Linnda R. Caporael (1995) Sociality Theory and Anthropology. Psycoloquy: 6(17) Group Selection (3)

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PSYCOLOQUY (ISSN 1055-0143) is sponsored by the American Psychological Association (APA).
Psycoloquy 6(17): Sociality Theory and Anthropology

Reply to Saunders on Caparael on Group-Selection

Linnda R. Caporael
Department of Science and Technology Studies
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute
Troy, NY 12180


Sociality theory should provide descriptive structure and latitude to anthropologists. It argues that evolutionary studies of behavior can usefully focus on morphology, ecology and situated activity. At the same time, it allows that "human nature" is socially constructed and functions in the coordination of behavior.


developmental systems theory, group coordination, group selection, hierarchy, human evolution, social cognition, social identity, teleofunctionalism
1. From a Darwinian perspective, we expect species-typical human mental systems to "fit" or match environmental features that recur over evolutionary time. In Caporael (1995), I proposed that the relevant recurrent features are social. According to the model, four core configurations, repeatedly assembled as a function of joint size/task demands, constitute the "mind's natural environment." These are dyads, teams (family/work groups of 3 to 7 people), demes (face-to-face interacting communities of approximately 30-50 members) and macrodemes (collections of demes characterized by shared identity and informational interdependence without continual face-to-face interaction). These configurations repeatedly assemble generation-to- generation in evolutionary and cultural history, sequentially in human ontogeny, and in moment-to-moment everyday activity. According to this "sociality theory," core configurations afford the evolution of proper functions (Millikan, 1984), which can be functionally extended to domains for which they have not evolved.

2. Saunders (1995) would like to see this framework developed so as to be more useful to anthropologists. She would like: 1) a clear account of intentionality "humanly conceived", 2) a non-justificatory analysis of inequality and power relationships such a patriarchy, 3) a heterarchical rather than hierarchical analysis of social organization, 4) explanations for "centers of gravity" other than core configurations, including religion, ethnic identity and symbolic currency, and 5) greater attention to the research of anthropological field workers. I confess to being mystified by most of Saunders's comments. Like the two ships passing in the night, we seem to want to wind up at the same port (to judge by citations), but each of us is wondering how the other can get there by going in the opposite direction.

3. I was reluctant to use the term "heterarchy" because it does not appear in common dictionaries. Saunders is correct if she is saying there are multiple causal and contingent relations. However, there is absolutely no claim that social organization itself is necessarily hierarchical (the cognitive organization of social identity is hierarchical; Brewer, 1991). Also, the "centers of gravity" Saunders mentions (e.g., religion, symbolic currency) cannot substitute for my usage of the phrase, which was pointing to the range of group sizes associated with core configurations.

4. I hoped that sociality theory would be useful to anthropologists. Most evolutionary approaches present a list of behavior, traits or preferences (e.g., self-interest, pair-bonding, altruism, aggression) and propose arguments about why these features should be considered innate or genetically influenced (cf. Wilson, 1978; Buss, 1995). Anthropologists are called into court to testify about which behaviors appear to be universal cross-culturally, and therefore part of human nature.

5. Instead of seeking a list of diffuse traits, sociality theory developed a framework based on 1) the repeated assembly of 2) entity-context relations, which are 3) situated in time and space. This standpoint is deeply indebted for both its conceptual style and empirical resources to anthropologists (e.g., Binford, 1983; Jarvenpa & Brumbach, 1988; Lave, 1988), and I am dismayed that Saunders believes that I have dismissed their contributions when in fact they have been invaluable to my thinking.

6. Sociality theory argues that it is human nature to construct human nature. It often does not matter (and may not be knowable) whether any particular construction is "true" or not. It does matter for the coordination of behavior that some critical mass (defined relative to the behavior in question) believes it to be so. The individuals composing this critical mass are components in the repeated assembly of patriarchy, religion, national identity, and even knowledge; they also use such constructions to describe, to negotiate a world as it is known given particular locations in space and time.

7. Thus, an account of intentionality, "humanly conceived," would be in terms of the particular idioms and themes in a culture's indigenous psychology. Similarly, patriarchy, religion, national identity and other "big" sociological phenomena would be, on one hand, specific to a culture's symbolic currency, and on the other, enacted in situated activity (e.g., Lave, 1988).

8. Saunders refers to anthropologists and psychologists who work in this mode. However, her introduction of the bonding and attachment literature comes directly from the trait-list approach for human nature. (I am not suggesting Saunders advocates the approach; I'm pointing to its tenacious grip on our conceptual styles.) The disposition for bonding and attachment (BA) in the mother-infant dyad is generally considered basic to socialization and subsequent normal development. Saunders objected to identifying the dyad as a significant core configuration because the BA cross-cultural literature is "contentious." Therefore, the infant-caregiver dyad can hardly be thought of as a significant instance of repeated assembly.

9. Now, I agree that the BA literature does not make the case for the dyad as a core configuration or a repeated assembly -- and I never said it did. My argument for the dyad as a repeatedly assembled core configuration was based on considerations of morphology, ecology and situated activity. The baby must eat and somebody must hold the baby; moreover, there are a limited number of ways to hold the baby. "Holding-the-baby" may enable bonding and attachment in some cultures, but it entrains microcoordination (e.g., bodily orientation, mapping facial movements, pre-language vocalization) as part of normal development in all of them.

10. Saunders concludes her commentary saying that she would be happy to stick to appearances rather than looking for "underlying realities." But this was a concern I anticipated in my rationale for commentary: Sociality theory predicts a tension between the social construction of knowledge, which facilitates within-group coordination, and the negotiation of the habitat, which requires some correspondences with real contingencies. I would be happy (I think) if we could confidently and reliably distinguish the difference.


This work was made possible by the National Science Foundation, Grant No. SBR-9321461. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.


Brewer, M. (1991) The social self: on being the same and different at the same time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 17: 475-482.

Binford, L.R. (1983) In pursuit of the past. Thames & Hudson.

Buss, D.M. (1995) Evolutionary psychology: A new paradigm for psychological science. Psychological Inquiry, 6: 1-30.

Caporael, L.R. (1995) Sociality: Coordinating Bodies, Minds and Groups. PSYCOLOQUY 6(1) group-selection.1.caporael.

Jarvenpa, R. & Brumbach, H. (1988) Socio-spatial organization and decision-making processes: Observations from the Chipewyan. American Anthropologist 90: 598-618.

Lave, J. (1988) Cognition in practice. Cambridge University Press.

Millikan, R.G. (1984) Language, thought, and other biological categories. MIT Press.

Saunders, B.A.C. (1995) What can Caporael offer anthropology? PSYCOLOQUY 6(7) group-selection.2.saunders.

Wilson, E.O. (1978) On human nature. Harvard University Press.

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