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Bringing The Body Back: The New Opening To Biology In Sociology
The dominant theme of the textbooks considered in the companion article to this (A Little Bit Pinker) is the rejection of theories of human nature as ‘biological’. The logic is that anything we share as humans, across time and cultural difference, our human nature, must be something which is ultimately ‘biological’ or at least an emergent property of our common biology. Sociology has no need of biological explanations and ipso facto, a theory of human nature is ruled out. However, what we can also note is a shift against the rejection of biology that is particularly apparent in the changes between the 1996 and 2008 versions of ‘Sociology: Themes and Perspectives’ (Haralambos & Holborn). The 2008 version shows a move towards a new reconciliation of sociology and biology. Statements which strongly attack ‘biological’ explanations of social conduct are much reduced and what replaces them is the reporting of a new view in the social sciences that claims that biology and the social cannot be readily disentangled; biology impinges on the social and vice versa. This might appear to open up a space in which the relevance of human nature for the social sciences can be acknowledged but there are a number of ways in which this option can be foreclosed.
One avenue is to understand this entanglement of the social and biological as meaning that there is no such thing as the biological body per se. The biological as we understand it and the body as we experience it are socially constructed. There is no socially unmediated experience of the body; how we experience the body is always formed up in relation to a range of socially derived understandings of the meanings of bodily experience. I totally endorse the argument up to this point and would relate it to a more fundamental point about perception of reality in general. In Armstrong’s phrase, perception is ‘nothing but the acquiring of knowledge of, or, on occasions, the acquiring of an inclination to believe in, particular facts about the physical world, by means of our senses’(1961: 105). Even what we perceive as a purely bodily sensation is a coming to believe something about the state of our body. Clearly any such belief is ‘theoretical’ in the sense that the mind constructs a theory of the state of reality and it is that theory that we come to believe as we experience reality. If this seems extreme, consider a thought experiment suggested by Dennett (1993). Take a walking cane and tap the floor. Where is the sensation of the striking of the floor located? Not in the hand where the bodily senses are located physically, but in the tip of the walking cane. In other words, where the mind believes the physical contact takes place. Given the nature of perception, it would be hard to imagine that any perception at all is not mediated by our socially located understanding.
Yet this analysis can be used in a relativist mode to deny the reality of human nature and its relevance for social science. In other words, if the body is never experienced per se, then what we talk about as the human body is never an object in the world. It is always a socially constructed body. So there could be no such thing human nature, since the concept requires that humans are the same despite differences in their culture, and cultural differences in the way that they interpret their bodily nature. If this is what the entanglement of biology and society is meant to imply, then it becomes another argument for dumping the concept of human nature in the social sciences. Yet this conclusion is not necessary. It is perfectly consistent to argue that we attempt to understand the reality of the body, biology and human nature, while also knowing that this attempt is socially located. We have good reasons to believe that there is such a thing as human nature and that it does have effects on social life.
There is a second way to view the entanglement of biology and society that also can be compatible with a denial of human nature. In this interpretation what is stressed about the link between biology and society is that every social process is also a biological process. This makes perfect sense in so far as even thoughts themselves have a biological aspect as events in the brain. What is then stressed is the way that society can mould the body, can mould biology. This is partly through regimens of physical discipline and medical intervention, not to mention more obvious examples like eating. But society can also mould the brain along with this, in so far as social influences can constrain the way we think and consequently the pattern of neuronal activity. As Pinker (2002) points out, if we believe that the brain is infinitely plastic we can get by without a view of human nature, but with a perfectly biological account of what is taking place. So on this account, there are no structures of the brain, and of the body more generally, which create human nature as a set of cross cultural powers of the human species, as it has existed so far. This is because humans are capable of thinking and desiring anything, depending on how their brains are actually wired up, given the influence of their environment (of society) upon them. In this analysis, sociology does not reject biology but gives a biological account of the same theory of the relationship between society and the individual that has been expressed in previous years through the rejection of biology. I will be arguing that this view is implausible, and in any case does not describe what sociologists actually believe when they go about explaining particular social events.
To look at a third way in which the new emphasis on biology can be compatible with a misreading of human nature, let me begin with a critique of the exclusion of human nature from the social sciences; a critique which can lead to the project of bringing back the body. The exclusion of human nature from sociology can be viewed as a patriarchal trope. On the one hand, there is the agentic decision making subject, identified with masculinity. On the other hand, there is society. These two exhaust the field which sociology needs to consider. What is missing as a third element is ‘the body’, or people’s biologically ordained nature, identified with femininity (Witz 2000; Plumwood 1993).
While this is certainly an apt characterisation, the incoherence of this exclusion of ‘the body’ should also be noted. You cannot actually get by with a conception of society that includes the choice making subject on the one hand and society on the other hand and nothing else. As Hume long ago pointed out, decisions, choices and the rational subject are premised on their context in desires – choice concerns the means to realize desires. What desires animate the agentic, choice making subject? Where do these desires spring from? In the sociology world, this question has no determinate answer. Desires either come about through complete randomness (free will, agency) or they are instilled by society, in other words, they are determined by the influence of other people. Yet how other people manage to influence the subject must itself be totally mysterious if this viewpoint is taken seriously, as I will argue later. Not only that, but these other people are themselves operating out of desires which must be similarly deferred, either to random chance or to the unexplained actions of other people.
The project of bringing the body back into social theory which has been advocated to address these issues (Turner 1996; Shilling 2007) may just compound such a patriarchal reading of human nature. There is a split between aspects of human nature which are ‘bodily’ – the desires for sex, for food and for good health and physical comfort – and aspects of human nature which are ‘mental’ – the desires for social connection, for autonomy, for creative expression. Bringing the body back is identified with the recognition of these missing aspects of human nature, as though the mental aspects of human nature are already well covered. For example Turner discusses the idea that the body is both an aspect of the natural world and also an aspect of the self – the cultural world. In this context he cites an ‘obvious example’. The body has ‘physiological needs, in particular food, liquid and sleep’ yet the nature of the activities related to these needs ‘are subject to symbolic interpretations and to massive social regulation’ (Turner 1996: 66). This is a typical example of the project of bringing back the body in so far as the needs for autonomy, for creativity and social connection are never given as examples of ‘bodily’ needs; they appear to have no ‘physiological’ basis. We can also note the way that this reading of the situation obscures ‘desire’ and its relationship to human nature and the body. The term ‘needs’ here can be read simply as ‘requirements’; without these needs being met the body will die. But clearly these requirements are also experienced as desires and these desires constitute aspects of human nature that are quite universal – desires to eat, drink and sleep (Maslow 1987).
Let me say at the outset that there is nothing to be gained by perpetuating the distinction between the bodily and mental drives composing human nature. All the basic desires of human nature are biological or bodily desires, they operate from the brain, or mind, and work to animate conduct, or actions of the body. They all aim at the experience of pleasure through the use of the senses, the biological surfaces of the body. They all manifest themselves in the body in relation to observable bodily phenomena associated with the frustration or satisfaction of the desire in question – patterns of brain activity, hormone levels, bodily changes of pulse, blood pressure and the like. The pleasure of watching an entertaining television programme is no less bodily than the pleasure of a good meal. This may sound like a dramatic statement but it is merely a recognition of what our science today indicates, something which is hardly at all controversial when you think about it (Dennett 1993).
The new opening up to biology in the Haralambos and Holborn Textbook
The version of ‘Sociology: Themes and Perspectives’ produced for the Australian market in 1996 has a much more militant and uncompromising critique of biological accounts in the social sciences than is present in the 2008 version. For example it is the 1996 version which approvingly cites this statement from Berger and Luckmann:
Although each culture patterns sexual behaviour into definite configurations, their ‘luxurious inventiveness, indicate that they are the produce of man’s own sociocultural formations rather than of a biologically fixed human nature’. (Haralambos et al 1996: 452)
I will now consider a few examples of the way these issues are handled in the more recent textbook. These are most prolific in the chapter on Gender. The first of these discussions comes in relation to Archer and Lloyd’s explanation of male aggression, in the context of youth studies. As I have pointed out, the main explanation given here is to argue that men engage in aggressive behaviour to protect their honour and maintain their status within their peer groups. This is a typical explanation in sociology in so far as the element of human nature (biology) in the explanation is masked. However they go on instead to report Archer and Lloyd’s concession to sociobiological accounts of male violence:
Archer and Lloyd concede that hormones might contribute to the tendency of males to develop peer groups in which honour is defended through aggressive behaviour. However, they argue that there is an ‘interaction between biological and social processes’. Social behaviour is not simply determined by hormones, and hormones only influence behaviour in the context of particular ‘historical and cultural settings’. (Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 93)
What takes place here is a curious and partial importation of biology. Biology is only recognized when it concerns a biological difference between the sexes – that men have ‘male’ hormones, testosterone, which may make them prone to violence. Yet, as Haralambos and Holborn have just pointed out, the studies attempting to relate testosterone levels to physical aggression have been less than convincing. More interesting in the context of this paper is that what gets missed in this acknowledgement of biology is the fact that the original social explanation of male violence can itself be considered ‘biological’ – men engage in violence to secure social approval from other men. It is biological in so far as the desire for social approval is being assumed as a universal trait of human nature, and aggression is being treated as a tool through which other desires can be realized. But this ‘social’ explanation does not assume that there is a biological sex difference. Women also desire social approval and can use aggression as a tool. So in this discussion, the original explanation is not treated as biological because it does not involve the contentious issue of biological sex difference. The masking of the normal operation of ideas about human nature in social science is allowed to continue.
A second example from this chapter comes about in the discussion of Fausto-Sterling’s comments on gender science:
Fausto-Sterling does not dismiss biological science altogether. Indeed, she argues that any full understanding of gender must incorporate an understanding of the body. She believes that gender differences become embodied – become part of people’s bodies. Like Rose et al. (1984), she notes that scientists have demonstrated that the development of neural connections in the brain is related to the experience people have … However she does not believe that gender differences are simply created by bodily differences. Rather, biological and social factors interact to create a particular gender system in which both body and social behaviour tend to reinforce one another in a ‘double-sided process that connects the production of gendered knowledge … to the materialization of gender in the body’. (Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 100)
Indeed, they go on to say:
It is now quite widely accepted that biology and culture – bodies and the social meaning attributed to them – are interconnected and it is difficult, or even impossible, to separate the two elements out. (Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 100)
This passage marks a decided change in rhetoric in sociology, if nothing else. However the meaning of this statement is not entirely obvious. Let us assume that it means the following. Gender systems are socially constructed in relation to biological sex differences. They are social systems that pick up on real biological differences and grant a social meaning to these biological differences. To a degree, this is an arbitrary and socially variable process. Yet it cannot completely ignore the realities of sexual difference which are the bodily props on which it creates its social meanings – outside science fiction there cannot be a gender order in which men actually give birth, though clearly we know of gender orders in which they are supposed to give birth. But this is only the beginning. What is also obvious is that this gender system also acts on bodies to produce biologically real marks of gender. These are not just changes in the brain and hormones but include things like muscular development, the production of the voice and bodily movement. These are real biological events but they are produced by culture working on the body.
Let me say two things about this passage, at least as I have now interpreted it.
Firstly, it absolutely depends on continually maintaining a distinction between biology and culture. These are treated as at the very least two separate ways of describing the same reality (for example brain patterns and thoughts, hormones and anger). There is also a separation in so far as we separate them as causal forces. Biology is a causal force, which means that women and not men give birth, but culture is a causal force which can produce the social fiction that men ‘give birth’ or just as well the social understanding that it is women who give birth. We also separate biology and society as causal forces when we see culture as a causal force working on the biological body and shaping it.
Yet maybe it makes sense to see them as inseparable in so far as there is nothing in the cultural events mentioned in these explanations that cannot be reduced to biological and physical events, at least in theory. We can imagine a totally biological account of the same processes which we have described in the language of sociology and cultural analysis. This is not and will never be practicable but it is at least conceivable. Yet this is a very one sided inseparability. We cannot conceive of all of the biological processes that we have been speaking about, described as cultural events.
There is only one way in which we could really put the boot on the other foot. That is to say that every attempt to describe the world is culturally created. So our biological account of things is of course culturally created too. But this does not create a true inseparability. There is our attempt to get a grip on the nature of biological reality and our attempt to get a grip on the nature of cultural reality. There are actually three separable terms – ourselves as the culturally located knower and the two realms of reality that we seek to investigate.
The second thing to say about this account is that it marginalizes and seems to exclude explanations based in human nature yet again. Society, seen as an independent force, acts on biological bodies and creates a cultural system related to biological bodies. Yet how do biological bodies create social systems? Where is the materialization of the body in gender? Or put more simply, how do people’s basic desires as part of human nature create the social systems which we view around us. As considered in the other article on the sociology textbooks, these kinds of accounts are actually rife in sociology but here as elsewhere they are not acknowledged.
The final example of this new reconciliation comes closer to addressing these issues. Haralambos and Holborn consider Connell’s recent writings on gender. In summary, we need to see the body ‘as an active agent in social processes’ (Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 138). Connell says there is much evidence that culture is not determined by biology – there are cultures in which homosexuality for men is a normal stage of the life course, there are cultures where rape is non existent. Yet behaviour is not entirely determined by culture, because the body is not a blank canvas upon which anything can be written. They cite the following passage:
… bodies, in their own right as bodies, do matter. They age, get sick, enjoy, engender, give birth. There is an irreducible bodily dimension in experience and practice; the sweat cannot be excluded. (Connell, cited in Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 138)
There is much about this passage that fits with my argument in ‘A Little Bit Pinker’. The body acts in society, there is an irreducible biological element to human conduct. What people ‘enjoy’ is at least partly constituted biologically. Yet at the same time, the passage, along with the general project of ‘bringing the body back’ into sociology, seems to me to be insufficient. What lingers is the separation of the bodily desires of humans from what we may see as their mental or socialized desires. Do bodies enjoy a game of chess? Well, yes, they do and playing a game of chess is as much an activity that satisfies basic desires of human nature as is having sex or a meal. But the passage does not suggest this interpretation to the reader. An example given in the textbook confirms my sense of this. One of Connell’s interviewees, Don Meredith, reflects on the way the pleasure he took from anal sex with a woman led him to think that he should try gay sex. This could be regarded as a textbook case of the influence of human nature on social life. The social stigma of gay sex is loosened as homosexuality comes to be seen as a way to pursue the desire for sexual pleasure which is a part of human nature.
Yet the framing is quite different. The body (read sexual pleasure in anal sex) acts on the mind (ideas about appropriate sexual conduct). If we want to talk about this biologically, let us discuss nerve endings, neuronal messages and brain activity. Let me re-iterate, sexual pleasure, wherever it is experienced, is already a mental event, it does not act on the mind! As well, what is being considered is an instance of a ‘bodily desire’, of that part of human nature which has been presented by philosophers of the past as the ‘animal’ aspect of human nature. The project of bringing back the body at one and the same time allows a theory of human nature to be developed in sociology, while at the same time it truncates it.
As with Turner himself, there is an elision between the body as a biological object and bodily desire as a part of human nature. Here, the body ‘ages’ but also ‘enjoys’. These are represented as ‘actions’ of the body, but to me they are quite distinct. The body ages as a biological object but ‘people’ enjoy pleasure. What this elision of the body as object and as desiring subject avoids is the recognition of biologically located powers, of goal seeking drives which may create action. So, ‘actions’ do not just happen to the body, they are enacted to satisfy ‘desires’. When events do just happen to the body they also may be judged to satisfy or frustrate desire. My argument is that certain basic desires are both universal (and so must come from biology) and are also important in explaining conduct (and we do this continually).
In the textbook this exposition is continued by looking at the ineluctable connections between bodies and society:
Connell therefore sees bodies as ‘both objects and agents of practice’, and the practices of bodies as involved in ‘forming the structures within which bodies are appropriated and defined’. Bodies, whether male or female, are an active and integral part of social action and the construction of gender, and are not separable from the societies in which they live. (Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 138)
An example is given of masculinized sport, clearly a social institution on the one hand. But also the actions of sport are bodily actions, of throwing, jumping, hitting. So these actions are ‘symbolic and kinetic, social and bodily, at one and the same time, and these aspects depend on each other’ (Haralambos & Holborn 2008: 138). There is much about this which makes perfect sense. Bodily actions are social in the sense that they create social life and also in the sense that they are experienced socially, as having a social meaning.
Yet there is a way in which bodies are quite separable from the societies in which they live. The theory of human nature absolutely depends upon this separability because it asserts that there are underlying basic desires that are common to people, despite cultural differences and the cultural shaping of these desires. To discover these desires is a conceptual abstraction of the body and its basic desires, from the various social contexts in which the body and its desires are found and gain particular expression. Yet this is by no means a wondrous feat of philosophical magic. It is present every time that we talk about the human species in contradistinction to monkeys or giraffes. It is of course also present in any actual example of the workings of this approach, which conceptually separates a bodily action, described as such, from its social meaning. This is a necessary prelude to explaining the social meaning of the action in a particular social context. The action of hitting, for example, is separated out from the varied social meanings which may attach to this same bodily action in relation to different socially constructed regimes of gender, or to different positionings within gender regimes.
Altogether, there is much to be liked in the new opening up of sociology to biology, particularly in the form attributed to Connell in the textbook, and also present in Turner’s work. What is acknowledged, at least in some way, is that bodily desires, which are quite universal, act upon society. At the same time, there is an appropriately sociological understanding of the influence of society upon bodily desire and upon the body itself. However, as I have shown, these advantages are to an extent overshadowed by caveats that make it difficult to state a theory of human nature clearly or to recognize its relevance to the ordinary social science that we do without thinking about these issues. These caveats in no particular order are as follows. The biological body is treated too much as a biological object and insufficiently recognized to be the seat and location of causal powers, which we normally consider to be the basic desires of human nature. The recognition of the relevance of the body and bodily desire admits only half of human nature, that part which philosophers used to call our animal nature. In that way, it perpetuates a tired distinction and misses the cross cultural relevance of the other basic desires to human action. It typically gets aired in relation to biological difference – between classes or races, between sexes. Here, sociology opens itself up to sociobiology by at least considering, rather than dismissing a priori, these accounts of social difference. It also has the advantage of creating a space for admitting the relevance of biological difference to social life, when it is relevant. However in doing this the new opening up to biology ignores the fact that the standard sociological explanations of events actually make continual assumptions about human nature, which are based on the premise of the biological sameness of humans of all cultures, classes, races and sexes.
Connell’s account in more detail
I will finish this discussion by making a more direct analysis of Connell’s position on these issues as she expresses it in the book ‘Gender’ (2002) to which Haralambos and Holborn refer. Connell examines three ways of looking at the relationship between bodies and the gender order.
In the first account, the body is treated as a ‘machine’ which has a definite causal impact on the gender order, by creating a biological framework for gender. In the simple determinist version of this model ‘reproductive difference is assumed to be directly reflected in a whole range of other differences’ (Connell 2002: 30). For example in physical strength, character, sexual desire. However it has been difficult to sustain this approach, given the cross cultural variability of gender and the failure to prove most of these supposed differences even in our own culture. In fact:
It is clear that bodies are affected by social processes. Health, child development, and sport provide abundant proof. The way our bodies grow and function is influenced by food distribution, sexual customs, warfare, work, urbanization, education and medicine, to name only the most obvious influences. And all these influences are structured by gender. So we cannot think of social gender arrangements as just following from the properties of bodies. They also precede bodies, form the conditions in which bodies develop and live. (Connell 2002: 33)
A second version of the idea of the body as machine takes note of some of this critique and argues that ‘gender differences arise from both biology and social norms’ (Connell 2002: 35). Connell refers to this as the ‘additive’ model and as she points out, it represents the more moderate position in psychology and sociobiology. For example in this theory, men’s aggressive nature is taken as a biological given which may be socially channelled into ‘football, war, or peanut marketing’ (Connell 2002: 35). Connell suggests the following critique. The model gives causal priority to biology which provides a given (machine) framework within which humans may create gender arrangements. The model implies that a dimporphic biology will enable a gender framework that is dimorphic but the reality is nothing like this. The categories of gender that are socially created do not even map onto the biological framework that has been postulated – for example when there is a third gender recognized.
A second idea about gender is the poststructuralist view that the body is a canvas on which society inscribes gender. This implies that society can do absolutely anything in creating a set of gender symbols and inscribing them. Connell also objects to this approach:
The approach emphasizes the ‘signifier’ to the point where the ‘signified’ practically vanishes. With gender, the difficulty is crucial. What makes a symbolic structure a gender structure, rather than some other kind, is the fact that its signs refer, directly or indirectly, to the reproductive relationship between women and men. (Connell 2002: 38)
In other words, this symbolic practice is necessarily related to a bodily reality that cannot be ignored when we describe the social practice. What is more, Connell argues, the model implies the passivity of the body as it is socially constructed. The reality is somewhat different. Bodies ‘seek pleasure, seek experience, seek transformation … Bodies grow, age, become sick, desire, learn and forget skills, engender and give birth’ (Connell 2002: 39). So the body is an active agent:
Bodies cannot be understood as just the objects of social process, whether symbolic or disciplinary. They are active participants in social process. They participate through their capacities, development and needs, through the friction of their recalcitrance, and through the directions set by their pleasures and skills. Bodies must be seen as sharing in social agency, in generating and shaping courses of social conduct. (Connell 2002: 39-40)
Connell seeks to resolve these accounts in a third formulation.
Bodies have agency and bodies are socially constructed. Biological and social analysis cannot be cut apart from each other. (Connell 2002: 47)
Bodies are both objects of social practice and agents in social practice. The same bodies, at the same time, are both. The practices in which bodies are involved form social structures and personal trajectories which in turn provide the conditions of new practices in which bodies are addressed and involved.(Connell 2002:47)
My problem with this formula is that it is very vague about whether bodies (in so far as they are constituted in the present period by biology) actually have any impact on this social construction. If bodies put no limits on social construction, then they just become a neutral medium through which social construction operates to change bodies and then bodies operate to change society. The view reduces to the body-as-canvas view that Connell rejects. If bodies do place some limits on social construction, there must be something about them that has not been socially constructed – their biology. If, however, the real biological nature of bodies (and I might add, biologically given human nature) does have a causal impact upon what society can and does construct, then we are back to some version of the additive model. In my view, the problem with the model’s typical adherents is not philosophical at all. The problem with the additive model as it has been used is that its proponents are just wrong about what the causal impact of biology is. For example, they are just wrong to think that women are biologically programmed to be less aggressive than men. The examples that Connell gives certainly include aspects that, given current technology, do create limits to social construction – the body gives birth, for example. But theoretically, she denies the causal efficacy of this biological reality in being part of what is involved in the social construction of gender. This denial is particularly evident in the following passage:
Gender refers to the bodily structures and processes of human reproduction. These structures and processes do not constitute a ‘biological base’, a natural mechanism that has social effects. Rather, they constitute an arena, a bodily site where something social happens. Among the things that happen is the creation of the cultural categories ‘women’ and ‘men’ (and any other gender categories that a particular society marks out), I will call this the reproductive arena in social life. Biological reproduction does not cause gender practice, or even provide a template for it. (Connell 2002: 48)
What is missing here is an acknowledgement that bodies (biological bodies and human nature) are at least part of what causes any social practice. There seem to be only two alternatives admitted. One is the one in which biological reproduction causes gender practice and acts as a natural mechanism which has social effects. The reference is to theories which suppose that biological sex dimporphism can explain the gender order. The other is a theory which supposes that biology does not cause gender practice, yet at the same time this biological field of reproduction is the arena on which social construction of gender takes place. I do not find this coherent. If something is the arena in which a social construction takes place, it must constrain the options of social construction, and in doing this it must be at least a part of the cause of what takes place on that arena. Think of a sports field as an arena. Clearly there are many games that can be played on that field but swimming is not one of them. The field acts as a framework in which certain kinds of outcomes cannot be caused to happen. As a field it is at least part of the cause of the social construction which takes place upon it. The example also admits of the possibility that social construction may in time completely alter the field in question. We could dig a hole and construct a swimming pool. The arena of reproduction is not an ahistorical given, but we are talking about a particular period of biological and human history. From my point of view the problem with Connell’s third formula is not so much what it says about what is wrong with the current use of the additive model. I agree with all of that. It is the fact that the denial of the additive model rules out any clear and open inclusion of explanations based in human nature in the social sciences. We do not have a space in which to say that humans as a biologically based species have certain key desires in common and that these desires have a huge impact on what is socially constructed. Connell toys with this possibility but does not clearly state it. Of course, as with other writings in sociology there are many points in her detailed explanations of society where assumptions about human nature are being made but not acknowledged. These are also present in her ethical discussions.
For further discussion of the issues raised by this paper, see the book that I am writing on the philosophy of the social sciences, also on this website – www.gifteconomy.org.au
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