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The Stem Cell Debate: A Veblenian Perspective

By Kemp, Thomas | Journal of Economic Issues, June 2004 | Go to article overview

The Stem Cell Debate: A Veblenian Perspective


Kemp, Thomas, Journal of Economic Issues


This paper considers both the developing body of technology that surrounds the use of human stem cells and the cultural reaction to this technology. The purpose of this study is to examine and test Thorstein Veblen's theory of technology transference using stem cell research as a case study. This application gives us the following thesis: Stem cell research, having originally been developed in the United States, will become encumbered by institutional constraints in that country. This will lead to the technology being further developed in nations with alternative social frameworks.

There can be little question that the debate over stem cell research is rooted in conventional ideas of morality. Despite the debate, most authorities agree that stem cell research offers the potential for significant medical breakthroughs. If the scientific predictions prove to be true, then nations that have developed a technological advantage in stem cell research are likely to receive significant economic benefits. The methods of the research are, in some cases, in conflict with the conventional morality of the American population. This conflict between technological development and morality has resulted--in the United States--in the restriction of funding for stem cell research. If the predictions of the scientific community prove true, the United States, having hindered development in this area, will likely lose out on the economic and medical benefits. This situation appears to fit with Veblen's description of the "imbecile institutions" that hinder technological and hence instrumental economic and social progress.

This paper proposes to use the stem cell debate to analyze Veblen's theories of institutional change and technology transference in three sections. The first section reviews Veblen's theory of technology transference, in particular Veblen's explanation of technological development, the cost disadvantages that accrue to nation's that take the technological lead, and the conditions under which "borrowing" nations gain. The second section considers the development of technology and legislation surrounding stem cell research in the United States and abroad. The third and final section draws inferences about the usefulness of Veblen's theory in analyzing the unfolding saga that is the "stem cell debate."

Veblen on Technology Transference

Thorstein Veblen's explanation of technology transference is an extension of his more general theory of institutional adjustment. As shown in the diagram below, this theory may be summarized as stating that technological developments force changes in the institutional environment as older ways become inconsistent with new modes of production ([1899] 1951, 192-195). Veblen did not mean that the resulting changes would be sweeping or instantaneous. Instead adjustment is, as Veblen said, "made only tardily and reluctantly, and only under coercion exercised by a situation which has made the accredited views untenable" ([1899] 1951, 192). Veblen did not see social institutions as mere reactions to technological forces. Rather, the influence between technology and institutions is, according to Veblen, two-way--each influencing the other ([1915] 1966, 29-30). To summarize, it seems reasonable to say that Veblen saw institutional change as an incremental process of adjustment between an ongoing technological process and the conventional social norms of the community.

Veblen further developed his theory of institutional development to explain technology transference between communities. Veblen believed that the fruits of technological development would be most fully realized in communities other than its original place of development (Veblen [1915] 1966, 24). This would be the case, according to Veblen, because the full utilization of the new technology in the home country would be hindered by conventional norms and understandings (27). These conventional norms, according to Veblen, would affect development in two ways: first, the home economy would have a limited perspective on the use of the technology and, second, the home country will have had more time to develop institutions that place direct limitations on technological development.

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