Debugging the Link Between Social Theory and Social Insects

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During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, natural and social scientists began comparing certain insects to human social organization. Entomologists theorized that social insects -- such as ants, bees, wasps, and termites -- organize themselves into highly specialized, hierarchical divisions of labor. Using a distinctly human vocabulary that reflected the dominant social structure of the time, they described insects as queens, workers, and soldiers and categorized their behaviors with words like marriage, slavery, farming, and factories. At the same time, sociologists working to develop a model for human organization compared people to insects, relying on the same premise that humans arrange themselves hierarchically. In Debugging the Link between Social Theory and Social Insects, Diane M. Rodgers explains how these co-constructed theories reinforced one another, thereby naturalizing Western conceptions of race, class, and gender as they gained prominence in popular culture and the scientific world.

Using a critical science studies perspective not previously applied to research on social insect symbolism, Rodgers attempts to "debug" this theoretical co-construction. She provides sufficient background information to accommodate readers unfamiliar with entomology -- including in-depth explanations of the terms used in the research and discussion of social insects, particularly the insect sociality scale. The entire premise of sociality for insects depends on a dominant understanding of high/low civilization standards -- particularly the tenets of a specialized division of labor and hierarchy -- comparisons that appear to be informed by nineteenth-century colonial thought. Placing these theories in a historical and cross-cultural context, Rodgers explains why hierarchical ideas gained prominence, despite the existence of opposing theories in the literature, and how they resulted in an inhibiting vocabulary that relies more heavily on metaphors than on description.

Such analysis is necessary, Rodgers argues, because it sheds light both on newly proposed scientific models and on future changes in human social structures. Contemporary scientists have begun to challenge the traditional understanding of insect social organization and to propose new interdisciplinary models that combine ideas about social insect and human organizational structure with computer technologies. Without a thorough understanding of how the old models came about, residual language and embedded assumptions may remain and continue to reinforce hierarchical social constructions.

This intriguing interdisciplinary book makes an important contribution to the history -- and future -- of science and sociology.

LSU Press

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780807133699
  • Publisher: Lsu Press
  • Publication date: 2/28/2009
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Diane M. Rodgers is an assistant professor of sociology at Northern Illinois University.

LSU Press

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Sort by: Showing all of 3 Customer Reviews
  • Posted April 24, 2009

    This one is a keeper !

    The book was a joy to read. It speaks clearly of the ways in which people's subjective meanings become "knowledge" - or, as Berger and Luckmann put it, "subjective meanings becoming objective facticities." The book is especially keen on illustrating the flawed logic in the legitimation process of knowledge - in particular, the circular logic in what Rodgers call the "legimitating loop," which involves the reification of the social theories with the scientific theories that are themselves the products of the very social theories they are validating. As an illustration, the book takes a critical examination of the production process of the enotomological knowledge. Rodgers approaches the study from the post-Kuhnian perspective in which she is explicitly aware of the value-laden structural forces that affect the shaping of the "scientific" knowledge and from which she is able to practice "strong objectivity" in her analysis. She takes on multiple standpoints (not technically the standpoints of insects but assumed as are) in examining a single phenomenon (i.e., the insect's organizational behavior) by analyzing several different discourses about the phenomenon - each taken from different standpoint in terms of the underlying assumptions about human societies. Specifically, she adopts the standpoints that are consistent with the feminist, socialist, and post-colonial perspectives. Her critical discourse analysis successfully counters the existing dominant discourses on the insect behavior and their associated social theories. This book is highly recommended for all those who are interested in social constructionivism and the ways in which ideas are reified.

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  • Posted April 23, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A wonderful addition to critical sociology

    Throughout the last two centuries analogies have developed, comparing insect and human social organization. These analogies of people as insects and insects as people naturalize hierarchal human social structures. Using a theoretical framework to deconstruct generally accepted ideas of society, In Debugging the Link between Social Theory and Social Insects, Diane M. Rogers employs post-Kuhnian, feminist, and postcolonial science study. She aims to provide an understanding employing cross-cultural and historical evidence to "de-naturalize," a term coined by Fairclough (1995). Coming into this reading with Sandra Harding's (1991) standpoint theory fresh in my mind, Rodgers speaks to a questioning of generally accepted classificationary language applicable to a Western worldview. To critique social insect symbolism is to question the biological implications we give to the way humans move and relate in the Western world. Insect classification in regards to social sciences has naturalized race, class, and gender hierarchies in the social world. Rodgers states that, "understanding the past constructions, how they were socially constructed, and the worldviews of standpoints they reflect is important for attempting to analyze current co-constructions." While new theory attempts to debunk old science and biosocial classifications, new paradigms are infiltrated with historical hierarchal analogies. The implications for future fusion with technological advancements of social insect and human analogy threaten to cement old assumptions of race, class, and gender. Rodgers calls for a shift in critical thinking and a "de-bugging" of the social co-construction. The more specialized the division of labor, the higher the insects sit on the hierarchy. Termites are regarded as the "perfect model" because of their highly specialized division of labor. As in human societies, highly specialized individuals within the larger society are seemed to be the most valuable, hierarchally speaking. However, termites were not always distinct, as they were often mistaken for species of ants and preference for one group often depends on the researcher's access and ease of observation. That being said, it is clear that the research defines his own terms, placing perfect implications on what works best for him. Rodgers points out that general laws of social organization are "framed as objective science, yet they were proposed and supported by social actors within a social context," or standpoint). The context of the researcher politically and systematically influences the intersection while legitimizing disempowering terminology paraded as truth (especially with the biological implication adding to an "unquestionable" nature of the arguments). As Kuhn (1962) pointed out in the The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science is often regarded as exempt from social, cultural, and political influences. However, it is important to remember that external influences infiltrate scientific paradigms. Once naturalized, ideas of social hierarchy are dangerously embedded in the discourse and practices of society. Rodgers, citing Sandra Harding (1991), claims that social construction is manifested as relativism within all knowledge. She calls for a stronger standard of objectivity, recognizing that while the researcher is socially influenced in their science, it is then the researcher's responsibility to critically assess his own claims......

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2009

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