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46. Purifying ‘the social’


Milk: a natural product that people love. (So long as it’s not ‘too’ natural.)

There has been a longstanding tendency in sociology either to think of society as a certain kind of ‘thing’ or to think of ‘the social’ as a domain made up of uniquely ‘social’ stuff.  This traces back to the origins of the discipline and its attempts to define itself vis-à-vis the natural sciences, psychology, history, etc. Durkheim famously argued that in order to justify a science of society one had firstly to believe that society consisted of phenomena that were essentially ‘social’, and not reducible to anything else.

In one way or another this basic idea permeated a great deal of subsequent sociological thinking; it enabled sociology to continually stress the irreducibly ‘social’ aspects of diverse phenomena, and to charge those who would overlook this ‘social dimension’ with reductionism. But this way of thinking about ‘the social’ also has its attendant problems, and these have begun to be felt more acutely in recent decades. Some have suggested that it leads to a kind of ‘sociological essentialism’, which, by always invoking ‘the social’ as an explanation, obscures the constant orchestration of ‘the social’ from all kinds of nonhuman and ‘non-social’ stuff.

Taking up this idea of ‘the social’ as something that needs to be explained, rather than what does the explaining, Richie Nimmo’s genealogical study of dairy milk traces how diverse processes of modernisation in the milk industry involved inscribing and reinscribing a separate domain of ‘the social’ upon a world of heterogeneous materials. The work of transforming the public perception of milk from that of a dirty, adulterated and risk-laden substance that was often a vector of disease, to a clean and nutritious staple food, was therefore much more than a commercial, technical and sanitary project.

In fact it was part of a wider purification process, a micro-politics of producing ‘the social’ as a domain uncontaminated by ‘nature’ and nonhumans and thus governable within the humanist project of modernity.

Further reading

Richie Nimmo (2010) Milk, Modernity and the Making of the Human: Purifying the Social, Routledge.


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