Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Constituting Neurologic Subjects: Neuroscience, Identity and Society after the ‘Decade of the Brain’

Are we are brains? Certainly, new research in the neurosciences is providing compelling evidence to suggest that much of what we think, say and do is governed by the brain, at least in part. Through their work, not least of which are powerful imaging studies, neuroscientists provide new ways of understanding ourselves, social relations, and societies. In so doing, the 'new brain sciences' are contributing to longstanding debates concerning free will, morality, and madness. Increasingly, neuroscience research is filtering into other domains and discourses, challenging existing practice and animating new social engagements and relations. Accordingly, social theorist Nikolas Rose has suggested that 'we' have now become 'neurochemical selves' (Rose, 2007: 188), understanding thought, feeling and behaviour as being mediated through the workings of the brain.

Rose's formulation captures well the broad shifts in identity that the meta-narratives of neuroscience and the psy-sciences have entrained. Anthropologist Joseph Dumit (2004) and sociologist Kelly Joyce (2008) have likewise examined some of the cultural practices associated with neuroimaging in particular. It is becoming clear that neuroscience is not a twenty-first century phrenology: neuoscientific narratives about personality and behaviour align somatic and societal registers in sophisticated ways which render problematic simplistic critiques of ‘reductionism’ or ‘determinism’ (Pickersgill, 2009). Yet, there are clearly a number of ‘gaps’ in our understandings of the complex interactions between neuroscience and society that need to be explored. In this project, funded by the ESRC, we (in collaboration with Dr Paul Martin, University of Nottingham) seek firmer analytic purchase on these important issues through empirical work examining the positioning of a range of publics (including neuroscientists themselves) towards neuroscience.

Methodologically, this 11 month project employs documentary analysis and focus groups to reach an understanding of the range of subject positions assumed by publics in relation to neuroscience. Extending Sarah Cunningham-Burley’s work on science and publics, and Martyn Pickersgill’s research into the links between psychiatry and neuroscience, this investigation charts the constitution of neurologic subjects by exploring the shifting understandings of expertise and identity engendered by neuroscience. In the process, we seek to ground theoretical discussion about neuroscience in empirical reality, and create a new vantage point from which we can better engage with the ethics and politics of this potentially transformative science.

Martyn Pickersgill and Sarah Cunningham-Burley
Public Health Sciences Section, College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine, University of Edinburgh


Dumit, J. (2004) Picturing Personhood: Brain Scans and Biomedical Identity, Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Joyce, K. (2008) Magnetic Appeal: MRI and the Myth of Transparency, Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Pickersgill, M. (2009) ‘Between Soma and Society: Neuroscience and the Ontology of Psychopathy’, BioSocieties, 4, 1, 45-60.

Rose, N. (2007) The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century, Princeton: Princeton University

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