The second conference I signed up for this year is 4S in Boston, August 30 through September 2. I organized what should be an excellent panel on: “Working with/against the Politics of Benevolent Neuroscience.”
Promises of neuroscientifically aided improvements of health and social life abound in the scientific press and popular media. This panel discusses developments in neuro-therapy and social neuroscience that confront psychological and socio-political perils of contemporary societies, including mental illness, learning disorders, racialized violence, and socio-economic stratification. We elucidate arguments and practices through which social injustice and traumatic life experience are located in the brain, and we inquire into the extent to which neuroscientists unwillingly stabilize injurious social orders by naturalizing them and the associated stigmata. Acknowledging the oftentimes explicitly benevolent goals of the scientists involved, we ask how STS scholars can go beyond ‘sensing’ potentially adverse assumptions and methodologies that underlie this research: How can we shape knowledge production in the neurosciences? What new skills might we have to acquire to engage in conversations with scientists and policy makers? To what extent do we want to embrace neuro-knowledges in our own work? The papers on this panel draw on feminist STS, disability studies, post-colonial studies, and history and philosophy of science. They extend the literature on ‘neuro-reductionism’ by focusing on the intersectional imaginaries of neuro-knowledges and neuro-technologies. In particular, the papers question the epistemic foundations of purported cerebral ‘types’, which depend not only on the specific institutional contexts of their production, but also on the irreducible neuro “multiple,” that is, differing but overlapping perceptions of what the brain is, how it functions, and how it relates to the rest of the body and an individual’s character (cf. Mol 2002).
My talk extends the historical, philosophical, and STS literature on classification practices by shedding light on the intersectionality of biologized socio-political typologies. I suggest that we can only understand the evolution of ‘neuro-reductionism’ by attending to intertwined ideas of the ‘neuro’ and the methods suitable to assess it. draw this conclusion from the 150-year history of research on hand preference:
“Innocuous Intersectionality? The Politics in Handedness Research”
Scientific classifications of hand skill and preference seem innocuous, but they have historically been and continue to be highly political. Throughout the past 150 years, measuring left- and right-handedness in different populations fed into stereotypical ideas of hierarchical brain typologies. In the 1860s, Paul Broca suggested that ‘normal’ individuals are right-handed because they are left-brained. Subsequently, brain and mind scientists employed anatomical studies to explain the correlation between left-handedness and inferior intellectual abilities or criminal tendencies, thereby providing scientific foundations for the stigmatization of left-handers. From the 1960s through the 1980s, psychologists reframed the association of handedness and brain asymmetry in genetic terms. They connected left-handedness with a ‘risk of’ various psychiatric illnesses and learning disorders. In the 1980s, neurologists introduced a hormonal theory of handedness, linking ‘abnormal’ intrauterine testosterone exposure with left-handedness, immune disorders, learning disabilities, and sexual deviance. This paper draws from oral histories, archival records, and scientific publications from Europe and North America. Engaging feminist STS and the history and philosophy of classification, I illustrate that the three-step cerebralization of handedness (anatomical, genetic, hormonal) parallels the historical essentialization of race, sex/gender, sexual orientation, and intelligence. In particular, each period exhibits a distinct form of ‘neuro-reductionism’. I argue that critiques of scientific typologies should be intersectional on two levels: attention to socio-political intersectionality reveals the contingency and discriminatory potential of all classification systems; and epistemic intersectionality accounts for the specific reductive mechanisms and promises at play in anatomical, genetic, and hormonal approaches to brains, entire bodies, and populations.
I owe the term “epistemic intersectionality” to John Tresch. We’re still figuring out the specific meaning (or at least I am!).