Inaugural Post: Sociology and the Cognitive Sciences21 min read

The situation as we see it

Sociology today stands at a crossroads. The main issue is how to deal with the emergence of the cognitive neurosciences as a major player in the explanation of human action. As Turner (2007b) has noted, the situation today is very much like that confronted by the first generation of classical social theorists regarding the then emerging lines of explanation of human action based on psychological, social psychological, and even incipient neuro-cognitive theories. Mostly, the main strategy was one of partial integration, within the context of creating both intellectual and institutional space for the unique contribution of “sociology.” This meant offering either a mode of explanation (Simmel) or a unique object of study (Durkheim) that was partially constituted but not “reducible” to neuro-cognitive factors. These two strategies of dealing with the issue co-existed uneasily in the work of Talcott Parsons, especially in trying to forge a connection between behavioral psychology, psychoanalysis, cultural anthropology, and sociology in the 1950s (Parsons and Shils 1951).

Overall, an easier approach is simply to deny that the cognitive dimension applies to sociological explanation. This usually goes together with the claim that sociology is part of the “human” sciences and these require particular approaches to explanation that sidestep the “mechanistic” or “subpersonal” approach of the cognitive sciences. Here the practice of hermeneutics and interpretation, seen as based on cultural and linguistic resources that stand above fine-grained cognitive process suffices to get the job done. Another approach based on the notion that “real” science does not require an appeal to unobserved or purely theoretical constructs adduces that the observable data on meaning and interaction is all that is sufficient and that the cognitive dimension is a superfluous addendum to what we can observe in concrete contexts.

In this last respect, throughout the 20th century, pretty much every one of the established disciplines in the social and behavioral sciences mold went through a strong stage of “non-cognitivism” or the denial that the cognitive dimension was relevant for local projects of explanation. American psychology, economics, and linguistics in the first half of the twentieth century (led by Skinner, Samuelson, and Blomfield respectively) went the strong empiricist (so-called “behaviorist”) route to focus only on third person observables. The symbolic interactionism of Herbert Blumer and subsequent followers enacted a milder version of this same route in sociology, with a nod to the importance of the exchange of significant symbols in interaction. Clifford Geertz took cultural anthropology (and later followers in cultural sociology) on the interpretative route (despite paying lip service to the importance of cognition), establishing an anti-cognitive charter based on the privileging of observables via close ethnography and an emphasis on high-level interpretation of public acts eschewing “inside the head” speculation. This anti-cognitive package would be largely adopted by sociologists almost wholesale when they got custody of the culture orphaned concept from anthropologists in the 1980s (e.g. Wuthnow 1989 chap 2).

With the advent of the “cognitive sciences” from the marriage of systems theory, operations research, and artificial intelligence in the 1950s (Mirowski 2002), each of the social and behavioral sciences not named sociology underwent either almost total (psychology, linguistics) or partial (economics, anthropology) “cognitive revolutions.” This begat cognitive psychology, cognitive linguistics, behavioral economics, and cognitive anthropology. As the cognitive sciences coalesced into an interfield in the 1970s, “avatars” of each of these disciplines joined the fold, a situation that continues to this day in traditional “definitions” of the disciplines that “count” as part of the cognitive sciences (except for economics).

Despite talk about an incipient “cognitive sociology” by people like Cicourel in the 1970s, sociology never underwent a “cognitive” revolution. Perhaps this was because it was never completely captured by strong third person behaviorisms and that conceptual substitutes for cognitive constructs (e.g. the language of significant symbols, values, ideas, and so on) were always a core part of its theoretical legacy. This situation became locked-in with the importation of seemingly “cognitive” philosophical traditions in the 1960s and 1970s such as continental phenomenology (Heritage 1984; Warner 1978), which added to the local substitute language arsenal.

Whatever the reasons, both internally derived substitutes for cognitive theorizing or strongly developed anti-cognitive traditions remained strong in sociology during the institutionalization of the cognitive sciences in the last third of the twentieth century. The result is that of all the social and behavioral sciences, sociology has arguably the weakest link to the cognitive sciences (Lizardo 2014b), despite a small (but growing) number of sociologists with a strong interest in the link between culture and cognition (Cerulo 2010). As a result, a lot of “contemporary” sociological theory sidesteps cognitive concerns, trafficking mainly in anti-cognitive or non-cognitive constructs for the explanation of action. Most sociologists are not familiar with the core debates, philosophical, meta-theoretical, substantive or empirical, animating current cognitive science. In addition, as the cognitive sciences have undergone their “second” (neuroscientific) revolution in the 21st century and have slowly transmogrified into the cognitive neurosciences, the situation becomes more poignant since these are now regularly producing discoveries of direct relevance to core concerns in the field, in terms of the theory of action and interaction (Gallese and Metzinger 2003).

Why is this necessary?

We see this blog as both responding to a need and creating an opportunity. The need is, as described above, one for a surer line of interchange between sociology and the cognitive sciences. The stance we take is not neutral. For there to be proper dialogue between sociology and the cognitive sciences, sociologists first need to become skilled in the language of the cognitive sciences. After literacy, then there comes the capacity to translate across the two fields, identify commonalities of tradition (e.g. existential and embodied phenomenology) and difference (analytic philosophy of mind). Overall, we see this as part of a larger project of revolutionizing theorizing in sociology such that there is both the development of a working vocabulary that can be used by sociologists to communicate with other denizens of the social and behavioral science landscape (Ignatow 2014; Vaisey and Valentino 2017), most of whom already “speak cognitive,” and the transformation and resolution of the usual problems that sociologists see as either endemic or special to their fields (usually covered under “social” or “sociological” theory).

In terms of opportunity, we believe a proper dialogue and closer integration between sociology and the cognitive sciences will do a lot for both fields, especially since sociology’s rich intellectual legacy and its penchant to take up big questions is structurally homologous to a similar penchant in the cognitive sciences to tackle foundational issues. In addition, we believe models of interdisciplinary theorizing (developed mostly by analytic philosophers) in the cognitive sciences, can serve as useful templates as sociologists update and redefine the practice of theorizing within their own field to meet contemporary analytic challenges (Lizardo 2014a).

Developments in the cognitive neurosciences may signal possibly mild, possibly radical, transformations in how social scientists conceive of the first person “data” obtained from poking and prodding people about their personal and interpersonal experience. The data gathered via the first person observation of action by sociological ethnographers, however, close to the action (Jerolmack and Khan 2014), may also have to be rethought if belief and attitude ascription practices and all practices of “interpretation” of the meaning of action are revealed as non-transparent conduits to such meanings (Hutto 2004).

A further opportunity comes in the translation process and developing new theoretical vocabularies and categories aimed at reinvigorating sociological research. These new vocabularies may even help us derive counter-intuitive insights about what we do and why we do it. The problem with cognitive neuroscience is that it seems to offer an impoverished basis for this purpose in a way interesting to sociologists and laypersons alike. Naturalism, in this sense, is not the best guarantee of realism, and we do not recommend that sociologists stop reading sociology and pick up Behavioral and Brain Sciences. But this is exactly the opportunity that cognitive neuroscience presents:, it tells us that our common sense accounting systems ( “folk psychology”) may be wrong and at worst no different from explaining human action than by citing demons. But this invites a different accounting system that uses a different and interpretively resonant vocabulary, beyond resorting to things like “beliefs,” “desires,” “thoughts” and “intentions.”

A forerunner in this endeavor—Pierre Bourdieu—calls this nothing less than fighting against “the grain of the whole Western cultural tradition” (Bourdieu 2017, 61) This tradition is so deeply rooted in mentalist vocabularies that, to follow another (partial) forerunner the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars (1963), having a mind is the condition of being recognized as a human (or at least capable of being anthropomorphized). But we do not believe the collapse of “common sense intentional psychology…would be, beyond comparison, the greatest intellectual catastrophe in the history of the species” (Fodor 1987, xii). If that gives a sense of the stakes involved (possibly hyperbolic), it also shows the work that sociologists can do that philosophers have already tried to do in their armchairs. Using our theoretical and empirical tools, we can develop an action accounting system that genuinely bridges the gap between brains acting and humans acting because, as sociologists know more than anyone, “we are not our brains” (Noë 2009).

The challenge is to develop a different theoretical vocabulary, forged in translation and dialogue with neuroscience. This new way of “explaining action” (unlike psychoanalysis) should remain (potentially) intuitive at the level of experience. What is needed is nothing less than replacing the (non-cognitive) theoretical architecture we’ve inherited from the 20th century, and that includes things (and words) like “structure” and “agency,” in away that does not devolve into folk psychology. A concept like practice shows the appeal of what we suggest and also intimates it is not so radical (or new), but remains ambiguous (Turner 2007a). Ironing out the ambiguities of this and other potentially useful concepts is one of the main purposes of the conversation we seek to start here.

In addition, it should provide conceptual and methodological dividends to sociologists in their established concerns, especially for dealing phenomena whose understandings are plagued by faulty theoretical architectures at the broadest levels. This is not a small set of requirements because it involves challenging the doxa of the field that is simultaneously a doxa in everyday life (Watts 2014). However, we believe this is where people who do theoretical work need to focus their energies, lest the discipline lose what must be at its core: the understanding and explanation of human action.

In this last respect, the dialogue between sociology and the cognitive sciences goes beyond the purely theoretical or speculative. This exchange has deep implications for everyday methodological practice in sociology, and ultimately for how we understand the issues that give our field its reason for existing. It is unclear, however, what undergoing a neuro-cognitive revolution would even imply for the sciences of action. The specifics of what this would mean for our usual practices of interpretation and sensemaking are highly debated issues both within and outside the cognitive neurosciences. We see these debates as ones that sociologists should be conversant with and ultimately a core part of and hope this forum is one avenue in which it can take place.

The road ahead

There are four key tasks we see as necessary for fulfilling this agenda, all of which we hope to have reflected in this blog:

(1) Reflexive Retooling

As Quine (1951) tells us, conceptual frameworks do not come neatly divided into piecemeal propositions each of which is subject to a separate judgment of assent or dissent. Instead, they come as part of holistic “webs” involving interrelations between many concepts. Changing the meaning of one concept has implications for a series of others. No concept is out of bounds or protected by its purely analytic status. This presents a satisfactory blueprint for the theorizing we advocate.

For instance, changing the meaning of “belief” from a representation to a habit (see Strand and Lizardo 2015) has a series of implications for any action accounting system that relies on actors trafficking in picture-like beliefs (like interpretivism or the desire-belief-opportunity models). Alternatively, drawing an analytic contrast between established concepts like “frames” and “schemas” by using a multimodal understanding of culture opens an entirely different set of questions (Wood et al. 2018). We call this theory work “reflexive retooling” because it involves concentrated attention on an accepted concept (often used non-reflexively), reinterpreting them in line with neuroscientific frames, problematics, and research in mind, and spelling out its implications for the larger conceptual webs that are built upon it in sociology. Similar work could be done for “desire,” “intention,” “attitudes,” “wants,” “wishes,” “agency,” etc.

(2) Translations/Dialogues

Much of the work in the field (formerly known as) “culture and cognition” took the form of summarizing research from cognitive science and drawing out its implications for sociological theory and practice (see DiMaggio 1997; Cerulo 2010). There is a need for this more than ever, especially doing the true translation of making the research resonant for sociological problems in both critical and productive, problem-solving ways that alter the sociological gaze (if we are right). A prime example of this is the translation of “dual process” models into sociologically relevant problematics and terminologies (like action) (Vaisey 2008; Lizardo et al. 2016). On the flipside, a dialogue with cognitive neuroscience can be started from the opposite end: how are sociological frames and problematics needed by cognitive neuroscience? Examples would include mirror neurons or the self-model of subjectivity and their necessary social correlates, which are however derived entirely independently of any knowledge of sociology. Further topics might include an examination of the acquisition and origins of folk psychology, or enculturation and the effects of extra-psychological (stratified, differentiated) conditions of existence as mechanisms of cognitive imprinting.

(3) Shedding Light on Substantive Issues

Another line of research involves engaging with issues of substantive empirical interest. This can take two forms: first, reinterpretations or retheorizations of current research from a perspective that applies new theoretical vocabularies and critiques mentalist assumptions (often unacknowledged) embedded in current explanatory frameworks; second, the application of new theoretical vocabularies to develop entirely different explanations or add substantive insights about phenomena that have not yet become topics of investigation which follows from a reconsideration of the notion of belief as practice. An example of the latter would introduce “hysteresis” as a phenomenon of investigation emerging from a practical understanding of belief (Strand and Lizardo 2017). An example of the former would be work trying to reinterpret belief-based explanations of action involving topics like teenage pregnancy or religious conversion (Strand and Lizardo 2015), or work vying to reframe research on educational attainment using an understanding of culture informed by multimodal understandings of cognition (Lizardo 2017).

(4) Building New Vocabularies

Finally, there is the most room available for building new theoretical vocabularies that direct sociological research in new and different directions by unlocking entirely new sets of phenomena (Martin 2015). This is the most exciting front opened by a cognitive neuro-revolution, as proven by other fields. An example from outside the field is articulating “alief” as a belief-like attitude that is non-representational to make a critical distinction with “belief” as an all too representational and homogenous description of mental states (Gendler 2008). In sociology, examples include developing an “evocation model” of cultural meaning in which external symbols are venues of meaning because they afford access to inarticulate traces of cognitive experience (Lizardo 2016). Or trying to decipher an understanding of “being-in” a world as an ontology with the least problematic set of assumptions for sociology (Strand, n.d.). Creative work beckons in this area as the fundamental core that will push sociology in the right direction at the crossroads.


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