Society and Biology Essay

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Biology and society is one of the new transdisciplinary fields for sociology that emerged in the 1990s. Owing to its strong links with genetic research, medicine, health, agriculture, environment, science, and technology it has developed a number of important research centres.

In the 1990s it became clear, from work in 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. Critically, social phenomena operate in material and biotic contexts in which important transfers of materials, information, prehensions, and inscriptions take place.

Sarah Franklin (2007) argues that we can identify three shifts in the way life itself has been considered in modernity.

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 become 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 orientated 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.

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 captitalization 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. In turn, such altered understandings contextualize the ways in which life itself can be owned, capitalized and patented.

But it is not just life that changes but being. Creatures such as Dolly the Sheep and “Oncomouse” weren’t 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 happens sociologists are beginning to ask whether society itself will become recombinant?

Newton (2003a) argues that genetic technologies and future technologies to tackle hitherto uncontrolled natural forces such as weather and volcanic activity will dissolve the 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?” (pp. 27-8).

The study of society and biology will not only monitor social change emerging from new technologies and their implications, but also its contested nature in the realm of biopolitcs. Rose (2001) argues that: ”[T]he biological existence of human beings has become political in novel ways” (1). He traces the history of biopolitics beginning with the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century when those in power sought to discipline individuals, through health and hygiene regimes and breeding programmes, ”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 beauty, fitness, happiness, sexuality, and more). As he says: ethical practices increasingly take the body as a key site for work on the self” (Rose 2001: 18).


  1. Franklin, S. (2000) Life Itself: Global Nature and the Genetic Imaginary: Sage, London
  2. Franklin, A. (2002) Nature and Social Theory. Sage, London.
  3. Newton, T. (2003a) Truly embodied sociology: marrying the social and the biological. Sociological Review 51 (1): 20-42.
  4. Newton, T. (2003b) Crossing the great divide: time, nature and the social. Sociology 37 (3): 433-57.
  5. Rose, N. (2001) The politics of life itself. Theory, Culture and Society 18 (6): 1-30.

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