Just for a minute, suspend what you want to be the case, or already believe, and look at the facts.

Alexander Riley

For Professor Alexander Riley, sociology is about following the evidence, even if that leads to places that make his colleagues, students — and sometimes even him — uncomfortable.  

"Sociologists like to say that humans are innately social, but they typically don't explain what that actually means," he says. "I present this as a real question to students: What is human sociality? How social are we? If we're 'innately social,' then why do we avoid interaction in many situations, such as on mass transit? Getting at the truth requires us to carefully and dispassionately examine the facts, without allowing what we assume or wish to be true to drive the inquiry."

Over the last decade, Riley, whose work is in social theory, has adapted his teaching and research to incorporate insights and data from disciplines often seen as distant from sociology, including evolutionary biology, neuroscience and behavioral genetics. He says this has been the inevitable result of paying attention to advancements in those fields and their contribution to knowledge about human behavior.

"If you understand the research, it's impossible to deny its relevance to what we do as sociologists," he says.

In one of Riley's courses, students investigate evolutionary arguments for the emergence of morality, which leads to a more critical perspective on altruism and cooperation. "Students are often uncomfortable to see 'selfless' acts reframed as selfishly interested," he says. "But once we explore the roles deception, and even self-deception, play in human behavior, they see the limits of their common-sense perspective."

Riley's students also study potential evolutionary sources of human violence, which makes social policy for reducing it more complicated than conventional moral and political responses.

Riley acknowledges that trying to answer questions about humans' social — and antisocial — behaviors is complicated and challenging. "But it's important that students realize that thinking scientifically, allowing ourselves to be open to the facts and their complexity, is difficult and fun at the same time," he says. "Part of the fun is just wading through the messiness, trying to figure it out. It's an engrossing puzzle."

And when the answers that are derived from scientific research undermine traditional thinking, he reminds students, "Gravity can be inconvenient, too. Sometimes you fall off stuff and get hurt. But the fact that something makes us uncomfortable doesn't mean we can just wish it away."

Posted October 2017