offers partial knowledge that need not be congruent or commensurable with knowledge produced in another approach, even when they have overlapping subject matter. Ontologically, there is no single concept of behavior. Furthermore, the operationalization of particular behaviors reflects folk psychological and moral values or political concerns as much as objective properties of the phenomena. Socially, there is not enough epistemologically productive interaction among these approaches, and the patterns of research uptake distort the perception of what scientific investigation can reveal.


Studying Behavior

A given behavior can be of either primary or secondary interest to researchers. When it is the primary subject of investigation the empirical question may concern the frequency, distribution, or etiology of a given behavior or behavioral disposition. Conceptual questions have to do with what behavior is—bodily movement, intentional action, situated interaction. A mixed conceptual and empirical issue concerns the appropriate classification and distinctions to introduce regarding a particular behavior: how should it be operationalized, how distinguished from other behaviors, to which other behaviors related? Additionally, there are methodological issues: how best to study a given behavior understood as a phenomenon of a certain kind. Once these preliminaries are settled, the substantive empirical questions concerning frequency, distribution, and etiology can be addressed.


Excerpted from Studying Human Behavior by Helen E. Longino Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1 Introduction
Part 1 Approaches to Understanding Human Behavior

Chapter 2 Quantitative Behavioral Genetics
Chapter 3 Social-Environmental Approaches
Chapter 4 Molecular Behavioral Genetics
Chapter 5 Neurobiological Approaches
Chapter 6 Integrative Approaches
Chapter 7 Scope and Limits of the Approaches
Part 2 Epistemological, Ontological, and Social Analysis

Chapter 8  What We Could Know
Chapter 9 Defining Behavior
Chapter 10 The Social Life of Behavioral Science Chapter 11 A Brief Conclusion
Works Cited 

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