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Introducing Vice Versa / Biosocial Science from Italian Criminology to American Post-War Studies of Prejudice December 14, 2014

Posted by Christopher Donohue in History of the Human Sciences.

This is my first post for my new blog, Vice Versa. In this post I expand on a project I began at EWP—a reconstruction of the languages of the inquiry into nature and society from Henry Buckle to the work of E. O. Wilson. At EWP, I detailed how socio-biology was in reality a number of related inquiries in constellation with distinct genealogies, methodologies, worldviews and rules of evidence. Here, I interrogate Robin Fox’s claim to the neologism of “biosocial” to describe his inquiry. Rather than take Fox at his word that his biosocial science is a unique invention, I trace the origins of the term to turn of the century discussions of biological determinism in Italian criminology and in the work of education reformer Maria Montessori.

Once there, I then follow biosocial to its embedding within behaviorist psychology and finally within post-war discussions of racial prejudice. My examination of the term biosocial is not exhaustive—Kingsley Davis used it to define his view of man as an evolved social organism—but I use a case study approach to emphasize how biosocial has always been used to highlight the importance of the social as well as the environmental and to interrogate the boundary between the biological and the natural. Much like social selection, biosocial has been utilized since the origins of the social sciences to contend with deterministic explanations.

Vice versa

Robin Fox in his Biosocial Anthropology (1975) makes something of the neologism of ‘biosocial’ to explain his community’s effort into making social inquiries like anthropology both scientific and against relativism.  Biosocial anthropology was preferable to ‘social biology’ as practiced in the UK since the latter had been historically associated with eugenics.  According to Fox, biosocial was a perfect novel term to describe his inquiry into the boundary between nature and society. To this day, and partially because of this shift in designation, social biology and biosocial science have remained distinct communities separated by the Atlantic (although social biology is much more demographic in focus.)

I remained suspicious of Fox’s claim for the novelty of this term and went about further research.  It appears that there was such a thing as biosocial science prior to Fox.  As importantly, its meaning shifted according to the bearer and according to then-forming disciplines. Bio-social…

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