Introducing Gene Technology to the Society: Social Implications of the Estonian Genome Project

Article excerpt

1. Introduction

In the framework of the theory of risk society, introducing the idea of a population-based gene bank into the Estonian society is significant from several aspects. First, in most general terms, the latest developments in gene research, especially its pairing with medicine are posing a challenge to the theory of risk society developed by Ulrich Beck. Operating with the promise for better health, the primary value and necessity in modern societies, much of the public critical awareness of the potentially risky consequences of technological developments, manifested in other circumstances, is in this case seen to wither away to quite a remarkable extent. The hitherto self-transforming power of the society is no more self-evident. Secondly, the creation of gene banks constitutes the next significant landmark on the road of introducing genetic knowledge into society, affecting directly and personally large parts or, in some cases, all the members of the target society. Thirdly, the Estonian case gives an opportunity to discuss the propositions by Ulrich Beck how to balance the latently growing importance of genetic thinking in the context of a society that has considerably different experiences compared to the societies upon which the theory of risk society has been modelled.

In the following article, these theoretical considerations will be discussed in the light of the empirical findings on the public perception of the Estonian Genome Project (EGP). It will be argued that the overwhelmingly positive public acceptance of the project is the result of peculiar social context into which the idea was introduced. However, such unreflected optimism gives ground to take seriously many of the ominous visions generated by the critics concerned over the quick advance of gene technology into the society.

2. Risk society and genetic research

The theory of risk society considers the technological developments of the last century to have shaken the very foundations of modern or industrial society, and produced a new type of risk environment, characterised by an ever-present possibility for a global catastrophe. As the political-institutional answer to the growing volume of risk is weak, the actual burden of risk management lies mainly on the shoulders of individuals (Beck 1994), forcing a new type of contingency into individual life courses (Beck 1994:168; Beck and Beck-Gernsheim 2002: 2-3). However, the obvious lack of power of the modern institutions to effectively provide any guarantees against these technology-induced risks is counterbalanced by the increasing capacity of the society to react. The escalating growth of knowledge and the parallel growth of individual cultural resources (via mass education) have created emancipated, self-confident agents, ready and willing to participate in interpreting and contesting meaning. Science, the organising principle of industrial modernity is gradually losing its autonomous position and has become open to contention. As science can no longer produce clear and absolute answers, also the definition of what constitutes a risk has been removed from the closed circle of experts and been opened up to more active citizen participation and wider public debate (Beck 1994:20; Delanty 2000:159).

Such reflexive space, created in this fashion is considered a sign of the eventual humanising of technology, or the "introduction of moral issues into the now largely "instrumental" relation between human being and the created environment" (Giddens 1990:170). It is interpreted as a sign of a new or alternative modernity, defined as "risk society" or "reflexive society" (Beck 1992, Giddens 1990), where the human society has admitted responsibility towards nature in order to prevent ecological disaster. In more abstract terms, this is a vision shared by Toulmin (1990) who is arguing for the need to reconnect the two roots of modernity, science and humanistic thought. …