Nature-Culture Sociology; Constructivism, Realism and Molecular Biology.

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MacNaghten & Urry states that they are “concerned” with the relation of sociology and nature/environment – how the latter has been focused on and “conceptualised” (MacNaghten & Urry, 1995, p. 203). MacNaghten & Urry find that “nature Is elaborately entangled and funda­mentally bound up with the social and the cultural.” (Ibid.), and describes sociology as a autonomous discipline that can be applied on other areas, such as biology or environmental studies – but that the social side of it for a very long time has been distinct. What they seem to mean is that there was a though of nature ans culture as being separated, as in the environmental realism way, and has over time moved over to a more environmental constructivistic idea, where they stay and which Lidskog talks about and I will come back to. But later the social scientist has to address for “the social impacts and implications of environmental problems”, which was initiated by natural scientists (A.a., p. 204). MacNaghten & Urry therefore talks about the social scientist’s failure of breaking the ice with the study of environmental change.

Woodgate & Redclift (1998) tries to offer a way between constructivism and realism in their article. They, to begin with, thinks that the “agenda of constructivist sociology” is too ’restrictive’, and that it needs a more ’balanced’ view of the “relationship between society and its underlying material or natural conditions” (Woodgate & Redclift, 1998, p. 7). They also state that we need to accept nature as both material and as a set of culturally generated symbols – one side “implies the other” – as without the physical environment we would have nothing to construct socially, and the constructions are the element of the social construction (ibid.). Although being more set in realism. By citing Hannigan, they state that environmental problems are materialized, not by themselves, but by constructing them, defining them, just as other social problems such as domestic violence (Woodgate & Redclift, 1998, p. 4). They then go on asking “to what extent is this a problem of their own making?” (referring also to MacNaghten & Urry), meaning that these issues are constructed socially and then not really a problem to everyone. – not necessary over time and across societies. What they mean is cited back from Lutzenhiser saying that natural science tend to ’exclude’ human behaviour, as do sociologists tend to exclude “the physical and environment” (A.a., p. 5). The environment cannot only be “represented trough social construction” but also “the creation of human activity”, which in turn affects the environment. This, according to Woodgate & Redclift, leads us to “consider not only the claims that are made against nature, but also the material transformation of nature” (A.a., p. 6).

Woodgate & Redclift does, however, also cite Dunlap & Catton stating that “deconstruction does not render the environment any less real” (A.a., p. 7; emphasizes added). That everything is actually socially constructed and that there is nothing before the social moment, but moving onto even discusses that an constructivistic approach also is critical of the realists. This, by referring to Buttel, is presented as the knowledge of the environment is not a ’mirror’ of the natural world, but a social observation. (A.a., p. 9). What they are concerned with is the material part of the nature or environment, meaning that a stone is a stone in the realism way, but that we still do a sociological observation of this material and define it as being a stone. (A.a., p. 8, Realism). Or, like they talk about later, the “difference between natural ecosystems and those that have been modified for the production of food” in agriculture by human society (A.a., p. 9).1 By linking “ecological understanding with mainstream sociological though”, Woodgate & Redclift, shows that society and human conditions ’bears’ the structure and provide context to the relation between society and nature (A.a., p. 18). That there is like self-evolving circle between society and nature.

Lidskog, on the other hand, tries to ’alleviate’ the dichotomy between (environmental) realism an constructivism. Environmental realism is the attempt to bring ecology into sociology. However, nature do have an impact on us as a society as well, and nature has a social space of interpretation (Lidskog, 2001, p. 129). Lidskog also states the the lack of progress in the overall, global, transformation against a more environmental friendly development, the idea of a sustainable development with less environmental problems is “deeply embedded” in our modern society’s fabric. If no changes in our social fundamental and structures are made, the problems will instead increase (A.a., p. 113). The problem is, therefore, the neglected “social dimension when discussing environmental problems.” (A.a., p. 114). Referring to a number of authors, Lidskog brings up ’re-naturalization’, but then states that, that would be “anything but unproblematic” (A.a., p. 115). Nature has been increasingly contested and has created these to “main parties” that are realism and constructivism, where Lidskog adds that there is a need, and by using his article, to critically discuss the need of ecological aspects “in the sociological analysis of environment” (Ibid.) – also by pretty much as MacNaghten & Urry does, by using them as juxtapositions.2 Lidskog states that the issue with environmental constructivism is that the focus in sociology “should be on the social processes”, meaning “ecological awareness does not have any necessary reference to conditions in the natural environment” (A.a., p. 119). Environmental problems are constructed by “individuals and organisations” that define them. Environmental issues doesn’t ’derive’ from a simple an neutral view of reality, but by adding the risk as it what it means for us as a society – the focus of what social process that makes us think, or ’perceive’ nature as “ecologically damaged” (Ibid.). The realism part, according to Lidskog is the argue of a ’re-naturalaziation’ of society – this because that “society’s ecological basis needs to be taken into consideration by sociology” (A.a., p. 117).

Lidskog sees environmental realism as a interdisciplinary of human ecology, while environmental constructivistic science is within the area of sociology (A.a., p. 120). This, practically, means the “saving of the Earth” in realism, and finding a solution as a culture and society in constructivism. About environmental realism Lidskog says:

“Environmental realism offers an ecological framework for examining societal-environmental interactions which implies that social phenomena have to be examined in conjunction with phenomena on other levels” (A.a., p. 121).

MacNaghten & Urry talks about “modernity” and “human exceptionalism”, and their constituted relationship of humans and nature. It is especially presented by the use of the word ’juxtaposition’ – I would say, since it creates a contrast point of nature and society, while the constructivism standpoint is funded on them being intertwined. Although talking about these two ’transformations’ from the materialization of nature, to the construction of it (MacNaghten & Urry, 1995, p. 205). MacNaghten & Urry describes how sociology may help to ’illuminate’ social differences in views of the environment, and how it can be ’evaluated’; how, and what, the issues has been seen as over time and in different societies, for example (A.a., p. 210). They mean that sociology has a lot to offer the studies of the environment, that not necessary may be explained or, rather, analysed and approached – this by relating environmental issues to the culture and policies of a given society, or period of time. This is, as they put it, a contrast to the naïve realism that puts most value on being subjected to the mote scientific view – that the issue get clearer because our scientific knowledge develops it, pushes it forward – being cumulative. Their last element of their discussion is the role of the environment as being the “structural formation and cultural transformation” of our societies (A.a., p. 214). In their conclusion, MacNaghten & Urry talks about ’space and time’, and relate this into this juxtaposition that is nature and society by stating the nature is timeless, while society is dynamic in the sense of it changing over time:

“[S]ocial time involves change, progress and decay, while natural phenomena are either timeless or can operate with a conception of reversible time.” (A.a., p. 217).

I relate this to a part from the documentary The Unbelievers (2013), starring Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss. Near the end of the documentary Krauss holds a lecture during some kind of global atheist science symposium-thing, where he speaks about science and science theory; more specifically Krauss talks about the theory of evolution, as for example, does not care for the future or the past, since that is not what a theory is – at least not for natural science. Evolution just is; it’s an explantation of our species and how we became, as animals, what we are – how life evolved. But, Krauss states, while evolution can’t see into the future of a species’ needs, our human minds can. And I think that this is rather telling for what also MacNaghten & Urry talks about; that natural science explains our world as it is, without the values and ability to seek the need – either for our past, present or future – but we, as humans in a society and with culture, are. Just like
MacNaghten & Urry states at the end: “culture has been necessary to rescue nature” (A.a., p. 218).

Maybe from ourselves.

The shift in molecular biology that Rheinberger talks about is in short the way of using medicine for understanding, which leads to medical help, has moved onto rewriting – creating: “With DNA technology, molecular biology has turned, in less than twenty years, from a mode of discovery into a praxis of invention.” (A.a., p. 256). Or that biophysicist, biochemists and alike has gone from watching molecules in test-tubes and see the reactions occurring in the organism that are analysed, to construct the objects and molecules carrying instructions.; the “organism itself is turned into a laboratory” (A.a., p. 252). To make changes in our DNA, hence construct new ways for our life’s to keep on going -. perhaps without need of medical help in the future.

“Molecular biology is joining forces with the human genetics counselling system, the medico-technical complex, the biotech industry and forensic medicine and in doing so will institute a new medical paradigm: molecular medicine.” (Rheinberger, 1995, p. 254).

The focus is healthy genes. (A.a., p. 254). “Will medicine become a practice of tailoring molecules?”, Rheinberger asks. The discourse of this ’genetic scripture’ imposes on our perception of ’the living’ (A.a., p. 255).

“it will replace the technology of big instruments in diagnostics and in therapy with the more subtle, direct, and causal technology of molecular screening, replacement, and transformation of bits of the genetic text.” (Ibid.).

The social parts of diseases, or rather diagnoses, might also change as a result of genetic manipulation. Stigmatized ’diseases’ as ADHD, Aspergers syndrome and even forms of cancer, might be decreased – both medically and socially – although if happens less, the stigma could get worse.

What comes along with these developments is also a question of “who will shoulder the responsibility”? (A.a., p. 256).

By manipulating DNA we could do a whole lot of things to us as a species – both ecologically/genetically as well as socially. What we wish for in humans and other animals, socially and culturally, is transferred and constructed in DNA (A.a., p. 257). The current discussion of genome is ’subverting’ the “perception of history” where there previously has been a clear distinction between natural history and social history (Ibid.). We have today the means and technology of changing what we perceive as less good into what we perceive as more socially accepted – “to change our natural history”; what Rheinberger means as “the natural condition of mankind itself will turn into a social construct” – resulting in making even less “good sense” (ibid.).

Rheinberger moves on discussing how “[t]here will be unintended inventions, and there will be unintended consequences from intended inventions.” (A.a., p. 258). As technology changes, and develops, so will that it means to me ’normal’ and ’not normal’.

Aggression, which is considered to be less charming in our society as many other characteristics could possible be removed from our genome. Agrees, which might have been an advantage in our past – and might be in a future we know nothing about – but isn’t really a necessity in our current society. Aggression, which I would say is linked to the social contract that Thomas Hobbes talks about; life being “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” – a “war of all against all” – as the natural state (Hobbes, 1651), might be obliterated with a manipulation our or genome. Maybe even making us create a new social contract – or at least using our social contract to create a ’more evolved’ human species; a homo mitiores.3 I mean that the social contract, that we now live in with our societies and states (although Hobbes not really liked the idea of the State) could instead pave the way for a new natural order based on that initial social contract that came to be from the old natural order, that was brutish and short – violent. And with less aggression, which is looked on shamefully and as something non-wished for, the natural state could get less, or not at all, brutish and violent (and short) and instead much happier – by nature. An artificial nature, but a new nature still. A social contract that construct and constitutes a nature and not the other way.

Rheinberger ends his article with stating the the new technology of genetic modification results in an even more entangled, or rather as he states it: “ nature and culture, biosciences and medical practices, genes and disease, can no longer be disentangled” (Rheinberger, 1995, p. 261; emphasize added) – they are instead indeed ’amalgamated’ as ’hybrids’ of them all. Meaning that one can no longer “distinguish between nature and culture” (Ibid.).

Early in his article Rheinberger refers to Bruno Latour stating that the microbiology is to take over the medical ’realm’ (A.a., p. 250), giving the example of “urban sanitation” with swept across Europe; a proof of where a (nature) scientific finding moves away from the laboratories and into the society (hence to be studied, as an effect, socially). Rheinberger’s talks about this ’misunderstanding’ that Louis Pasteur’s finding was meant for “applied microbiology promised prevention of illness, not cure” (A.a., p. 250; emphasis added). This misunderstanding, according to Rheinberger, might surface with the possibility of “molecular takeover” of medicine, which is about healthy genes, and not cure – also for the whole population.

About this ’whole situation’ I tend to think about what would be an effect in an contentiously develop genetic manipulation technology – would there be a new social class of people with “perfect” genes, where other social classes would fall behind due to – what it actual – natural degradation; meaning that you get older. Working class people, who might be in the need of a better fundamental for hard physical labour, might be the one’s without the concept and without the financial way of paying for such treatment, while those in a higher social class might be more able to pay for genetic treatment that maybe falls into the grouping of aesthetics. What I mean is that while people in working class might give birth to babies with more stigmatized conditions, because of worse living conditions like different more-or-less poisonous chemicals at work, they might not be able to pay for such treatment, while those who do not work in, or with, poisonous chemicals do have the financial ability to pay for such treatment. Think of “correcting” “bad” mutations, like a missing limb, while still a fetus. Without treatment – either a genetic one, or a later surgical one – there would be a cost. Of course if not an established medical care like in Sweden or Canada, but USA where such a case of medical care is, and would be, much worse.

Same goes for another example: metabolism. It is known that many over weight people are also a part of the lower socio-economic class – too much sugar and too less exercise, both witch are linked to a cultural and social habit. A genetic manipulation could possible set the path for a new kind of metabolism where sugar would no longer be transformed, and stored as fat in our bodies. Pretty much creating a genetic mutation that let’s us eat more and exercise less (but that it would still be needed,though).

Both of these examples, and many more that could be presenter, would present a sort of proof of what biomedicine and medical sociology would move over to from today’s approach of curing actual illnesses; where tomorrow they either might be treated before even being an illness at all and therefore no need for a cure, and instead pushing our species to another evolutionary – though artificial – level. Market, companies, of artificially grown hearts, lungs and other organs. Or cancer treated on a molecular level,which means no chemo, or even any type of symptoms, or other syndromes, at all.

Where we are in an period of time where we are able to change our composition, what makes us us. Is it the natural path of our evolution to change our evolution? ’Inherit genetic diseases’ might be out the door with the new technology, that gives us a tool to remove them early from life of individuals. No more would parents have to go to the doctor with their kids for other things than accidents, since everything else already has been taken care of genetically. Maybe no longer we would have to use antibiotics, and therefore we would no longer need to be afraid of the resistance against antibiotics (A.a., p. 254).

Couples could go to the doctor and try their DNA with each other – seeing if they are a match, or if something would have to be done with possible kids they have in the future. As well as genetic diseases that is common in one of their families – or both.

All this, however, would need, as I stated above, a look at whom has the responsibility, and how would we legislate this since we now, with this technology, move from understanding life to rewriting it.

References

Lidskog, R. (2001). The Re-Naturalization of Society? Environmental Challenges for Sociology. Current Sociology, Vol. 49(1), 113-136.

Hobbes, T. (1651). Leviathan.

MacNaghten, P. & Urry, J. (1995). Toward a Sociology of Nature. Sociology, 29(2), 203-220.

Rheinberger, H-J. (1995). Beyond Nature and Culture: A Note on Medicine in the Age of
Molecular Biology. Science in Context, Vol. 8(1), 249-263.

Woodgate, G. & Redclift, M. (1998). From a ’Sociology of Nature’ to Environmental Sociology: Beyond Social Construction. Environmental Values 7. 3-24.

1Compare MacNaghten & Urry’s part about the environmental damages is due to human activity – mainly our consumption. (MacNaghten & Urry, 1995, p. 212-214).

2Which Lidskog also uses as term later on in the article (A.a., p. 123).

3Not necessary a correct Latin translation, but a less aggressive human – a milder species.