Sociology works its magic on science

April 20, 2007

Multimedia to multidisciplinary, social scientists are pursuing new research methods. Rebecca Attwood reports from their annual conference

It may sound an unlikely pairing, but under a new initiative sociologists are working with experts at the cutting edge of stem-cell science.

In what some say is proof that the stereotypical image of sociologists as "a bunch of Marxist theorists" is far outdated, the Economic and Social Research Council is investing millions of pounds in work that examines the economic, social and ethical consequences of stem-cell research.

The council is funding a major programme that is helping sociologists gain access to the science laboratory and assess its impact on society.

A stream of papers at this year's British Sociological Association conference was devoted to the work of sociologists in this field.

And stem-cell science is not the only area where the ESRC is funding social scientists to work with natural scientists. As well as the £3.4 million ESRC Social Science Stem Cell Initiative, the ESRC Genomics Network is set to receive £17 million over the next five years.

Paul Atkinson, co-director of the ESRC Research Centre on Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics, who researches the sociology of medical knowledge and the social consequences of new genetic technologies, cited the levels of investment in his field. "It really gets on my nerves when people imply that sociology is, or ever was, a bunch of Marxist theorists!" he said.

Andrew Webster, national co-ordinator of the ESRC Social Science Stem Cell Initiative (SCI), explained why sociologists need to work closely with bioscientists.

"First, we need to know what is actually going on in the field if we are to determine how radical its impact on society, health and the body is likely to be," said Professor Webster.

"Second, in working with bioscientists we can provide them with insight into the broader context within which their work is located, be this regulatory, organisational, ethical or cultural."

Among the issues sociologists are examining in relation to stem cells are questions of accountability, ethical boundaries, state intervention, sources of tissue, economic aspects and the hype surrounding the field.

A key concern is translational research, movement of scientific discoveries from bench to bedside.

Clare Williams, a professor of social science of biomedicine at King's College London who is involved in the SCI, said that sociologists could question the "taken for granted" assumptions behind the research agenda.

She said: "Bioscience is a key issue for society, and it is therefore important that sociologists are working in and contributing to the area.

One of the major aims of sociology is to 'make the strange seem familiar and the familiar seem strange'. If we apply this to the sociology of bioscience, then social research entails becoming knowledgeable enough about science to interact as 'lay experts' with scientists."

Of course, as with any interdisciplinary work, there are challenges.

Professor Webster said: "We cannot simply become apologists for the field but must retain a critical position towards it. One of the dangers is that some stem-cell scientists, but not all, seem to see the role of social science as 'educator' of an uninformed public."

Professor Williams said there could be a tension between becoming an 'insider' and trusted colleague and maintaining a separate, distinct and sometimes critical sociological voice.

She describes the benefits as "academic curiosity, a sense of wonder, discovering new insights and the sheer fun of cross-disciplinary collaboration."

Already the SCI is helping to inform public debate and policy-making and has had input to the forthcoming House of Lords debate.

So what do the scientists involved think?

Peter Andrews, Arthur Jackson professor of biomedical science at Sheffield University, said: "Scientific research likes to view itself as 'pristine'

in which dispassionate scientists pursue 'truth.' Clearly, such a view has no relation to reality. Scientists are human and pursue scientific research with all the same issues that affect other human activities."

He added: "As in all areas of research, cross-disciplinary activity generates problems in understanding different approaches and terminology.

At the same time, interdisciplinary work can spark new ideas and opportunities."

rebecca.attwood@thes.co.uk

CHOOSING VIEW OVER INTERVIEW

Sociologists are looking beyond the traditional interview towards new methods of gathering research data.

Cardiff University academics working on a pilot project, titled (Extra)ordinary Lives, are gathering information about the lives of young people in care.

Young people are invited to choose a medium through which to represent their everyday lives. So far they have come up with film, photography, drawing, writing and scrapbooks, and some have taken researchers on walking tours of where they live.

Sally Holland, the principal investigator, said the process was not one-sided and that the approach had helped young people develop new skills.

GIVING RECEIVES A BOOST

As UK universities step up fundraising efforts, academic research into philanthropy is about to get a boost.

In a paper presented to the British Sociological Association annual conference last week, Beth Breeze of Kent University argues that the act of philanthropy has been strangely neglected by British sociologists.

Her comments came as the Economic and Social Research Council confirmed that it was offering £2.2 million to universities to help set up a centre researching philanthropy.

"Sociology textbooks have nothing to say about philanthropy. Look up the index under 'P' and you find polygamy, paganism and penis envy, but not philanthropy," she said.

Due to an apparent lack of interest in researching, philanthropy was difficult to square with the scale of giving in modern Britain, she said.

But despite the public's generosity, Ms Breeze says the British find it hard to conceal a "collective distaste" for philanthropists.

She is investigating possible reasons why philanthropy lacks cultural affirmation, including the fact that it draws attention to inequalities and can be perceived as creating greater benefits for donors than for recipients.

'MY CAREER HAS BEEN DAMAGED'

Sarah Goode, a sociologist at Winchester University, presented a paper at the British Sociological Association conference on her research into online paedophile communities. Here, she talks about her fight to get the controversial study through the institution's ethics committee.

Here is a thought experiment you might like to conduct.

Imagine, for a moment, that you are increasingly worried by your sexual feelings towards children.

What do you do? Do you:

a) Discuss your experiences with partner or friend?

b) Seek the advice of your doctor or therapist?

c) Visit the library to read up on the matter?

d) Phone the newly established national helpline Stop It Now on 0808 1000 900?

e) Quietly go online and see what you can find out?

For the purposes of this thought experiment, we will assume you have chosen the last option and you Google a word such as "paedophile".

Google results are ranked according to how often web-pages are accessed and so within four clicks anyone conducting this experiment will find themselves poised to enter an entirely legal, pro-paedophile site.

Should anyone want to enter such a site, they would encounter a range of information, advice and support, including assurances that sexual attraction to children can be a highly positive experience, rewarding for both the adult and the child.

It is these sites and the views and experiences of the people involved with them that form the subject of my research.

I am studying the alternative discourses around paedophilia, which are easily available online and yet which are so divergent from the dominant mainstream discourses of bureaucratised social work or emotionalised tabloid journalism.

To do this relatively straightforward piece of academic research, I have had to battle with two years of suspicion and hostility.

Is this kind of research too dangerous for academics to engage with? Are ethics committees forcing academic studies such as this out of universities? And, if so, is research on paedophiles now only possible within the cursory sound-bite world of tabloid investigative journalism?

If this is permitted to happen, academic freedom is curtailed, and as a society we are impoverished in our ability to respond to critical social problems such as child sexual abuse.

It probably helps that I am a woman researching this area, but even that has not protected me from rumour. Indeed, my career has probably been permanently damaged by choosing to research in this area.

Academic freedom is a tenuous concept at best. For all our sakes, it deserves to be defended by open, honest and robust debate.

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