Publication details [#10972]

Van Dijck, José. 1998. Imagination: Popular Images of Genetics. New York: New York University Press. 270 pp.
Publication type
Book – monograph
Publication language


Van Dijck chronologically discusses four important revolutions in the ideas regarding genetics. The first period was the introduction of the ‘new’ biology in the fifties and sixties, while the second was the DNA debate of the seventies. This was followed by the advance of biotechnology in the eighties, with the fourth shift being the initiation and implementation of the Human Genome Project in the nineties. These four periods mark important upheavals in the history of genetics. Van Dijck thereby subscribes to the notion that the development of a scientific field and the role of popularization within it can best be studied in times of controversy. But unlike most other studies, Van Dijck does not trace the development via a series of important discoveries, such as that of DNA’s structure by Watson and Crick in 1953, but rather via a series of images that conflict with one another. Van Dijck asks the following questions: what images appear, disappear and reappear in genetics? What yearnings and fears do they articulate? Who creates these images, and who are they meant for? Why do some images become popular? How does the popular representation relate to the scientific representation? If we look at Van Dijck’s analyses in the rest of her book, two major aspects are highlighted: metaphors and actors. Metaphors are used by specific groups, consciously or otherwise, to describe new developments, or sometimes even to foil them. In the fifties and sixties, for example, the metaphors of the gene as ‘language’ and ‘code’ enjoyed their heyday, under the guise of the ‘new’ biology. To a certain degree, these practical-sounding metaphors were employed by scientists themselves in order to shake off the yoke of eugenics. And in the seventies, environmental activists postulated the image of the monstrous microbe, a ‘bug’ that might escape from the laboratory and harm the environment. (Stine Jensen)