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 originated as a criticism of biological reductionism and the misrepresentation of early Continental works in criminology,  contending instead for the influence of environment upon man’s constitution.

I have located two of the earliest instances of the use of the term in English, in the work of Maria Montessori, the educational reformer, and in that of  the Italian criminologist Enrico Ferri, in the immediate context (if not before in its Italian context) of the First World War in discussions of degeneration, atavism and in the languages of social reform.  These languages focused upon the melioration of working conditions and addressing of the widening gap between rich and poor due to urbanization and industrialization.  Montessori’s view of the child, her work with the mentally handicapped reflected a deep inquiry into philosophical anthropology as well as an awareness of the perils of Italy’s movement into industrialized modernity.

The language of degeneration, atavism, and types has been frequently used by historians to mark, in the work of Gustav le Bon, Albert Sorel and others, the beginnings of the specter of decline, mass politics and the rise of irrationality in social inquiry which brought about (one way or another) fascism in particular. However, degeneration and atavism was also used to underscore a rather thorough-going environmentalism and social reform-ism that emphasized the desirability and feasibility of progress.

Though in translation, the title of the text is still provocative, and in Pedagogical Anthropology (1913), Montessori explained the criminology of Cesare Lombroso and Bénédict Augustin Morel and their application of the zoological method to the emerging science of criminal behavior.  She outlined the study of the individual from the standpoint of his “somatic or corporeal personality”  as well as  his “responsiveness to the environment” and of his “habits (manners and customs) “which results in a side by side…somatic chart… a physio-pathological chart of criminal subjects, based upon a study of their sensibility, their grasp of ideas, their social and ethical standards, their thieves’ jargon and tattoo marks, their handwriting and literary productions” (4). This took into account not only biological characteristics but the influence of environmental factors such as alcoholism and exposure to poisons due to unsafe working environments.

This classification, which accords each individual a “type”, is a “naturalistic concept of man.”  It examined man through a zoological framework and the degrees to which certain individuals and groups become “varieties deviating from the normal type.”   This sought to integrate the criminal within a “zoological” anthropology in which the criminal is an aberrant “type” or “sub-species.” However, the authors point to the causes of this malformation as existing in the environment rather than in the somatic. These environmental causes- poor food, industrial poisons, difficult work, alcoholism, etc.-  effect not only the individual through “progressive organic impoverishment” but subsequent generations.  It was this emphasis upon the environment, the social causes of biological abnormality which for Montessori defined “bio-social” (4-6.)

Likewise, in a 1914 article for the “Journal of the American Institute of Criminal Law and Criminology”,  the Italian socialist Enrico Ferri’s articulation of a bio-social view of the origins of criminal behavior was a response to Charles Goring’s The English Convict: A Statistical Study. Goring had ridiculed Cesare Lombroso’s anatomical understanding of the nature of criminality and his account of atavism. Goring there fumed, “And, based upon what we would call a superstitious belief that there is an intimate relation between the spiritual and physical conditions of man…he is not…he never is…a perfectly normal human being, responsible for his own actions” (13.)

However, after complaining that Goring has plainly stated what Ferri himself has been arguing for thirty years, Ferri continued, “Insanity, suicide, etc., are not the exclusive effects of anthropologic conditions, physical and psychical, of an individual, but are the resultant of personal conditions, that react in a given telluric (meaning physical and geographical causes, CD) and social environment” (226.)Ferri referred to this view, emphasizing the causative power of the social and physical environment as the ‘bio-social.’

Ferri immediately goes on to complain that neither Lombroso or his school ever attributed supremacy of biology to the actions of the criminal, but rather the importance of environment.  Hence, rather surprisingly the term bio-social emerged polemically out of discussions in  French and Italian criminology and out of accounts of degeneration (which for all the excitement given to it by historians like Daniel Pick, is viewed as a kind of conceptual and evidentiary dead end, a sort of skeleton in the closet of the development of the modern social sciences.)

By the 1920s, the term had become a mainstay of behaviorist social psychology, which developed against the conception of the science as an inquiry into mind or consciousness.  The well-known American behaviorist psychologist Albert P. Weiss in his “Behaviorism and Ethics” underscored that behaviorist psychology is “the study of all the conditions by which the human infant, regarded as a biological organism, becomes at maturity a cooperative unit in a social organization.”   An organism achieved maturity through the social conditioning of its “movements,” classified as “public, scientific, aesthetic, ethical, and religious.”

He continued, “Biosocial “movements” “are the contractile effects which produce language in all of its forms; the manual movements in the arts, trades, professions, recreations; and the sociable interactions among persons.” They are those actions which establish the social status of the individual, or which have a social effect or a social purpose (in the The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, Vol 21(2), Jul 1926, 206-7) These movements had root physiological and neurological causes and effects (these were biophysical movements); biosocial movements, however, were the visible products and effects of these inner nervous excitations perceivable to outside social world and thus, malleable to social influence, social feedback and social exchange.

P.E. Vernon, who later became infamous for his discussions in Britain about the connections between racial difference and psychology noted in the 1930s that while traits like intelligence or superior athleticism had physical causes which could be traced back to muscles, neurology and body structure, such factors nonetheless were conditioned by social norms. A person was intelligent or fast not merely though biological attributes, but the social significance attributed to these traits, and the possession of said traits in comparison to other individuals in the community.

Biosocial vocabulary enabled the delineation of the natural and the social in a variety of settings.  It functioned in this way regardless of political orientation.  It was an essential part of the lexicon of the emerging social sciences.  In the work of Montesorri and Ferri, it was used to underscore the importance of telluric in the development of the criminal.  Quickly, biosocial became a term deployed in behavioristic psychology, which sought to understand the social impact of behaviors and the role of social forces in the conditioning of personality.

In the work of Wilton Krogman (one of the very early prominent physical anthropologists) in a 1948 article “Physical Anthropology and Race Relations: A Biosocial Evaluation” observed that prejudice is a biosocial phenomenon as individuals of distinct populations, such as  Caucasians and African-Americans, attribute social significance to individual and group differences.  Individual and group differences are determined by “a complex of physical traits” such as skin color and limb proportion.  However, what these differences between populations mean in everyday life- their biosocial significance, relating to status, etc.- has everything to do with how these individual differences are perceived by groups in the context of society. Krogman contended that African Americans encountered less prejudice in the post-Second World War United States due to intermarriage (which lessened distinctions between groups) but more importantly, to an increase of solidarity between whites and African Americans because of the war effort.  Differences in social status and social stigma between “races” “stocks” ect. were being eliminated due to patriotic feeling.

The migration of biosocial from a polemical term used to underscore the importance of environment to a more refined discussion of the social significance of physical (biological)  differences and distinctions is emblematic of discussions of the interconnection between nature and society from the beginnings of the 20th century until after the Second World War. The flexibility of biosocial underscores the importance of terminology in the intellectual history of the social sciences as well as a suspicion that there is any sharp distinction between professionalized social sciences and their pre-professional progenitors.

It is thus essential that an inquiry into vocabulary be initiated so that forgotten yet essential arguments in the social and biological sciences can be reconstructed along lines that its participants would recognize. In the next post- I shall discuss telluric causes.


Biosocial Science from Italian Criminology to American Post-war Studies of Prejudice

2 thoughts on “Biosocial Science from Italian Criminology to American Post-war Studies of Prejudice

  1. Reblogged this on Ether Wave Propaganda and commented:

    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. 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 and to interrogate the boundary between the biological and the natural. Much like social selection, biosocial has been used since the origins of the social sciences to contend with deterministic explanations.


  2. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #27 | Whewell's Ghost

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