Making room for stem cells: dissociation and establishing new research objects.

Author:Lynch, John

Embryonic stem (ES) cells represent the latest front in political battles over the "culture of life." President Bush and his supporters among religious conservative groups claim that ES cell research constitutes murder of developing life, while others--scientists, patient advocates, and politicians across the spectrum--view ES cells as potential cures for many diseases (Bush, 2001, 2005; Daley, 2004; Wade, 2003). The issue of ES cell research arose during the presidential debates and in state referenda during the 2004 election (Kasindorf, 2004; Mansnerus, 2005), and it took center stage again in May, 2005, when the House of Representatives voted to increase federal funding of ES cell research (Stolberg, 2005). The Senate passed this bill in the summer of 2006 (Hulse, 2006), and President Bush (2006) vetoed it the following day because, he said, it would "violate human dignity" ([paragraph] 2).

While appeals to medical benefits and the "culture of life" have become the stock topoi of the contemporary debate, they were not available more than 20 years ago, when ES cells in mice first were isolated; nor were they as powerful 8 years ago, when human ES cells first were isolated. The original attraction of ES cells was that they could illuminate the process of mammalian development from fertilized eggs. Yet, a different model for studying this process--embryonic carcinoma cells--already existed, and a third possibility--embryonic germ cells--was discovered about the same time as ES cells. Each cell type has the capacity to produce some, if not all, of the cells in a body's organs, enabling scientists to study the processes by which mammals develop. For this reason, all three cell types initially were called stem cells or stem-like cells (Gardner & Beddington, 1988; Smith, 2001).

Researchers working with ES cells needed to establish the unique value of their object of study. In order for people--scientists and nonscientists--to accept new objects and ideas produced by science, old concepts must be reorganized. This reorganization occurs through the use of real definitions. The practice of dissociation represents a paradigmatic linguistic means of creating real definitions. Dissociation takes a unitary concept and breaks it into two components, which receive positive and negative valences through the use of philosophical pairs of opposed value terms. This breakage creates space for new ideas and objects while addressing conflicts and contradictions that arise in one's worldview.

Current scholarship offers two views of dissociation. One treats dissociation as an intentional argumentative strategy, especially in politics (Zarefsky, 1980; Zarefsky, Miller-Tutzauer, & Tutzauer, 1984). The other treats dissociation as central to the creation of real definitions that determine what counts as reality in a language community (Goodwin, 1991; McGee, 1999; Schiappa, 1993, 2003). In this latter view, dissociation is implicit and unconscious as often as it is a deliberate, conscious choice (Schiappa, 1985). This essay seeks to integrate these two views by positing a continuum that extends from unassuming acts of real definition to intentional, strategic uses of dissociation. Implicit, unconscious acts of real definition in arenas like the technical sphere of stem cell research generate the grounds for strategic dissociations in political and policy debates.

Dissociation played a vital role in defining stem cell. Researchers who began working with ES cells 20 years ago needed to establish their value as a model of development: They needed to clear other models out of the scientific and rhetorical space known as model for development in order to make room for ES cells as the model of development. For ES cells to become this model, multiple dissociations needed to crystallize around these new research objects, shaping people's real definitions, their determinations of "appearance" and "reality." Establishment of ES cells as the path to understanding development opened up the possibility that these cells might be used to repair developmental and degenerative disorders, such as Parkinson's disease and Type I diabetes. Such medical applications, which have become the key justification for expanded ES cell research, are grounded in the prior real definitions that justify study of mammalian development via ES cells.

This essay will examine dissociation in the early scientific debate about embryonic stem (ES) cells. It begins by examining previous work on dissociation. It argues that the reality/ appearance pair that is central to dissociative real definitions depends on a psycho-social consensus of the world's "reality," and not on a naive philosophical realism. Next, the essay examines three dissociations that, collectively, reorganized the material and social space of science, dividing the category stem cell into embryonic carcinoma (EC) cells and ES cells, and establishing the grounds for future separation of embryonic germ (EG) cells and ES cells. Finally, the essay posits, dissociation is not only a form of arguing and defining; it also enables future argumentation (Stahl, 2002). The dissociations used to differentiate stem cells provide the basis for later strategic arguments about stem cell "potency" and the value of ES cells that are eligible for federal funding.


Many scholars of definitional argument focus on definition by dissociation, especially as it is used by political rhetors (Goodwin, 1991; McGee, 1999; Murphy, 2004; Schiappa, 2003; Stahl, 2002; Walton, 2001; Zarefsky, 1980; Zarefsky et al., 1984). Dissociation splits a concept into two components, one of which is seen to be more valuable than the other. The two new concepts are related hierarchically: one is "better" or "more realistic," the other is "worse" or "mere appearance." Adjectives may characterize one concept as a "claim" or "hypothesis," or a term may be placed in quotation marks to disqualify the concept (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1958/1969, p. 438). Dissociation may be implicit or explicit, conscious or unconscious (Schiappa, 1985). It "is always prompted by the desire to remove an incompatibility arising out of the confrontation of one proposition with others, whether one is dealing with norms, facts, or truths" (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1958/1969, p. 413), and clears conceptual and practical space for action. Ronald Reagan's definition of the "truly needy" exemplifies dissociation in action (Zarefsky et al, 1984). The word truly dissociates those with "real" needs from those with "apparent" needs, a dissociation that enabled Reagan to justify cutting welfare programs while still claiming to help those who need it.

According to Perelman and Olbrechts-Tyteca (1958/1969), dissociation "expresses a vision of the world and establishes hierarchies for which it endeavors to provide the criteria" (p. 420). These criteria are expressed in value-laden philosophical pairs, in which one term is preferred for metaphysical, ethical or other reasons tied to the pragmatic interests of those engaging in the dissociation (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1958/1969; Schiappa, 1985; Zarefsky et al., 1984). Some common philosophical pairs are accident/essence, means/end, good/bad, relative/absolute, particular/general and theory/practice. Rhetors also may construct new or ad hoc pairs, such as when the Supreme Court, in mid-twentieth century rulings about religious practices, dissociated the concept of interest into state and individual interests (Stahl, 2002).

Although many studies of dissociation have focused on political cases, dissociation also has scientific and technical uses. Scientific debates about the formulae used in an experiment can dissociate physics into Newtonian and quantum physics, where the latter and its associated formulae offer a more "complete" and "accurate" picture of reality than the former (Goodwin, 1991). In addition to the partial/complete pair, the accident/essence pair commonly appears in scientific discourse: Scientists often argue that previous studies have examined only accidental features of an object or phenomenon, while their own identifies its essence (Schiappa, 1985). In addition to formulae, dissociation can reorganize other facts and observations. Schiappa (1993, 2003), for example, has examined attempts to redefine death, in which some advocates dissociate death into cardiac and brain death, and posit that the latter is the more accurate, realistic definition because human consciousness resides in the brain. Such dissociation reorganizes and revalues facts and physical observations: Absence of brain activity signifies "real" death more accurately than absence of a heartbeat.

The prototypical philosophical pair is appearance/reality (Perelman & Olbrechts-Tyteca, 1958/1969, p. 415), but the meaning of prototypical is open to debate. For Zarefsky (1998), prototypical designates frequency, that is, appearance/reality is a common philosophical pair (p. 8). Many analyses of dissociation do not directly discuss this pair (Murphy, 2004; Walton, 2001; Zarefsky, 1980; Zarefsky et al., 1984), but studies of real definition treat it as the primary element of dissociation (Goodwin, 1991; McGee, 1999; Schiappa, 1985, 1993, 2003). Such apparently conflicting approaches actually represent different points on a continuum of dissociative practices. The practice of real definition can occur unconsciously just as often as consciously and strategically. Approaches to definitional argumentation that take the prototypical nature of appearance/reality to be a description of frequency tend to focus on deliberate, strategic dissociations. Ultimately, however, dissociation can be both: An implicit definition of "reality" often makes subsequent strategic dissociative arguments possible.

The dissociations that occur in real definitions are an essentialist answer to questions of the form, "What is X?"...

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