Sunday, 21 February 2010

3: Sarah Franklin gets Sheepish

A drawback of the ‘what I am reading this week’ conceit of Sociology 52, is the requirement to confess to books that I really should have already read but never have. Sarah Franklin’s study of the world’s most famous clone – Dolly the Sheep (Dolly Mixtures: the Remaking of Genealogy [2007]) - falls into that category.

Dolly Mixtures is part of an impressive trajectory of work by Franklin on the new life sciences and innovative reproductive technologies in particular. The book is also, however, an exploration of the longstanding and profound social, cultural, economic and political significance of sheep and as such is an example of a new genre of animal studies in the social sciences. Given the many ways in which humans live with and through other animals, it is remarkable that anthropology has (to some extent) and sociology has (almost entirely) previously neglected this topic.

The wider contribution of the book is I think two-fold. The first is in its approach that includes history and cultural studies alongside social studies of science and suggests that analysis of new life sciences needs to add ‘bioculture’ to its lexicon alongside ‘biocapital’, ‘biopower’ and ‘biopolitics’. Franklin argues that we cannot separate new biologies from the meaning systems that they reproduce and depend on- they are at once material and discursive. The second contribution is to show that while the biosciences that produced Dolly are unprecedented, they are part of a very long story of selective breeding, the industrialization and globalization of livestock, and animals as capital. This story stretches back to pre-history. Sheep are one of a small group of animals that have been successfully adapted for farming. Sheep as we understand them have been made through ‘domestication’ but, as Franklin points out, in significant ways humans were also remade is the same dynamics. Franklin writes:
Since Dolly is an animal whose making belongs to a long tradition of innovation in the management of life itself as both an economic and national resource, she is the classic mixture of agricultural, scientific, medical, commercial, and industrial ambitions. Hence, while she is very much a late-twentieth-century animal in terms of the precise molecular technologies necessary to her creation, the feat of producing her viably belongs to a long tradition of reshaping animal bodies, crisscrossing cell lines, and redesigning animal germplasm in the interests of both capital accumulation and national or imperial expansion. (pp5-6)

Franklin does an excellent job of exploring the traces of past, present and future embodied in Dolly and the rich stew of discourses she provoked. Dolly was not strictly a clone as she was constructed from more than one animal’s cells but she was novel in being a higher vertebrate put together in a petrie dish using adult cells. As Franklin explains, this demonstration that the differentiation of cells could be reversed restructured biological thinking and practice. The story of Dolly, therefore, takes us forward into new life sciences that see biology as molecular and malleable. Concretely, the techniques that made Dolly are crucial to current stem cell research.

Franklin here and elsewhere is cautious about the value of social scientists adopting ethical or political positions in the debates that surround new reproductive technologies: instead our role is to analyse those debates. While I do not entirely agree, I am happy to admit that Dolly Mixtures is a vindication of her position. It is a far more interesting and useful book than one that attempted to decide ‘for’ or ‘against’ cloning or stem cell research. This is evident in the closing pages where Franklin explains how public discourse around reproductive technology takes place between two poles of, on the one hand, hopes of greater control through the application of biology and, on the other, fears that biology is or could be ‘out of control’.

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