Society and Biology

Society and biology is one of the new transdisciplinary fields of sociology that emerged in the 1990s. Owing to its strong links with genetic research, medicine, health, agriculture, environment, and science and technology, it has developed a number of important research centers, such as Bios (Center for the Study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology, and Society) at the London School of Economics, the Center for Biology and Society at Arizona State University, the Center for Science Studies at the University of Lancaster, and the Department of Biology and Society at the University of Amsterdam.

In the 1990s it became clear, from work in the areas of the sociology of health, the sociology of the body, and science and technology studies, that it was no longer possible to conceive of a sociological domain that was separable from the biological even if biological processes and social processes could be distinguished as different (Newton 2003a, b). Critically, social phenomena operate in material and biotic contexts in which important transfers of materials, information, prehensions, and inscriptions take place. Anthropologists, for example, are just beginning to take notice of and understand the natural construction of society as well as the social construction of nature (see Franklin 2002: ch. 4).

Foucault argued that power, surveillance, and control operate on and through the human body. However, our very conception of biology and ”life itself” has enormous implications for how we think of ourselves socially. Sarah Franklin argues that we can identify three shifts in the way life itself has been considered in modern societies.

First, in the nineteenth century nature was biologized. According to this view, life originates in narratives of evolution and natural selection. It became possible to think of human difference in biological terms (such as race). Equally, individuals could be explained in conception stories of eggs and sperm, and of genetic blueprints. These were ”the facts of life.”

Second, biology itself became geneticized in the latter half of the twentieth century, and now social issues surrounding human behavior, pathology, and risk were geneticized: social planning and management now involved genetic assessment. Social life oriented itself to genetic genealogy and referenced ”genetic parents,” ”genetic relatedness,” ”genetic risk,” ”genetic identity,” and ”genetic variation.” Concern over genetic inheritance gave way to socially significant technologies of control such as genetic screening, the human genome project, and human gene therapy. The discourse of genetics, then, was an important language to describe not only the human condition, but also the condition of life itself, and technologies emerging in the human world were transferred to new concerns with environmental change and the future of reproduction generally. Life had been reduced to information.

Third, geneticization became inseparable from its instrumentalization or the uses that could be made of it. In addition to being able to make new life and change existing life at will (theoretically), geneticization made possible completely new forms of property and power. More can be done with genes, such as the capitalization of life itself. The commodification of genomics drove international scientific competition to claim biotechnical market share but also expertise in the management and surveillance of genetic risk. Patents were now possible for new life. As Franklin (2000) put it, ”emergent definitions of genetic risk, and their attendant techniques of detection and intervention, are indexical of changing relationships between health and pathology, disease and cure, technoscience and the body, humans and animals, and the regulation of public health. In turn, such altered understandings contextualize the ways in which life itself can be owned, capitalized and patented.”

Nature becomes biology, becomes genetics, through which life itself becomes reprogrammable information across time, space, and ”species” (which become irrelevant?). Franklin asks us to think about Jurassic Park as an example of the emergent genetic imaginary. However, it is not just life that changes but being. Creatures such as Dolly the Sheep, ”Onco mouse,” and Jefferson the Calf were not born but made; they were not beings but ”done tos.” More social life will focus on accumulation strategy deals between corporate wealth generation and molecular biology. And as this hap pens, sociologists are beginning to ask whether society itself will become recombinant.

Tim Newton argues, however, that genetic technologies and future technologies to tackle hitherto uncontrolled natural forces such as weather and volcanic activity will dissolve finally the very distinction between biology and society: ”What remains of interest is how far human techno linguistic skill will enable us to increasingly plasticize biological and physical processes and ‘short circuit’ seemingly millennial natural stabilities. Are we moving toward plastic bodies (with ‘clonable’ parts) and a pliable world where we will be able to play with all the times of nature? If we move toward the latter scenario, current differences between natural and social times will increasingly erode” (2003a: 27-8).

In the meantime, the sociological study of society and biology will monitor not only social change emerging from new technologies and their implications, but also its contested nature in the realm of biopolitics. Nikolas Rose says that ”the biological existence of human beings has become political in novel ways” (2001:1). He traces the history of biopolitics, beginning with the nineteenth to mid twentieth centuries when those in power sought to discipline individuals, through health and hygiene regimes and breeding programs, ”in the name of the population.” Further into the twentieth century the massive political apparatus of health would not have been possible without the increasing health aspirations of the people themselves. This alliance between state and people shifted in the second half of the twentieth century from an emphasis on avoiding sickness to an emphasis on attaining well being (an optimization of health, but also of beauty, fitness, happiness, sexuality, and more). As Rose says: ”selfhood has become intrinsically somatic – ethical practices increasingly take the body as a key site for work on the self” (2001: 18). This biopolitics merges with what he has called ethopolitics or the politics of life itself: ”the ethos of human existence – the sentiments moral nature or guiding beliefs of per sons, groups, or institutions – have come to provide the ‘medium’ within which the self government of the autonomous individual can be connected up with the imperatives of good government. In ethopolitics, life itself, as it is lived in its everyday manifestations, is the object of adjudication” (2001: 18). Because of this, the salience of biology and society is not just important for sociology, it is the basis on which important life choices must be made by most of the individuals it studies.


  1. Franklin, A. S. (2002) Nature and Social Theory. Sage, London.
  2. Franklin, S. (2000) Life Itself: Global Nature and the Genetic Imaginary. Online.
  3. Franklin, S. (2001) Are We Post-Genomic? Online.
  4. Newton, T. (2003a) Truly Embodied Sociology: Marrying the Social and the Biological. Sociological Review 51(1): 20-42.
  5. Newton, T. (2003b) Crossing the Great Divide: Time, Nature, and the Social. Sociology 37(3): 433-57.
  6. Rose, N. (2001) The Politics of Life Itself. Theory, Culture, and Society 18(6): 1-30.

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