The aim of my proposed research is to find grounds for communication between biology and sociology. I believe this is needed to help resolve ecological problems. In human ecosystems, there is frequently an overlap between the biology of organisms and the sociology of their behaviour (McGlade 1993, Shiva 1993). However each discipline may not always recognise the validity of the other's approaches to common problems.
One particular example of this has been the recent discussions over genetically modified (GM) foods. A question we might ask is: "who has the authority within political decision-making to judge the safety of GM foods?" From one position there is a call for scientific measure of risk to have authority (New Scientist editorial), from another position there is a call for consumer choice between labeled foods (Consumer Association).
I have particularly highlighted these two positions as they link closely with my M.Sc. thesis "Accounting for Environmental Decision-Making". The main conclusion of that work was that the multiple feedback systems involved in ecosystems make objective valuation and rational choice models of decision making difficult to attain in practice. I proposed that decision makers should change their measurement systems as they became ineffective. However, the main text also offered examples of multiple systems of valuation within decision-making.
From this position, can biology and sociology be considered as alternative systems of valuation within an ecological context? If so, how then do they differ and resemble each other and how can a degree of communication be set up between them? In many ways, this approach is influenced our professor at Warwick University, Jacquie McGlade. She introduced us to Habermas' ideas of Communication Action and Communicative Rationality and applied these ideas to the governance of fisheries.
Another influence on my work was John S. Dryzek, who has applied communicative rationality to public policy and the politics of environmental decision-making. After finishing my M.Sc., I managed to get a place to study with him in Melbourne, Australia, but I was unable gain funding to take up the place. For the last three years I have been doing background reading, attempting to find areas within sociology that offer tentative links to my previous knowledge of mathematics, computation, ecology and biology. After a few false starts, I believe I have identified a few areas that deserve further research.
As an initial plan, I propose to split my dissertation into three parts. (See attached outline.) The first attempts to find links through mathematics and linguistics. The second part will review the work of five recent sociologists. The third will look at the roles of calcium in the human body. As far as is possible, I will try to arrange the text into 5000 word essays. This is partially to narrow down my research to specific areas, and partially to split the task of writing the Ph.D. into manageable chunks. Prof. McGlade expected her Ph.D. students to publish at least three articles before they finished their research, I hope to continue this tradition.
Part I. This will look at:
In my present job as Community Information Assistant at Ilfracombe Library, I am involved in maintaining and searching a database of local organisations. This constantly involves me in the structures of relationship between different organisations and reminds me of the differences between database structures and hypertext structures. My current web pages were inspired by my inability to construct an effective bibliography with a database. I am currently looking at ways in which databases and hypertext can be linked.
Part II. At present, this section will review the work of Jurgen Habermas, Ulrich Beck, Umberto Eco, Stuart Hall, and Michel Foucault. I have chosen these five examples as they represent positions in sociology from which other sociological positions can be related. As I mentioned earlier, I have only recently started to read academic sociology, but I have read works by each of these authors. This is one reason why I am applying to do this research with a sociology department; my reading has been largely unstructured, following links as I see them - I need to understand sociology as working sociologists see it. The research interests at Exeter in problems of knowledge, reproductive technology, religion and music seem to offer the possibilities of many more connections between biology and sociology.
Another reason why I wish to conduct this research with a sociology department is that I did not complete an OU course last year (Culture, Media, Identities). This thesis of communication between biology and sociology will not be authoritative if it does not represent sociology adequately. I did not show that I knew a particular sociological idea before comparing it to a mathematical or biological idea. The low word limits and my desire in turn the questions into more interesting questions were also reasons for quitting. By limiting my review of sociology to the five authors named above I hope to allow myself space to discuss their ideas properly. On the plus side, I would say that I have also absorbed some sociological ideas from my reading of fiction authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, R.A. MacAvoy, Sheri S. Tepper, Jane Austen, Iain (M.) Banks. Frank Herbert, in particular, wrote about contextual action in human ecologies in his "Dune" series. His ideas seem to share common themes with Ulrich Beck’s ideas of reflexive modernisation (1986:1992). I have recently read Frankenstein and Brave New World.
Part III. This part will review the roles of calcium in the human body.
Genetic Modification requires certain assumption about the relationships between genotype (the genetic information within a organism) and phenotype (the physical embodiment of that organism). The arguments between biologists on genotype and phenotype have been endless, some principle arguments being between Richard Dawkins and Stephen J. Gould. Some recent approaches have considered the importance of non-genetic information in organisms (Rose 1993, Mae-Wan Ho 1998, Stewart and Cohen 1997).
By concentrating on the roles of calcium in the body, I hope to identify interactions between different systems of organisation. Recent work has highlighted the importance of these interactions (Bray 1994, Samuels 1996). The elemental nature of calcium makes in a useful example in two ways. First, it emphasises the important of metal ions in metabolism; it identifies metabolism as system in itself. Secondly, it is an element rather than a compound or a protein; therefore easier to detect and does not undergo extensive modification within the body's cells.
Finally, in the conclusions, I hope to interrelate ideas from these three sections. Seeing whether the ideas of symbolic code in linguistics and mathematics can be applied to organisation systems in the body. Seeing whether the post-formalist results of cultural theory ask questions about biology. Seeing whether other sociological ideas (that can be related to cultural theory) provide other questions. Seeing whether biological ideas (that can be related to mathematics) provide questions for sociology.
The main purpose of the conclusions is to question the effectiveness of biology-sociology translation. Generally, this will try to identify areas for future research. Specifically, it will question whether the example of calcium has provided sufficient justification for the continuation of the translation approach.