Determinism and Free Will

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Determinism and Free Will

The dispute as to 'the' appropriate way to study human social behaviour is a dispute about human nature.

In most, if not all, subjects concerned with human behaviour, there is a fault line between determinism and free will. The division is most marked in subjects such as philosophy, theology, sociology, psychology and biology.

Determinism refers to people's behaviour being determined for them by some external force. The nature of the external force varies from subject to subject but in all cases, the key point is that the element of choice is removed from us, as humans, and lies beyond our capacity to change it. It is important to understand, however, that our inability to do things differently is not because we are physically compelled but because we literally do not believe or know that alternative real possibilities exist.

Religion: Some religious belief systems emphasise that human behaviour is directed by a supra-natural being. An example of this is the Calvinist belief in pre-destination; the belief that God has already selected who will be saved, and that there is nothing that can be done by humans to change this.

Sociology: Some perspectives emphasize the way in which our behaviour is influenced and directed by social (and therefore external to the individual) forces.

Biology: Some biologists argue that human behaviour is determined by genetic or hormonal inheritance. We are prisoners of our bodies and our actions are beyond our control. Examples here might include the debate on the nature of homosexuality, or perhaps the definition 'criminally insane'.

Throughout, a lack of choice is emphasised. A deterministic view of social life can be seen as seriously pessimistic in that change seems remote, even if desired, and in many cases also a prop to conservatism since it can appear that the way things are is the way things were 'meant' to be.

Religion: Some religions emphasize that we can chose our own destiny and come to God via a free choice.

Sociology: Some perspectives rather than viewing people as puppets with society pulling the strings, sees people as actively and creatively interpreting the social scripts that society provides for us. One example of this type of perspective is one that draws the analogy between humans as actors in society, and the way in which a dramatic actor would work in the theatre.

Only a fool would argue that our actions are totally determined or totally free. The argument is about the extent to which our actions are determined or chosen. It is clearly possible to give examples of how behaviour is subject to both. For example; teachers, at least during school hours are remarkably similar. From this, one could conclude that such behaviour is externally determined. Clearly, the behaviour is a response to a social script. However, it is also true that teachers vary greatly in their behaviour and this would seem to indicate that they are exercising choice.

We could also consider the way that the role of the teacher has changed over the last century.

If the role is determined by society then how can it change?

Surely the only way that a role can change is if people change it?

A possible half-way-house is the concept of soft determinism - we can make choices but only from within a limited option range.

The division between determinism and free will is prominently displayed in the different explanations offered to explain human behaviour by structural and action theories.

I mean brief! These are mere thumbnail sketches, be warned!


In this approach, individuals are taught the central value system of a society through socialization. Socialization ensures that every individual knows how to behave in society and therefore to become a part of it, and be controlled by it. Actors are seen as the subjects upon which a society can work. Social norms don't just regulate our behaviour, they become part of us. We internalise the norms. This means the research methods of the natural sciences can be used. People are viewed as acted upon, we are the effect and society is the cause.

Systems approaches tend to treat all social phenomena as if they were objects (social facts).

Early sociologists adopted a conscious policy of studying humans in the same way as one would study any physical object. Humans were viewed as objects whose behaviour was casually determined by forces outside of themselves.


This is the Verstehen view of the nature of Sociology. This perspective does not assume rationality as the basis for explanation. The central concern is the attempt to understand how participants view a given situation. Societies are seen as the product of a continuous process of interaction. The social actor is the subject for analysis, in particular their attempts to give meaning to the world. The perspective concentrates on subjective meaning as a basis for choosing particular actions.

The argument is simple: all human actions of any significance to sociology are meaningful actions. All significant ordering of human phenomena, which alone make any science of these phenomena possible, are the result of some kind of social meanings; and no significant scientific description, analysis, or explanation of those orderings is possible without some fundamental consideration of those social meanings.