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From fighting animals to the biosocial mechanisms of the human mind: a comparison of Selten’s social defeat and Mead’s symbolic interaction

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Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1273-1289
Number of pages17
JournalThe Sociological Review
Issue number6
Accepted/In press1 Jan 2020
Published1 Nov 2020

King's Authors


Social defeat is a psychiatric theory accounting for the role of social environment in the aetiology of psychosis via the mechanism of stress. Social defeat stems from animal studies of stress, whereby a small rat is introduced into a larger rat’s cage and is subsequently attacked and defeated by its larger foe. The defeated rat is subjected to behavioural and hormonal analyses to explore its stress levels. The idea is that social defeat leads to social stress which may cause psychoses. In this article, we draw on the work of Jean-Paul Selten to critique the epistemics that are bound up with social defeat research. For comparative analysis, we use Mead’s Mind, Self and Society to tease out the problems of social defeat and suggest potential remedies. We contend that, in seeking to equate animal and human sociality, social defeat portrays human interaction as hostile and pathological, and minority groups as inevitably defeated. In contrast, Mead’s symbolic interaction presents human sociality as progressively organizational. Mead’s account is grounded in human exceptionalism and lacking attention to structural inequalities. Nevertheless, symbolic interaction has much to offer contemporary social defeat research, albeit whilst echoing some of its thin sociology.

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