December 8, 2017, by Brigitte Nerlich

Biology and sociology: estrangement and entanglement

Ever since my PhD, I have been fascinated by the interplay, interrelations, mutual inspirations, struggle and strife between various disciplines that began to establish themselves during the 19th century, such as linguistics (which became the focus of my research), sociology, biology and so on. In recent years, a little flood of literature has emerged that speaks of an ‘estrangement between sociology and biology’. In this context, a ‘remedy’ is often invoked which seems to lie in exploiting an opening offered by one recent addition to ‘biology’, namely epigenetics, which studies various relations between genes and ‘environments’ (from cellular to ‘social’, so we are told by proponents of this remedy).

In the following I’ll reflect a bit on these two issues and ask how some social scientists conceptualise this estrangement between ‘biology’ and ‘sociology’ and whether ‘epigenetics’ provides an opportunity for overcoming this estrangement (leaving aside, for the moment, that ‘biology’ and ‘sociology’ are huge and diverse fields of inquiry and so is ‘epigenetics’). I also reflect on possibly overlooked entanglements between the two fields.


I came across the word ‘estrangement’ in the introduction to a new Handbook of Biology and Society. The first sentence of the introduction says: “For many decades, the study of society and the study of biology have been estranged from one another.” (p.1) No evidence for this, seemingly commonsensical, assertion is provided, but the authors hint at two things: the estrangement is, they posit, the result of, firstly, ‘biologists’ dealing with ‘genes’ in a certain narrow way and, secondly, in ‘social scientists’ dealing with the relation between the sciences of society and the sciences of life in a certain way – namely by making a “strict division of labour” between them. This claim of a strict division is reinforced when we read about a “binary opposition” and even “symmetrical hostility” (p. 2); and on page 3 the authors talk about a “prevailing metaphysics that drives a wedge between biology and society”.

It’s not entirely clear who these estranged biologists and social scientists are or what that wedge-shaped metaphysics is. Some authors are however quoted as now showing that “this supposedly rigid biology/society border” is an illusion. A bit later we are told that the book’s “central assertion” is that “the life sciences, broadly conceived, are currently moving towards a more social view of biological process, just as the social sciences are beginning to reincorporate notions of the biological body into their investigation.” This might be so, but no evidence for this shift, for this rapprochement after estrangement, is given, especially for the life sciences. We are also not told what the meaning of ‘social’ is in this context.

On later pages relating to the outline of the handbook, various words are used that indicate that the book is all about overcoming this supposed estrangement and/or dichotomy between biology and sociology (or indeed showing how it didn’t exist in the past). The authors use words like “the transactions between biology and sociology” (p. 7), “at the crossroads of the social and biological” (p. 7), “a potential bridge between the social and the natural sciences” (p. 8) (italics added). Such connections can, it seems, be found in neuroplasticity and epigenetics, or, more generally, in research into the ‘biosocial’.

In a recent chapter contributing to another book on the biosocial, we find the sentence: “Epigenetics has considerable potential to transform social science by embedding mutually regulative reciprocal connections between biological and social processes within the human activities it studies.” This and similar assertions seem to be central to claiming that biology and sociology can now work together again. (For more information on the biosocial turn in science and technology studies, see here and here)

Epigenetics to the rescue?

While I was reading about this assumed estrangement and stipulated rapprochement, I came across an article by Emanuel Gaziano, published in 1996 in the American Journal of Sociology under the title “Ecological metaphors as scientific boundary work: Innovation and authority in interwar sociology and biology” (which itself refers to an article by Edward Byron Reuter for the same journal published some 70 years earlier, in 1927, under the title “The relation of biology and sociology”).

I don’t want to delve deeply into the long-standing relations (including quarrels and fights for independence) between biology and sociology (but see some reflections below). Instead Gaziano’s article made me think about the intellectual work that ‘ecology’ (following on from ‘organism‘, but that’s yet another story) did for sociology in the early 20th century and ask whether the same intellectual work is now being done by ‘epigenetics’ in the early 21st century – or not.

According to Gaziano, ecology seems to have been a biological term that sociologists found good to think with. Does epigenetics do a similar job? Is it a good concept to think with? In the 1930s sociologists took to the concept of ecology and started to think about human ecology and that worked well for them. It enabled them to achieve new insights into social organisation. However, Gaziano also points out that ‘ecology’ didn’t really bring sociologists and biologists together to think jointly about life and society.

What about ‘epigenetics’? Does it allow sociologists to achieve new insights into sociological matters? And does it allow them to do so jointly with biologists? Unlike ‘ecology’, the concept of epigenetics is still quite vague and ambiguous, even in the sciences that use it. So it might not be so good for sociologists to think with. This also then begs the question as to whether it can be used to innovate sociology and its relation with biology and vice versa. Does it really bring social scientists and biologists together to jointly think about the links between life and society? I suspect that it might fail in this task even more so than ‘ecology’ did.

My reasons for this suspicion are grounded in another suspicion, namely that we are dealing with various cases of over-interpretation (over-dramatisation) which have been used to build the foundations for claims about estrangement and rapprochement. Firstly, for some time now, some social scientists have overemphasised the way that ‘biologists’ fixate on the ‘fixity of genes’ (using words like determinism, reductionism and so on to chastise them; in some cases probably rightly so, but not all cases); secondly, some social scientists now overemphasise or over-interpret the flexibility of epigenetic phenomena (especially fixing their gaze on transgenerational effects), something that ‘biologists’ are well aware of but tend to deal with quite differently; and thirdly, some social scientists also fixate on the ‘fixity’ of the dichotomy between ‘biology’ and ‘sociology’. (All this needs more research, of course)


When reflecting on the purported binary divide between sociology and biology which incited me to write this post, I had a chat with various people and they made me think much more about entanglement. One person asked rightly, I think: What about fields like medical sociology and the sociology of health and illness which have begun to flourish in recent decades, alongside new journals, such as New Genetics and Society or BioSocieties, for example?

Another person guided me to an article about neuroscience and the city in which one of the editors of the Handbook of Biology and Sociology, Des Fitzgerald, says: “we are struck by the deep tangles of social and biological thought that have persisted through the century just passed.” (Italics in the original)

One thing is clear when looking at the history of biology and sociology (even superficially): there seems to be more entanglement than estrangement. I’ll end these brief reflections on entanglement with a quote by Benjamin Ziemann who said: “The conceptual contact between biology and sociology is certainly more than only a fading historical reminiscence.”

Creating universes of discourse

In his 1996 article, Gaziano claims that Robert E. Park (a famous sociologist who was inspired by the ecology metaphor) “developed the field of human ecology by creating what he called a ‘universe of discourse,” which he defined as “a body of expressions and grammar, a language which [forms] the basis of a common speech in [a] field” and he “ensured that the language of ecology would become an integral part of sociological knowledge” (pp. 896-97).

It seems to me that the proponents of a biosocial approach to sociology also try to create a new ‘universe of discourse’. A certain interpretation of the concept of epigenetics is central to this construction. However, it is not clear to me whether epigenetics is used as a metaphor to think with or not. It is also not clear to me whether those studying actual epigenetics are invited into this universe of discourse. And finally, I wonder whether certain sociological interpretations of ‘epigenetics’ might preclude such an interdisciplinary collaboration.

Image: Wikimedia Commons Calm before the storm

Posted in epigeneticsgenomicssociology