Last Wednesday, Cheryl posted an interesting analysis of the nature vs. nurture debate that has plagued the social and biological sciences since their emergence. More and more research, from both disciplinary areas, is accumulating to overturn this simplistic dichotomy. Rather than thinking of ourselves as purely determined by our body chemistry and structure OR by our social environment, it is useful to think of ourselves as what Donna Haraway terms “material-semiotic” entities—that is, as unique combinations of natural and cultural elements. This way of theorizing the relationship between nature and culture—or rather, the mutual and continuing construction of nature and culture—is given to us by critical science studies scholars. By thinking, as Haraway does, in terms of “naturecultures,” we escape the nature/nurture divide, merging the two inseparably. What we call “nature” and “culture”/“nurture” are actually mutually constituted. (more…)
While Sociologists of Culture and feminist theorists among others, have long emphasized the culturally contingent aspects of the construction of reality. A recent article about alcohol consumption in the New Yorker (see article below) illustrates not only this particular point but also draws attention to the ways in which these practices and seemingly “real” facts of social life are situated and structured. In essence, we embody these practices in ways that (re)produce them as a reality that exists apart from or rather outside of us. According to the authors of the study, “Persons learn about drunkenness what their societies import to them, and comporting themselves in consonance with these understandings, they become living confirmations of their society’s teachings.”
Such studies are reminders that the relationship between nature and nurture is dynamic and its consequences are both social and biological. In other words, the prevalence of sexual assault and violence in conjunction with alcoholic consumption has little to do with hormones and “natural” urges and more to do with the cultural context in which such behavior has become expected and perhaps even physically enabled. The social and cultural construction of reality is not merely a concept, it is a way of life that is dialectically engaged with our biology.
” Drinking Games,” The New Yorker
By Dena T. Smith
In the last several decades, the field of medicine has become increasingly dominated by biological thinking. Psychiatry, a sub-field aimed at treating mental illness is largely focused on the genetic causes of a wide range of conditions. This perspective stands in opposition to the notion that environmental factors cause symptoms – that changes in biology and/or neurochemistry are dictated by certain situations and conditions to which an organism is exposed. Depression is one illness category under scrutiny as of late. The majority of psychiatric studies on depression claim a genetic responsibility for this condition. Some even conclude that there is a single serotonin gene responsible for this disease, making it seem as though the gene-environment puzzle has been solved; differences in one gene or several explain why people respond differently even to the same conditions.
There has been fervent disagreement from mental health researchers outside psychiatry, but, in the last few months there has been opposition to the one-gene argument from within the psychiatric world. A review in the June 17th edition of JAMA attempts to replicate the 2003, ‘single-gene’ findings of Caspi et al and show that the relationship between genes and environment is far more complicated and muddled than one serotonin gene causing an illness. In fact, these researchers found more evidence that stressful life events would predict depressive episodes than would a particular gene. While this is a complicated debate and there is certainly no clear answer, discussions such as this highlight the importance of the work of sociologists of mental health. Epidemiological studies show, time and again, that factors such as poverty, gender, ethnicity, and culture more broadly affect one’s likelihood to become depressed – or to experience a range of what psychiatry views as pathological, neuro-biologically driven conditions.