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The Human Nature Review  2002 Volume 2: 164-165 ( 1 May )
URL of this document http://human-nature.com/nibbs/02/stress.html

Book Review

Stress at Work: A Sociological Perspective
by Chris L. Peterson
Baywood Publishing, Amityville, NY, 1999

Reviewed by Roger D. Masters, Nelson A. Rockefeller Professor of Government, Emeritus; President, Foundation for Neuroscience and Society, Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA.

Researchers in Evolutionary Psychology and in other fields that apply biological perspectives to the analysis of human behavior are often puzzled by the wall of silence or hostility to this research by conventional social scientists. In genetics, neuroscience, ethology, sociobiology, and medicine, we are witnessing astounding advances. Many of these new fields can transform understanding of individual and social human behavior. With an estimated 83 million Americans on Prozac, why are so few social scientists even vaguely interested?

Peterson’s Stress and Work suggests an answer. The author has presented a sober attempt to link all available work on stress and work environments. He cites publications from an impressive variety of scientific perspectives. Given his focus on a sociological approach, it is especially interesting that he begins from the physiological studies of stress pioneered by Selye and expanded over the last generation by Mason, Cannon, and others. Peterson then surveys “psychological” perspectives before turning to sociological factors with a special emphasis on analyses of “labor process,” social class and the work environment, and health outcomes.

In his attempt to integrate different viewpoints, Peterson reduces all biological factors to a narrow view of stress physiology. For example, the “hormonal reaction” after the adrenal cortex is “activated” is summarized as “producing a group of adrenocortical hormones known as the gluocorticoids.” (p. 23). After briefly reviewing the principal hormones involved, Peterson notes “the role of emotional or psychological reaction in precipitating and maintaining the stress response.” (p. 23). His first chapter concludes: “The stress response must be regarded, at one level, as psychophysiological: a psychological response that has a corresponding physiological response. We cannot carry out adequate model building, however, without understanding the interaction of these processes with broader socio-cultural and political processes.” (p. 24) Peterson seems to view each field as utterly distinct. Apart from a mechanistic view of physiology, evolutionary or biological research are not mentioned. In the following, for example, psychology seems to be a mental process unrelated to (or prior to) brain function: “The stress responses... presumes an understanding of the emotional and psychological response. This can manifest in physiological reactions. Psychological research has added an extra dimension to the purely physiological approaches…” (p. 29). That Peterson has little grasp of contemporary neuroscience is evident in the remark that “Future research may show a much higher degree of central nervous system functioning with psychological stimulation than has yet been realized.” (p. 15).

Many other fields in contemporary human biology are totally ignored (e.g., behavior genetics, ethology, or sociobiology). For instance, face-to-face social interactions in the workplace are described in terms of “loss of control,” with no reference to the social ethology characteristic of hominid evolution and most known pre-industrial cultures. Since dominant individuals play as much a role in groups of humans as among most other primates, even animal behavior studies can illuminate human brain chemistry, mood, and behavior. For example, McGuire’s finding that serotonin levels increase in the weeks after an individual gains dominant status is obviously relevant to working environments in which no member of the face-to-face group has unquestioned status. Peterson’s analysis of “labor processes” in terms of “alienation” misses such complexities. Indeed, his use of the Marxist term lacks the full range of its original connotation for Marx himself, who was quite aware than in French, “aliené” (alienated) means “insane.”

Isolating each field and treating it in a conventional manner (citing well-known authors and assessing their work literally without seeking underlying functions) makes it impossible to discover biological contributions at every level from psychology and sociology to health outcomes. Ultimately, this approach remains in the tradition of the “blank slate” model of human nature found in philosophers like Locke. Consider the following: “Two people may be affected quite differently by the same stimulus. This identifies differences in the physiological and psychological responses resulting from perceiving a situation as threatening or noxious…. As a result of viewing people as cognitive creatures, a sociological approach sees human needs as shaping perceptions of situations and therefore as an important factor in understanding stress. Needs are learned and sustained through social encounters. Those who are unable to meet demands involving important needs experience stress.” (p. 50).

One can’t quibble over the fact that people are “affected quite differently by the same stimulus.” But to attribute perceptions to needs, and then treat needs as “learned and sustained through social encounters” makes it very difficult to imagine the relevance of studies in cognitive neuroscience or primate ethology to human stress. Even within the narrow field of stress research, it is therefore not surprising that Peterson ignores the work of Robert Sapolsky of Stanford, whose work on the “endangerment” of neurons by prolonged stress links stress hormones and neuronal function to RNA expression and health outcomes in a medically innovative as well as behaviorally important manner.

In this book, the disciplinary narrowness characteristic of most social scientists persists despite Peterson’s attempt to develop an integrative framework cutting across fields. Views of human nature that rely primarily on Lockean psychology or Marxian sociology are scientifically obsolete but very much alive in our university faculties. As a result, Stress at Work helps explain why so many evolutionary psychologists find that explaining their work to conventional sociologists and psychologists is a stressful experience.

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© Roger D. Masters.


Masters, R. D. (2002). Review of Stress at Work: A Sociological Perspective by Chris L. Peterson. Human Nature Review. 2: 164-165.

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