Date of Award


Document Type

Senior Scholars Paper (Open Access)


Colby College. Biology Dept.




This research proposal introduces an integrated study of action and human conduct from the perspectives of symbolic interaction and neurophysiology. Because of their traditionally disparate subject matter, the fields of sociological social psychology and the neurosciences seldom meet; however, I have found significant common ground to justify an integrated approach to the study of action. Symbolic interactionists study human group life and conduct in society. The neurosciences deal with the physiology of the central nervous system, its structure and functions in behavior, its chemical composition, and electrochemical activity, and the effects damage has on behavior. Both fields analyze the same empirical world, and their parameters of study overlap. Neuroscience studies the central nervous system (CNS) under the assumption that it evolved according to its usefulness for survival; therefore, the subject matter of the neurosciences is relevant ultimately if it takes into account the whole of the organism's active use of the CNS. Human beings use their brains socially in interaction with themselves and others. Similarly, symbolic interactionism, though a powerful sociological perspective, has its roots in sociological social psychology. Interactionists propose that such capacities as mind, consciousness. meaningful action, thinking, and language, could not exist without social interaction and a human society which is temporally prior to any given individual. Interactionists, however. do not isolate the social individual from the biological organism. They hold a strong conviction that the social phenomena they study are tied to physiological processes that are consistent with the nature of the empirical world. There is, therefore, an overlap between neuroscience and symbolic interactionism. If they study the same empirical world, there should be certain consistencies in their theoretical approaches and their basic data. This paper explores the possibility that symbolic interactionism and the neurosciences, particularly neuroanatomy and physiology, can support consistent perspectives. I have found that such consistencies do exist, and that there are several significant links between the symbolic interactionisr conception of human action and the neurophysiology of the brain. Though I will describe some of these specific links between these fields, the focus of this proposal is upon their basic theoretical assumptions about the nature of action, both for humans and other biological organisms. Both symbolic interactionism and neurophysiology support a consistent "meta-theory" concerning the nature of an organism's active relationship to an emergent reality, and the processes by which living things handle reality. These consistencies justify furure efforts to integrate interactionist and neuroscience approaches toward a more unified understanding of human conduct and group life. The focus of this study is upon action, encompassing human action and group life, but also action as a basic process of all living systems. Both the symbolic interactiontst and neuroscience perspectives embrace the study of action in this holistic sense. The study of action, then, will provide a medium for our comparison. Focusing upon these goals, this proposal will be organized in four chapters. The first two chapters will present a general introduction to symbolic interactionism and neurophysiology focusing upon their understandings of human action. Chapter one will describe basic concepts of symbolic interactionism drawing from the works of Herbert Blumer. and especially from George Herbert Mead. Mead's writings, though rather complicated., present a holistic perspective of action and reality common to human beings and other life forms. The second chapter will present a text-book styled tour of human neurophysiology. and will then focus upon the evolution of the brain and the neural connectivity of the cerebral cortex. These sections will draw upon the research of Dr. Deepak Pandya and Dr. Edward Yeterian, whose studies of neocortical evolution, neural connectivity. and information processing provide the basis for several of the links I have found between neuroscience and interactionism, The third chapter will describe the general theoretical similarities shared by these perspectives. The fmal chapter will sample some of the specific comparisons which can be made between the two fields through an integrated analysis of the act, as described by George Herbert Mead. The purpose of presenting a neurophysiological model of action is not to reduce symbolic interactionism to physiological mechanisms in the central nervous system. As described above. our purpose is to take a more holistic look at different aspects of human action. The neurosciences deal with a specific component of action, the physiological systems which interpret the world and organize the activity by which the organism persists. Interactionists study human conduct and group life, and the processes by which we coordinate, or attempt to coordinate, our lines of activity with others. Each focus is necessary but not sufficient in itself to explain an active organism's relationship to the world.. Although a fully unified theory is perhaps impossible to achieve, to begin to unify these perspectives we must look beyond what have evolved as traditional boundaries of both fields.


Symbolic interactionism, Neurophysiology

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