Sociological determinism proposes that everything we do, in terms of our social conduct, is pre-determined by biological factors, like our DNA.
Determinists believe that humans have little control over their own actions, and that the concept of free will is nothing more than an illusion.
The approach tends to be used to explore and explain social inequalities, delinquency, and inability to achieve social mobility. It holds that individuals are fundamentally constrained by a social structure that they cannot change and that will determine a great deal of what happens in their lives.
Determinism in Sociology (Definition and Overview)
Determinists, whether in the field of philosophy, sociology, or psychology have a belief that our actions, and in turn, reactions, are in some way predetermined by either biology, our environment, or in many cases both.
Moreover, they assert that it is highly unlikely that a person would be able to alter their inevitable path or choices due to their biological or environmental conditions.
Both sociologist Karl Marx (1818-1883) and psychologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) have made significant contributions to the principles of determinism. Marx was focused on economic determinism while Freud was focused on psychic determinism:
- Economic Determinism: Karl Marx entertained the idea that “…the economic element determines all other phases, or conditions them in such a way that their form and expression are fixed” (Ellwood, 1911, pg. 40). In other words, a person’s economic class pre-determines their life, the chances they have, and their chances of social mobility.
- Psychic Determinism: Sigmund Freud, on the other hand, claimed that the unconscious mind determined all human conduct. People’s actions were a result of the environment during their childhood. This has been labeled psychic determinism. He believed that the moral decisions someone makes “depends mainly upon the hypothesis of the unconscious” and “that our character and actions are not only caused, but also that we are never morally responsible for our actions”(pg. 1).
Determinism was initially introduced by the Pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Leucippus in 6th and 7th century B.C, and was further advanced by the teaching of Aristotle.
It was later developed upon by other Stoic philosophers.
While Ferraiolo (2006) points out that, Stoic philosophy had a clear “incompatibility between its deterministic worldview and its advocacy of various methods of self-discipline aiming at self-improvement” (p. 205), they still believe that “a particular event occurs precisely because of the complex interplay between a chain (or web) of antecedents, consequents, and the laws, principles, or other mechanisms governing the inter-relations among them” (p.212).
Determinism Examples (Sociology)
- Economic Determinism: All facets of a society are determined by the economic systems within that society. Being born into poverty predestines your poverty in your life.
- Determinism and social deviance: A child grows up in a violent household situation, they witness violence on a daily basis, and when he/she grows older, commits violent crime.
- Technological Determinism: The technological determinists look at how advances in technology will fundamentally affect and determine how society progresses and changes (see case study later in this piece for a critique of this view).
- Environmental Determinism: The environment in which you live affects your outcomes. This was controversially progressed in the past about the relationship between desert climates and cultural development – see environmental determinism.
- Gender Determinism: The belief that your life is determined by your gender. For example, believing that you’ll never be able to become president because you’re a woman.
- Linguistic Determinism: The language you speak determines your values and worldview because it structures your thought processes – see examples of linguistic determinism.
- Religious Determinism: The belief that people of a particular religious tradition are destined to go to heaven because they’re “god’s people.” Sociologists may examine how this belief affects the culture of a particular religious group.
- Race Determinism: The belief that people, based on their race or ethnicity, are destined to be a certain type of person, destined to rule, and so on.
- Educational Determinism: This holds the belief that a person’s educational level will determine their opportunities. This can be critiqued by demonstrating how many highly-educated people may end up failing in business and the workplace, or may reject the idea of pursuing a career altogether.
- Caste Determinism: A society that believes a person should and must be of a particular profession, marry in a particular way, etc., based on who their parents were.
- Biological determinism: Also known as genetic determinism, this approach suggests that our lives are determined by genetic or biological functions processes that we cannot change.
- Cultural Determinism: A young man is raised in an Italian immigrant neighborhood in New York City. He is prone to have viewpoints towards the world, and cultural norms that are similar to the people in his surroundings.
- Inevitable Chains of Events: Events are caused by a chain of previous events and it is inevitable that that they would have happened.
- The Inevitable Cycle of War: Historically, humans have gone to war with one another. It is determined that they will continue to do so.
- Determined to Succeed: An unconscious desire to be wealthy drives all the decisions we make in life towards making a financial gain.
- Biological Determinism: Believing that your nervous personality is due to your genetic makeup and there’s nothing you could do about it.
- Tossing a Coin 5000 Times: An analogy for determinism is tossing a coin: if you toss a coin 5000 times, it’s extremely likely you will get 2500 heads and 2500 tails. It’s pre-determined.
Case Studies and Research Basis
1. Technological Determinism
Premise: New technologies such as AI will fundamentally alter society and determine everyone’s futures.
Technological determinism holds that technologies fundamentally affect our lives. Fear of AI is a good example here. When general AI becomes widespread in society, we may be unable to control it, and AI will end up completely controlling our futures.
Critics of this view hold that we have the power to choose how we use technology, meaning introduction of a new technology in a society will not necessarily directly correspond with how people end up using it.
Many educational sociologists look at this concept.
For example, Drew (2018) conducted a study exploring how his university introduced iPads for all students with the expectation that it would alter educational practices.
But in reality, both students and teachers end up refusing to use the technologies because they believed that the technologies didn’t have sufficient positive impact on their lives. This sociological study directly refuted the theory of technological determinism in education.
2. Economic Determinism
Premise: All facets of a society are determined by the economic systems within that society.
Economic determinism is both a philosophical and sociological standpoint that asserts that the economic system within a society is the main factor that forms its social, political, and cultural components.
Moreover, economic conditions are seen as the foremost impetus behind all social changes, and it is the base upon which all other organizations are constructed.
Thus, adjustments in that economic system of a society will inevitably prompt changes in all other parts of the society.
Additionally, people who are born into lower socio-economic classes may be unable to better their economic position in life due to a lack of opportunity, education, or resources that have been made available to them.
Dark (2000) clarifies it in this way:
“This expression is used in many academic disciplines to refer to the theoretical paradigm that ‘economic factors’ – usually simply defined as the production and control of material resources in such analyses – dictate the history of all non-economic aspects of human activity. The economic determinist paradigm in this sense is the basis of most materialist concepts of human history, including Classical Marxism. This paradigm assumes that ‘economic change’, understood in this somewhat limited way, is the basis of all other change in human societies”(p. 183).
2. Biological Determinism
Premise: Biological determinism, or genetic determinism, suggests that our lives are determined by genetic or biological functions processes that we cannot change.
The idea of biological determinism (with origins in 18th and 19th century) has been highly disputed, and harshly criticized due to its claims that specific traits in human behavior, and other social results are a direct result of biological aspects of that person.
Particularly in sociology, this principle has been critiqued for its oversimplification, and bold statements about gender and race; using them to explain differences in intelligence, behavior, and social condition.
Sociologists have also denounced biological determinism for being utilized to validate inequality and discrimination.
Lewontin (1976) explains that:
“the forms of biological determinism have been very varied overtime. In the 19th century, it was morphology of individuals which was regarded as the key to their biological nature. We have phrenology, for example, where you could tell about people’s character from the bumps on their head”….. however, “morphology was very important and people constantly gave proofs of the inequalities of races, particularly, or nations on the base of their morphology”(para 9: para 10).
“the ideology says that there are biological differences between individuals and between groups. Which biological differences are of great importance in determining differential abilities of those individuals. For example, it asserts that ‘some of us are born to be bankers, others are born to be professors, others are born to be janitors, others are born to be unemployed, and so on’ (para 23).
3. Social Determinism
Premise: A child who grows up in a higher socioeconomic environment have a better education and job, than a child who grows up in a lower socioeconomic environment.
Social determinists hold that a person’s behavior is determined by their past social relationships and interactions with their family (rather than primarily by their genetic makeup).
Social determinism may take into account someone’s customs, cultural tradition, or childhood environment.
Investigations have revealed that children from households with a higher socioeconomic standing (SES) have a tendency to have more favorable educational and job results than those from lower SES households.
This is mainly because they have better access to quality education, quality health care, and upper-class social networks, but may also reflect social prejudices that affect a person’s life and are out of their control.
At the same time, hildren from families of lower SES may face barriers in receiving the same resources. This puts them at a disadvantage in life.
Markusson and Roed (2022) discuss the neighborhood and environment that children grow up in, and how that can have a significant impact on them when they get older:
“The causal effects fall into two main categories, those related to the characteristics of the neighborhood itself and those related to the people living there. The first category comprises factors like the physical environment (air and water quality, traffic noise, access to parks and playgrounds), public amenities (quality of schools and childcare facilities) and infrastructure. The second comprises the quality of the social environment, the existence of good and bad role models and other peer influences” (para 12. They add that “there is a large existing literature on neighborhood effects covering a wide range of outcomes, from physical and mental health to criminal behavior to education and adult earnings”(para 24).
Criticisms of Determinism in Sociology
The two key sociological criticisms of determinism relate to power and agency.
- Determinist view of Power: Determinists tend to see social structures as being fixed and power distributed in a way that cannot be fundamentally changed. Often, this comes from a Marxist perspective where power is seen as in the hands of the capitalist class and wielded over the workers. This view of power is critiqued by the poststructuralists and postmodernists who see power as more diffuse, meaning that individuals can exercise power through acts of subversion, the language they use, the ways they change and challenge metanarratives, and so forth (see also: postmodernism).
- Determinist view of Agency: Similarly, determinism appears to fundamentally conflicy with the notion that individuals have agency (meaning the ability to take actions out of freewill that can affect their lives). This view is somewhat fatalistic and fails to accept that people always have choice in how they act, even when somewhat (but not totally) constrained by social structures and regimes of oppression.
Not to be Confused With Reciprocal Determinism
Reciprocal determinism, from psychology, refers to the factors that affect human behavior. It is not an example of sociological determinism because it does not propose lack of agency or inevitability. Rather, it is a psychological concept referring to how multiple facts (person, environment, and behavior) interact and affect people and situations. For more, see our piece on reciprocal determinism.
In sociology, determinism is a concept that holds that social outcomes are predetermined by forces out of the control of individuals. These forces can include economic, class, case, gender, technology, racial, or other social hierarchies. Critics, however, hold that humans are constrained by social forces while also having the capacity to exercise agency.
Fundamentally, this sociological perspective is influenced by philosophical perspectives related to freewill, where some schools of thought hold that humans have freewill, while others hold that freewill is fundamentally an illusion.
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Dark, K. (2000). Culture and the Myth of Economic Determinism in Global History and World Politics. Studies in Economic Ethics and Philosophy, 182–209. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-57223-4_8
Ellwood, C. A. (1911). Marx’s “Economic Determinism” in the Light of Modern Psychology. American Journal of Sociology, 17(1), 35–46. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2763254
Ferraiolo, B. (2006). Free Will, Determinism, and Stoic Counsel. Ars Disputandi, 6(1), 204–210. https://doi.org/10.1080/15665399.2006.10819927
Lewontin, R. C. (1976). Biological determinism as a social weapon. Special Collections: Oregon Public Speakers Special Collections and University Archives. https://pdxscholar.library.pdx.edu/orspeakers/92
Markussen, S., Roed, K. (2022) Are richer neighborhoods always better for the kids?. Journal of Economic Geography, lbac031, https://doi.org/10.1093/jeg/lbac031