Canadian Journal of Sociology Online September-October 2000

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Raymond Murphy.
Sociology and Nature: Social Action in Context.

Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1997, 321 pp. $Cdn 28.50 paper (0813328667), $Cdn 72.00 cloth (0813328659)

A few years ago, the sociology department of a major United States university held a colloquium on the place of nature in the discipline. During his presentation, a senior professor argued that sociology ignores nature to its immense peril, for society is embedded within the natural world, he said, and everything that we do is in some sense shaped by that world. Many in the audience found it a persuasive presentation packed with logic, historical observations from sociology, and relevant material from the work of eminent natural scientists.

Afterward, one of the presenter’s colleagues, obviously unimpressed, raised his hand and asked, “If nature is so important, how do I plug it into a regression formula meant to explain family behavior?”

I relate this story for two reasons. First, it exemplifies one of Raymond Murphy’s central points in Sociology and Nature. Making nature matter in sociology is and always has been an uphill battle. Sociologists are quite comfortable with the social, but, following Durkheim’s dictum to study only the social, they rarely see how anything nonhuman is relevant to their work.

Second, nature itself is a difficult, slippery, contentious concept that has largely gone unexplored by sociology.

While the first point consumes portions of Sociology and Nature, the second – exploring nature’s meaning and acknowledging the possibility that there is more than one nature out there in society, and even in the scientific world – is treated by Murphy as a largely irrelevant, yet terribly dangerous, issue. Asking how nature can be operationally defined and plugged into a regression formula is hardly the best approach to this problem, but at least it problematizes nature, and that is an essential step in making nature matter to the discipline. Murphy refuses to take that step.

Indeed, Murphy sees the social construction of nature as the arch enemy of a naturalized sociology, rather than a potentially helpful approach to resolving social conflict over environmental issues. Nature, Murphy argues, is an absolute, and we know nature through an ecological science that presents to us a true and undeniable picture of the environment. At times Murphy equivocates, acknowledging that science is a politically charged undertaking that is influenced by a variety of social forces. Those moments are little more than cursory nods, however.

There is no question that some constructivists have gone too far in their attacks on science and on the nature that scientists have created. Some have argued that the data gathered by scientists about the nonhuman world are little more than figments of scientists’ imaginations. Others insist that the data are contaminated because scientific reliability and validity standards are created by humans; nature, as science knows it, is little more than the knowledge that arbitrary scientific standards have been met. As such, the story goes, what passes for nature is in fact mere social consensus. Murphy spends most of the first 63 pages arguing that constructivism has done little more than reinforce the false division between society and nature.

Regrettably, Murphy goes beyond an assault on extreme constructivists of science and technology in his attack on the work of Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, who introduced the social construction concept in their 1966 book, The Social Construction of Reality. It should be noted – and Murphy does not – that Berger and Luckmann’s work is virtually never cited by contemporary constructivists. Regrettably, Berger and Luckmann’s extraordinary book, carefully balanced as it was between an acceptance of empirical reality and an assertion that only through shared meanings does that reality have a human social existence, has had little impact on this controversial area of study.

Still, Murphy holds up The Social Construction of Reality as an example of sociology’s blindness to society’s embeddedness in nature, contending that Berger and Luckmann espoused a view of society that envisioned no limits hindering humanity. (The notion of limitlessness that pervades sociology has long been called into question by environmental sociologists, though to little effect.) However, nothing in Berger and Luckmann’s book can rightfully be taken as a denial of the presence and power of nature over human behavior.

In pursuing this argument, Murphy fails to give Berger and Luckmann their due. He selectively quotes material from their book, while a more complete reading would acknowledge that Berger and Luckmann explicitly note both that society affects nature and that Homo sapiens is a biological entity that is, in many ways, like all others (see Murphy, 1997: 4; cf: Berger and Luckmann, 1967: 47-48). It is regrettable that a scholar of Murphy’s standing condemns Berger and Luckmann without presenting a balanced case.

To his credit, Murphy does note that a middle ground exists between two extreme versions of constructivism: this is a “mediative view” (1997: 22) that situates scientists’ constructions of nature in a macrosocial context. Ultimately this is of little use to him as he attempts to bury more extreme constructivism. Surely it should not take three chapters to do so, however.

The remainder of the book is an uncomfortable mixture, and the central organizing theme(s) of Sociology and Nature are unclear. Chapters 7 through 9, and the latter part of Chapter 10, are where Murphy actually addresses why and how nature might matter to sociologists. He does so by noting how a range of natural forces have shaped human social behavior. However, elsewhere Murphy takes readers on excessively long and seemingly tangential journies into others’ works (Chapter 4 on Ulrich Beck’s “risk society”) and over the tiresome and well trod debate between deep ecologists and social ecologists (Chapter 11).

Sociology and Nature is a missed opportunity. Instead of developing a strong argument for the inclusion of nature in sociology, much of this book is spent on sharp negative attacks and seemingly unconnected excursions. Along the way, Murphy only grudgingly admits that nature might be a somewhat uncertain concept, yet that concept’s problematic character is never attended to.

The planet is in deep trouble. Sociology is blind to the connections between the human and the so-called natural. Unfortunately, those looking for a way to bridge this gulf will have to continue their search.

Rik Scarce
Michigan State University
September 2000
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