The social neuroscience and the theory of integrative levels

Front Integr Neurosci. 2015 Oct 29;9:54. doi: 10.3389/fnint.2015.00054. eCollection 2015.


The theory of integrative levels provides a general description of the evolution of matter through successive orders of complexity and integration. Along its development, material forms pass through different levels of organization, such as physical, chemical, biological or sociological. The appearance of novel structures and dynamics during this process of development of matter in complex systems has been called emergence. Social neuroscience (SN), an interdisciplinary field that aims to investigate the biological mechanisms that underlie social structures, processes, and behavior and the influences between social and biological levels of organization, has affirmed the necessity for including social context as an essential element to understand the human behavior. To do this, SN proposes a multilevel integrative approach by means of three principles: multiple determinism, nonadditive determinism and reciprocal determinism. These theoretical principles seem to share the basic tenets of the theory of integrative levels but, in this paper, we aim to reveal the differences among both doctrines. First, SN asserts that combination of neural and social variables can produce emergent phenomena that would not be predictable from a neuroscientific or social psychological analysis alone; SN also suggests that to achieve a complete understanding of social structures we should use an integrative analysis that encompasses levels of organization ranging from the genetic level to the social one; finally, SN establishes that there can be mutual influences between biological and social factors in determining behavior, accepting, therefore, a double influence, upward from biology to social level, and downward, from social level to biology. In contrast, following the theory of integrative levels, emergent phenomena are not produced by the combination of variables from two levels, but by the increment of complexity at one level. In addition, the social behavior and structures might be contemplated not as the result of mixing or summing social and biological influences, but as emergent phenomena that should be described with its own laws. Finally, following the integrative levels view, influences upward, from biology to social level, and downward, from social level to biology, might not be equivalent, since the bottom-up processes are emergent and the downward causation (DC) is not.

Keywords: emergentism; integrative levels; multilevel integrative analysis; reductionism; social neuroscience.

Publication types

  • Review