Four arguments for the cognitive social sciences20 min read

Despite increasing efforts to integrate ideas, concepts, findings and methods from the cognitive sciences with the social sciences, not all social scientists agree this is a good idea. Some are indifferent to these integrative attempts. Others consider them as overly reductionist and, thereby, as a threat to the identity of their disciplines. As a response to many social scientists’ skepticism towards psychology and cognitive science, cognitive social scientists have provided arguments to convince other social scientists about the benefits of integrating the social sciences with the cognitive sciences. In this blog post, that is based on a recently published article co-authored with Matti Sarkia and Mikko Hyyryläinen (Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019), I briefly outline and evaluate four arguments for the cognitive social sciences. By cognitive social sciences, I refer to scientific disciplines that aim to integrate the social sciences with the cognitive sciences, including disciplines like cognitive anthropology, cognitive sociology, political psychology, and behavioral economics. By interdisciplinary integration, I mean different ways of bringing disciplines together.

Each argument presupposes a different idea about how the cognitive sciences should be integrated with the social sciences. These arguments can be referred to as explanatory grounding, theoretical unification, constraint and complementarity. Different arguments also subscribe to different visions as to how the cognitive social sciences might look like and make different assumptions about social phenomena and scientific explanations of them. Hence, different arguments provide reasons for engaging in different types of research programs in the cognitive social sciences. For these reasons, it is important not only to reconstruct these four arguments but also to take a closer look at their presuppositions and implications.

I will address each argument in two stages. First, I provide a reconstruction of the argument by specifying its premises, inferential structure and conclusion. Then I briefly evaluate the argument by analyzing some of its presuppositions and the plausibility of its premises. Although I do not claim these four arguments to be the only arguments for the cognitive social sciences, I believe that they are among the most important and influential ones. In addition, while I attribute each argument to a particular author, in the longer piece we also point to other cognitive social scientists who have proposed similar arguments (see Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019).

Argument from explanatory grounding

Ron Sun (2012) presents the argument from explanatory grounding for the cognitive social sciences. Here is the reconstruction of Sun’s argument that we provided in our paper:

  1. Most social scientists do not currently make use of the knowledge produced in the cognitive sciences when they explain social phenomena.
  2. Cognitive processes are the ontological basis of social processes.
  3. Explanations in the cognitive sciences are deeper than explanations in the social sciences because they bottom out in cognitive processes.
  4. If social scientists ground their explanations in the cognitive sciences, their explanations for social phenomena would become deeper than they are at present.
  5. Conclusion: the social sciences should be grounded in the cognitive sciences (Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019, 3).

It is important to recognize that Sun’s argument presupposes that the explanatory grounding relation between the cognitive and social sciences is asymmetrical. This means that if the social sciences are grounded in the cognitive sciences, then the cognitive sciences cannot be grounded in the social sciences.

Sun’s key premises 2 and 3 rest on the requirement that scientific explanations should reflect the ontological order of reality. This means that higher-level processes should be explained by the models that represent their lower-level component processes that form the ontological basis of the higher-level processes. Since Sun (2012) assumes that cognitive sciences study cognitive processes that are ontologically more fundamental than social processes studied in the social sciences, he expects that the cognitive sciences are capable of providing deeper explanations for social processes than those currently provided in the social sciences. He does not claim, however, that these cognitive explanations would explain social processes away (e.g. by means of ontologically reducing them to cognitive processes or eliminating them from scientific ontology). In other words, the idea of explanatory grounding of the social sciences in the cognitive sciences is compatible with the assumption that social processes have weakly emergent properties that can be mechanistically explained (e.g. Kaidesoja 2013).

Although it does not reduce social phenomena to cognitive phenomena, the idea of asymmetrical explanatory grounding may pose unnecessary constraints for the development of the cognitive sciences. There is no good a priori reasons to exclude the possibility that the social sciences might have something useful to offer to those parts of the cognitive sciences that address the cognitive aspects of social phenomena. For example, social scientists may indicate that some cognitive mechanisms have social aspects that have been ignored by cognitive scientists. In addition, while Sun (2012) tends to assume that the explanatory grounding of the social sciences in the cognitive sciences should be based on a cognitive architecture that provides a unified theory of the mind, such as his own CLARION architecture, this assumption can be challenged on three grounds. First, many competing cognitive architectures exist and it is not clear which one should be chosen for the purposes of explanatory grounding. Second, mechanistic approach to explanation is perfectly compatible with the idea of local (or phenomenon-specific) explanatory grounding that may proceed without a unified theory of mind. Third, at least arguably, local attempts at explanatory grounding have turned out to be more fruitful than global attempts that rely on unified cognitive architectures.

For these and some other reasons we discuss in the article, it seems that the local version of the explanatory grounding argument is more promising than the global one. The local explanatory grounding arguments are presented in the context of explanatory research on particular social phenomena, such as transactive memory, collaborative learning or moral judgements. In addition, at least some social phenomena may be grounded in cognitive mechanisms understood in an externalist way, meaning that these cognitive mechanisms include important technological, social and/or cultural aspects in addition to brain-bound aspects (see Miłkowski et al., 2018). Cognitive mechanisms of this kind have been theorized and studied in the so called 4E (i.e. embodied, embedded, enactive and extended) approaches to cognition as well as in distributed and situated cognition approaches.

Argument from theoretical unification

Herbert Gintis (e.g.  2007a, 2009, 2012) has developed an argument for a unified and cognitively informed behavioral science. We reconstruct Gintis’s argument as follows:

  1. Scientific disciplines that study the same domain of phenomena should be conceptually and theoretically unified with one another.
  2. The behavioral sciences all study the same domain of phenomena, which have to do with the decision-making and strategic interaction.
  3. Hence, the behavioral sciences ought to be unified with one another.
  4. Conclusion: Unification of the behavioral sciences requires a unified framework for modeling decision-making and strategic interaction in a way that takes into account the contributions of different behavioral sciences (Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019, 6).

Although theoretical unification surely is one of the epistemic criteria used in scientific evaluation, the problem with Gintis argument is that it fails to notice that it is not the only one nor even the most important one. Indeed, many philosophers of science and social epistemologists have argued that a diversity of perspectives on the world is essential for scientific progress both in the natural sciences and in the social sciences (e.g. Longino, 1990; Weisberg & Muldoon, 2009). This means that the requirement for theoretical unification becomes problematic if it is used to suppress other research programs in the cognitive social sciences. The argument from theoretical unification largely ignores these points.

In addition, it is not at all clear whether Gintis (2007a; 2009; 2012) succeeds in integrating the social sciences with the cognitive sciences in an adequate way. He builds his unifying theoretical framework by combining the slightly revised rational actor model and game theory − both originally developed in neo-classical economics − with the relatively speculative use of some evolutionary principles.  One reason to doubt the feasibility of this framework is to note many cognitive scientists and behavioral economists have forcefully criticized the axioms of rational choice theory. Although Gintis (e.g. 2007b) admits this and responds to these critiques, we argued in the paper that his way of dealing with them is highly selective and question begging (Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019, 7). Moreover, if only those parts of the social sciences studying decision-making and strategic interaction are included in “the unified behavioral science”, then large chunks of the social sciences are excluded from it.  This is problematic insofar as one wants to develop an argument for the cognitive social sciences that would encompass research programs on all kinds of social phenomena. In addition, Gintis’ argument from theoretical unification is likely to raise the specter of economics imperialism among social scientists, due to the central role that the rational actor model plays in his unified modeling framework and his principles for unifying the behavioral sciences.

Argument from constraints

Maurice Bloch’s (2012) argument for the cognitive social sciences highlights limitations in social scientists’ and their research subjects’ understanding of how their minds operate. This is how we reconstructed Bloch’s argument form constraints:

  1. Since all social processes involve cognitive aspects, social scientists must make assumptions about human cognition in their research practices.
  2. Social scientists’ assumptions about the cognitive processes of their research subjects are often based on the subjects’ own accounts of these processes and/or the ideas and concepts of “folk psychology” that people use in their everyday life.
  3. Cognitive scientific studies have convincingly demonstrated that our cognitive processes are not transparent to us and that our own understanding of these processes, including social scientists’ and their research subjects’ “folk psychological theories”, is limited and sometimes misleading.
  4. Conclusion: social scientists’ assumptions about cognitive processes of their research subjects should be constrained by the results of cognitive sciences (Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019, 9).

This argument includes much less ontological, methodological and theoretical presuppositions when compared with the two arguments considered above. For example, instead of celebrating the progress of the cognitive sciences, Bloch (2012, p. 9) holds that “the study of cognition is in its infancy” and that, for this reason, “the cognitive sciences are more certain when telling us what things are not like, than when telling us how things are” (p. 9). Accordingly, the main purpose of his argument is to weed out implausible cognitive assumptions from the social sciences rather than to ground the social sciences in the cognitive sciences or to unify the social sciences with the help of the cognitive sciences.

All of the premises of the above argument seem well justified. Indeed, cognitive scientists have convincingly demonstrated not only that our everyday conceptions about how our minds work are seriously limited and potentially misleading but also that a large part of our action-related cognitive processes are implicit (e.g. Evans & Frankish, 2009; Kahneman, 2012). The conclusion in 4 is also well supported at least to the extent that social scientists studying small-scale social interactions are well-advised to pay attention to the results of cognitive sciences when they make assumptions about the cognitive processes of their research subjects since this enables them to avoid biased explanations.

This does not mean, however, that social scientists should replace their methods with the methods of cognitive sciences, since, as Bloch (2012) rightly argues, ethnographic methods can be used to produce data about social and cultural phenomena that is impossible to obtain by using the experimental and simulation methods of cognitive scientists (see also Hutchins, 1995). What it does mean is that the data social scientists produce by using ethnographic methods should not be interpreted as providing reliable knowledge about the internal cognitive processes of their research subjects and that, for many explanatory purposes, it should be supplemented with data acquired by using other type of methods, including those used in the cognitive sciences.

Nevertheless, the results of cognitive sciences are less significant when it comes to explanatory studies on the outcomes of social interactions of a large number of individuals in a specific institutional context. The reason is that social scientists cannot escape from making trade-offs between the psychological realism and the tractability of their models in this context. The feasibility of their assumptions about cognition should be judged in a case-by-case manner that takes into account the purposes in which they use their models. However, in order to be able make judgements of this kind, social scientists should be aware of the relevant cognitive processes that they abstract from or idealize in their models. To this end, they need cognitive sciences (see Lizardo, 2009).

Argument from complementarity

The argument from complementarity is the oldest one of these four arguments. Eviatar Zerubavel proposed it already in his Social Mindscapes in 1997. We reconstructed Zerubavel’s argument in the paper as follows:

  1. Since cognitive science studies cognitive universals, it cannot answer questions about how cognition varies between groups and how social environments affect cognitive processes.
  2. In order to provide a more comprehensive understanding of human cognition, cognitive science should be complemented with studies that answer questions concerning the domain of sociomental (i.e. cognitive phenomena that vary between groups and cultures but are not entirely idiosyncratic).
  3. Cognitive sociology’s ontological, theoretical and methodological position allows it to answer questions concerning the domain of sociomental.
  4. Conclusion: Cognitive science should be complemented with cognitive sociology (Kaidesoja, Sarkia & Hyyryläinen 2019, 11).

The argument from complementarity is based on a view that different disciplines produce knowledge about human cognition according to their distinct ontological and epistemological commitments that may be incompatible with each other. It suggests that cognitive sociology does not aim to build a bridge between sociology and the cognitive sciences but rather forms an autonomous perspective on the sociomental aspects of human cognition that is meant to complement cognitive science.

This argument assumes a quite narrow and monolithic understanding of cognitive science. Although premise 1 includes a relatively accurate characterization of the state of the cognitive science in 1990s, today it is clearly outdated. The reason is that cognitive science has moved away from a nearly exclusive focus on “the universal foundations of human cognition” (Zerubavel, 1997, p. 3) that are realized in our brains, and included wider perspectives that focus on the embodied, embedded, enactive, extended, situated, distributed and cultural-historical aspects of cognitive processes (e.g. Hutchins, 1995; Clark, 1997; Franks, 2011; Lizardo et al., 2019; Turner, 2018). Although studies on “wide cognition” (Miłkowski et al., 2018) were in their infancy in 1990s, when Zerubavel first developed his argument, it seems that these externalist approaches to human cognition are also ignored in more recent discussions that have been inspired by his work (e.g. Brekhus, 2015). Hence, the argument from complementarity needs to be updated by taking into account recent developments in the cognitive sciences. When this is done, it is not at all clear whether the revised argument provides a distinct argument for the cognitive social sciences.

Another problem with the argument from complementarity concerns the kind of interdisciplinarity it would produce in practice. Omar Lizardo (2014), for example, argues that the sociology of culture and cognition, often used as a synonym for Zerubavellian cognitive sociology, creates “a sense of pseudo-interdisciplinarity”. This means that, although the name suggests at least some degree of interdisciplinary interaction, the actual communication between these disciplines has been almost nonexistent in this tradition. All attempts to create complementary perspectives to cognitive science run the risk of pseudo-interdisciplinarity of this kind. Hence, although interdisciplinary integration is regarded as an ultimate goal of the multilevel approach to cognition in some of Zerubavel’s (e.g. 1997, p. 113) claims, the argument from complementary may actually lead away from this goal.


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  1. Pingback: Causal mechanisms in the cognitive social sciences – Culture, Cognition, and Action (culturecog)

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