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Defining the 'social': towards an understanding of scientific and medical discourses on the social aspects of the new human genetics

Cunningham-Burley, S   Kerr, A

Sociology of Health & Illness   21 (5) 647-668

September 1999   (First published online December 2001)

The way in which 'the social' is treated in discourses about the new human genetics is an important marker of the interests and relative power of the groups it concerns. Scientists and clinicians are powerful players in such discussions and seem to be able to direct attention towards the social implications of genetics, often viewed as beneficial, rather than to the science and technology itself. This can serve to protect their cognitive authority by promoting the benefits of their work and marginalising more critical commentaries.

Here, three aspects of some written accounts of the social aspects of genetics are considered: the social use and abuse of genetics; eugenics and genetic determinism; and professional responsibilities and expertise. We consider the dominant and minority discourses within these accounts and reflect on the stances taken by clinical and molecular geneticists and public health specialists. We argue that these discourses create strategic boundaries between science and society which protect scientists' cognitive authority, but that critical leverage can nevertheless be garnered when these boundaries become blurred. This might be usefully combined with social scientists' empirical and theoretical analyses of the new human genetics, in order to facilitate more sophisticated and inclusive policy discussions and decisions.