Knowledge after Progress

A pile of BioSocieties journals, showing the spines

Knowledge after Progress: Re-assembling life through socio-molecular studies

Jörg Niewöhner1 and Patrick Bieler1

1 Technical University of Munich, School of Social Sciences and Technology, Department of Science, Technology and Society,

Planetary Boundaries

So planet Earth is deeply damaged. Unsustainable human action has driven it to the edge. Moderns that we are, we have calculated that edge: planetary boundaries. They tell us when and why the Earth is leaving system states that have so far supported human habitability. We are good with the numbers – not so good with the consequences.

One such planetary boundary is ‘novel entities’, i.e. “new substances, new forms of existing substances, and modified life forms, including chemicals […]” (Steffen et al. 2015) This boundary has been assessed – and crossed. (Persson et al. 2022) More chemicals are released every day than can possibly be monitored in their complex effects on life. Not to mention the vast legacies of late industrialism and modern warfare. Individual and public health effects across the globe are difficult to assess and quantify. Yet correlations between the industrial-scale use of novel entities and increasing prevalences of non-communicable diseases look ominous – to say the least. (e.g. Woodruff 2024)

Reducing the number of toxic substances in circulation can only be a start to more sustainable ways of living. Given current conditions, we also need a fundamental rebuilding of the very material basis of our societies. Where is a chemical revolution if you need one? What can the social sciences do to contribute to a new material basis for our lives?

Attending to chemicals is attending to life

The politics of life have been investigated extensively not least in this journal. Yet what counts as life has been shaped largely by biology and the life sciences. We have paid attention to the dynamics between the smallest building blocks of life, such as proteins, genes, and cells, and the more complex forms such as organisms and social life. We need to pay more attention to the material basis from which life is assembled; to the manifold processes through which matter is incorporated into life and ‘unalived’, i.e. exiting vital circulations. What are the histories, ethics and politics of the material flows that are built into and processed by metabolic, endocrine, or reproductive systems?


Ethnographic, including historical, research has shown that anthropogenic chemicals are pervasive because they are consequence and condition of late industrialism (Fortun 2012; Landecker 2021): They are effects of entangled epistemic and industrial chemical practices (Bensaude-Vincent/Stengers 1996) and shaped by politico-legal modes of regulation (Guthman 2019; Hepler-Smith 2019). At the intersection of science and industry, chemistry “does not […] discover or synthesize new molecules or new molecular structures but […] it invents […] materials” (Barry 2005, 52). Leaving the laboratory and entering the world largely through markets, anthropogenic chemicals permeate, inhabit and constitute our bodies (Dennis 2023), social relations (Shapiro/Kirksey 2017) and ecologies (Papadopoulos 2021). Much research in the social sciences has focused on toxic substances that have been subject to bans or at least public controversy. This focus is important, particularly with regard to pressing concerns of environmental justice, the inadequacy of regulation (Shapiro 2019), the substantial uncertainties surrounding knowledge of toxicity (Adams 2023), and the imperceptible qualities of chemicals (Murphy 2006).

However, the issue is bigger than toxicity: “Hidden in plain sight” (Neubauer & Landecker 2021), literally countless synthetic substances are circulating at global industrial scale through social-ecological and physiological systems. These substances alter the very structures and processes through which life sustains itself. The social, it turns out, is being reassembled as we speak. We need to pay much more attention to this chemical reassembling and to its molecular, organismic, social, and planetary consequences. Tracing substances through markets, bodies and environments is a first and truly interdisciplinary challenge.

Addressing complexities through socio-molecular studies

Tracing substances through complicated social-ecological-physiological processes almost inevitably leads into the epistemology of systems and complexity. Yet material science and chemical regulation remain substance-based. Quantifiable thresholds for single substances in specified environments are the one stick that regulators have to beat industry. Yet everyone knows that it is the wrong stick as the best regulation does not break the counterproductive industrial logic of substitution (Shapiro 2015).

Hence we call for socio-molecular studies, i.e. taking pressing concerns about sustainability and justice into the epicentres of material creation: the molecular design process. Socio-molecular studies shift inquiry and critique ‘upstream’ deep into the research and development process of new materials to unsettle its underlying logic. Socio-molecular studies aim at working with experts in science, industry, and regulation to address two problems: First, how can we move beyond the single substance focus? What kind of knowledge do we need to capture chemical-environment-physiology interactions such that systemic effects can be accounted for already in molecular development (Maertens 2022) and be translated for regulators into feasible systemic supervision (Kaufhold 2016)? Second, how can we escape the data-driven reductions and panarchic tendencies of systems thinking and begin to embrace the unruly complexities (Taylor 2010) of the Anthropocene? 

Knowledge after Progress

Socio-molecular studies contribute to a research programme that we call ‘knowledge after progress’. ‘Knowledge after progress’ engages in other-than-progressive material production and circulation to counter the logic of late industrial material production. This logic, we contend, is deeply shaped by the all-embracing notion of progress, “the defining idea of modernity: a civilisational imagery of a boundless, linear and upwards trajectory towards a future that […] will be ‘better’ than the present […,] the very perspective of evaluation from which the values of economic growth, civilisation, human development, moral betterment, industrialisation, human rights, and technological innovation [are] derived.” (Savransky/Lundy 2022, 2017-19)

Concretely, this means:

  1. We have moved our research programme to the Technical University of Munich to build a para-site to chemistry, molecular design, material science and engineering. We need to build the interactional expertise required to bring anthropocenic matters of concern to experiments with new molecules and materials. When trying to move beyond petrochemical legacies, the social sciences have a role to play in asking questions about the ethics and politics of new types of chemical bonds, about experiments, and about new ways of testing properties in silico.
  2. Chemistry has always been characterised by strong links between academic science, industry, and regulatory bodies. To contribute to a new material basis for our societies requires an understanding not only of the science but also of production, markets and regulation. Scaling is crucial. Yet scaling up continues the legacies of modern progress. Scaling out (Papadopoulos 2022) looks a promising alternative. This requires social scientists that are conversant across epistemic communities and that come up with new formats that help chemistry to break free from established logics of industrial production.
  3. Socio-molecular studies require training new material creators and perhaps also regulators. Experimenting with new kinds of chemical bonds is key to invent alternatives to the strong persistence or reactivity of much of the substances derived from the petroleum-based resource stock of the 20th century. Developing formats within chemistry and material science degree programmes that ask questions about sustainability, transformations of social, moral, and natural order, and about the ethics and politics of life, might just inspire a few new talents to equip themselves to better address the societal responsibilities that come with molecular design in the Anthropocene. 


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