Neurosociety… What is it with the brain these days?

Call for Papers – extended deadline 15 July 2010

The Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) and the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN) are jointly organising an international conference on 7-8 December 2010 at the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford, UK.


Speakers include:

Please feel free to download and distribute the call for papers (pdf). The deadline for submission of abstracts is 15 July 2010.

The topic of the conference is the rise of the brain and the emergence of the brain industry or ‘neuro markets’. The aim is to explore how, why, and in what ways has the figure of the brain come to permeate so many different areas of thinking and practice in academic and commercial life. What are the consequences for academia, business, commerce and policy?

The last twenty years have seen unprecedented advances in the neurosciences, in fields such as psychopharmacology, neurology and behavioural genetics. A growing number of ethicists, social scientists, legal scholars and philosophers have begun to analyze the social, legal and ethical implications of these advances, from the use of fMRI imaging in legal cases, to the medical benefits and risks of the increasing prescription of psychotropic drugs such as Prozac and Ritalin. Some attention has been paid to the economic questions raised by the commercial development and application of new technologies, and the extent to which subfields such as neuroeconomics and neuromarketing are generating commercially and clinically valuable findings. The conference aims to bring together academics and practitioners from this wide range of disciplines to attempt a critical evaluation of the current state and future prospects for neuro thinking.

Call for papers:
The Organising Committee welcomes proposals for individual papers which seek to make empirically based and conceptually innovative contributions to the analysis of the persuasive power of neuroscience in and outside academia. We particularly welcome papers that relate to the themes below, however we are also happy to consider contributions which address the general topic of the conference but do not align directly with these themes.

Please send abstracts (300–600 words) to The deadline for submission of abstracts is 15 July 2010.


1) The rise and current configuration of the international neuroindustry
The conference seeks to map the diffusion of neuroscientific technology and knowledge by examining in which disciplines and which business practices the figure of the brain has become prominent and why in other disciplines or practices this is not the case. We are particularly interested in historical research that explores how the prominence of the brain has come about. Can we also anticipate the demise of the brain and what will supplant it? After eyes, skin and brain – what will be the next site of human bodies and behaviour  which will be exploited commercially? In addition to mapping the diffusion of the figure of the brain and exploring its historical specificity this conference seeks to address how the brain as a trope organises scholarly and commercial thinking in different disciplines and business fields.

What then are the current and potential commercial application of the brain sciences, which companies are taking the lead in bringing new technologies to market, and how are policymakers and industry groups lobbying to change regulatory barriers toward the use of new technologies?

2) The economic and social value of the new brain sciences
As neurological and psychiatric disorders place a significant economic and social toll on the health of populations internationally, much optimism surrounds the hope that developments in the neurosciences will help to find treatments for disorders such as depression, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and autism spectrum disorders. To what extent is this optimism warranted? Scholars have pointed out that a) in the past, the development of novel biomedical technologies has often tended to increase societal inequalities because access to them has been available only to a minority, and b) often the expectation surrounding new biomedical treatments exceeds the reality of their clinical usefulness. This theme will address whether, much like the optimism surrounding the benefit of advances in pharmacogenomics and gene therapy, the clinical usefulness of advances in the neurosciences has been exaggerated. In addition, we welcome papers that critically address the commercialisation of the new brain sciences and its implications for research priorities.

3) The ethical and social implications of biomarkets and neuromarketing
Neuroeconomics – combining psychology, economics and neuroscience in order to understand the neural and social impulses behind decision-making – and neuromarketing – the study of the brain’s response to advertising techniques – are promising to revolutionize the fields of marketing and consumer choice. What are the likely consequences of this? What are the implications for consumer autonomy, the rise and pervasiveness of brand and advertising cultures, and the increasing adoption of reductive and/or deterministic models of human behaviour and decision-making? This theme will address the social, economic and political implications of new developments in neuroeconomics and neuromarketing, through drawing on the insights of ethicists, clinicians and industry representatives.

There is no cost for the event, but accommodation and travel expenses are not provided.

For more information:
Download the call for papers (pdf) or contact co-convenor Dr. Tanja Schneider:


European Neuroscience and Society Network European Science Foundation

Alberto Corsin Jimenez on knowledge practices, anthropological anamorphosis and the 2010 World Cup

This week’s “Issues in Scale” seminar featured a paper by Alberto Corsin Jimenez, currently Senior Scientist at Spain’s National Research Council. Alberto’s primary interest is in the history and anthropological theory of knowledge practices. His recent field sites include the nitrate mining communities of the Atacama desert in Chile, humanities scholars in Madrid and management consultants in Buenos Aires. After his talk, Alberto sat down with Malte Ziewitz to answer a couple of questions.

Thank you for visiting, Alberto. Your biography says that you are a “Senior Scientist at Spain’s National Research Council”. To British ears, that sounds an awful lot like someone looking at grant applications all day.

Alberto Corsin Jimenez

Alberto Corsin Jimenez

Well, Spain’s National Research Council is a research-only institution. Maybe some people are familiar with Germany’s Max Planck Society or France’s CNRS. Spain’s National Research Council is the same thing – a university where people are employed to do only research and no teaching. There is only limited administration because all the work that comes with teaching, curriculum examination and syllabus approval and so on – well, none of it is there. So it has nothing to with funding, the management of funding applications or any of that. In the British context, it’s a misnomer.

Sounds like a pretty good environment to work in.

It is a fantastic environment, yes!

The paper you gave at the seminar was titled “How knowledge grows: an anthropological anamorphosis”. Can you explain in a few sentences what it is about?

Well, I can try. If you substitute the word anamorphosis for perspective, I think the title will probably make a lot of more sense: how knowledge grows from an anthropological perspective. The word perspective has been mobilised in recent times in certain quarters as a very strong analytical category. One, it is used to legitimise certain forms of cultural relativism. So depending on your perspective, you do this and that. Two, in some anthropological literature as represented in the works of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro or Marilyn Strathern, perspectivism has become an idiom, a means for describing alternative ontologies.

What I was hoping to do was to show that perspectivism and perspective in the Euro-American tradition, the tradition of enlightenment philosophy, have a particular origin: the rise of a historical episteme, of a mode of knowledge in renaissance Europe. At this time in history, when certain new practices and new ideas about how knowledge worked took place, perspective was closely aligned with the work of optics, with understandings of how things changed size, with ideas about what it meant for a thing or a human being to have an effect on something else. How could Galileo have an effect on the moon? Via the operation of the telescope. So that assemblage of notions and practices, optics, perspective, scale, size, the role of human vision, the role of the human body – there was a particular assemblage in renaissance Europe that legitimated some of those ideas.

So one of the things I was trying to do in my paper was to see, excavate and recuperate some of the sensibilities that enabled the putting together of that complex alignment of ideas about optics, scales and size to illuminate our own current practices. When we talk about perspective today, when we talk about scale today, when we talk about the importance of an object-oriented epistemology and the agency of objects – when we deploy those arguments today, are we conscious of the way they were knit together back in renaissance Europe? And can we learn anything from that original alignment that could illuminate our own practices today?

I would like to stress, though, that I am not a historian. So it is not the historical assemblage itself I am after. My interest is rather to inquire into the mutual animation of certain concepts and practices over each other – scale, size, perspective, objects, bodies. When some of these notions are superimposed over others, certain effects are made visible. I was hoping to describe the different ways in which such visibilities have been brought into the open at different points in time – to better understand what the consequences might be for those of us who do similar things today. That was the bit I was trying to do.

In your paper, you draw on an incredibly wide range of resources, from anthropology, science studies and feminist theory to English literature and the history of art. Do you actually have a field site in which you explore some of the issues at the moment?

I do, yes. I just started about four months ago a collaboration with another Spanish anthropologist called Adolfo Estalella. It is an ethnography of a media lab in Madrid, which is a space where artists, technologists, hackers, software engineers, architects, academics and social theorists come together to experiment and test some ideas. In particular, they produce prototypes of new forms of visualisation, prototypes of do-it-yourself scientific and cultural experiments. So it’s an ethnography of what we call the Cultures of Prototyping. That’s my most recent fieldwork project.

Would you actually consider yourself an STS scholar?

I wouldn’t refuse the label, but whenever I describe myself I do tend to describe myself as an anthropologist. My relationship with STS is ethnographic and theoretical. I think it’s very difficult to do good social theoretical work today without engaging with STS literature. STS has revolutionised the field of social theory for good. It’s opened up new vistas, new field sites, new analytical strategies. So anthropologists but also philosophers of science, historians of science, sociologists, actually anyone working on the production of knowledge, be it from a historical or a contemporary angle, has lots to benefit from looking at STS. So my own encounter with STS is firstly theoretical. It’s important to engage with that literature, what that literature is producing nowadays. But it is also ethnographic because, although not always deploying the same kinds of sensibilities and paying attention to the same kind of processes, the anthropologist and the STS scholar have a lot to learn from each other.

You are currently working on a book about “The Height, Length and Width of Social Theory”. Without giving too much away, what’s the argument?

Well, that’s a provisional title. What the book looks at is how what I call the proportional imagination has pervaded a lot of what social theory does and what philosophy has been doing – or how it actually inflects the Euro-American enlightenment tradition. An understanding of how human subjects position themselves vis-à-vis the world through a relationship of magnitude. My claim is that is has been very difficult for Euro-American philosophy and social theory to describe the encounter and the emplacement of the human being in an ontological terrain, that is in the world, in words other than those of vis-à-vis encounters, of a relation of magnitude, of an encounter of proportions of some kind. So you have Kant looking up heavens and dazzling about the mystery of the cosmos in the same terms as Galileo did when he looked through his telescope in the same terms as the 19th century sociologist called Gabriel Tarde did when he marvelled about the new sciences. So this sense of the magnitudinal relationship through which man describes his relationship to some kind of otherness inflects all kinds of accounts in my understanding, all kinds of accounts in the trajectory of enlightenment philosophy. It’s very difficult to escape that mode of description. Things like supply and demand, the physics of the economy, are all about a balance of forces and a balance of powers. Balance of powers is also the idiom deployed in international relations to describe the work of diplomacy and the ethics of diplomatic work. So we just find what I call the proportional imagination all over the place, sometimes explicitly so, sometimes less so. I am interested in how that imagination is pretty much all over the place.

Do you already have a publication deadline?

No, I am just finishing the introduction. That will take some time.

Okay, one last question: who will win the World Cup 2010?

Oh, I think I should say Spain. But I’m going for Argentina. I think Messi could play alone and probably win the World Cup on his own.

Thank you for your thoughts.

Fishy parables

by Chris Sugden, DPhil student in Science and Technology Studies

John Law of CRESC and Open University gave the penultimate talk in the STS group’s series on scale, with the title ‘Fishy Parables’. Law used data collected during ethnographic fieldwork in a Scandinavian salmon farm to illustrate the difference between what Chunglin Kwa terms ‘romantic’ and ‘baroque’ modes of understanding complexity (including issues of size and scale). This difference, Law argued, allows us to understand and counter the dominance of certain styles of thought.

For Kwa, the romantic style of approaching complexity concerns the goal of unification. All entities of interest are understood to be part of a wider system, and looking at the way the system operates is the best way to understand those entities. So in the case of the salmon farm, events taking place as part of a daily work routine can best be understood through their relationship with overarching processes such as labour and capital flow. The salmon farm and its inhabitants are not so interesting in themselves, the romantic style suggests, but rather they are illustrative of and influenced by something larger.

The baroque style, by contrast, approaches complex entities as wholes in themselves, not unitary but rather ecosystems to be explored, ever-downward. If the romantic view is “society as organism”, Kwa writes, the baroque view is “organism as society”. For Law, this can be seen in the case of the salmon farm if one notices the internal complexities of the work routines and their parts: the tacit knowledge and skill of the workers, for example, or how a mechanism for weeding out and killing undesirably slow-growing fish tells stories about the economics of feeding.

Law argued that the baroque mode includes the romantic: in particular, the idea of unification that is central to the romantic mode can be deployed in the baroque, but with the recognition that conceptual unification and systematization are narrative strategies rather than inevitable, objective procedures. Part of the value of creating a distinction between the romantic and the baroque, therefore, is that it provides an additional vocabulary through which to disclose and describe the politics of analyses otherwise held to be apolitical.

Kwa C, 2002 “Romantic and Baroque Conceptions of Complex Wholes in the Sciences”, in Complexities: Social Studies of Knowledge Practices Eds J Law and A Mol (Duke University Press, Durham, NC and London) pp 23-52.

Why BP CEO Tony Hayward hasn’t been fired yet

If BP’s recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is such a catastrophic corporate failure, why does the man in charge still have a job? Daniel Gross at Slate suggests that corporate reinvention narratives are the explanation:

For better or worse (mostly for worse), Hayward has emerged as the public face of BP. When he shows up at the Gulf, or on television, he catches all the flak—for his colleagues, for those who report to him, and for those to whom he reports. As a human punching bag, he absorbs all the blows thrown by politicians, the media and locals that might otherwise land on the corporate board or on investors. He literally owns the spill—and its consequences.

For this reason, it wouldn’t be prudent to replace Hayward midstream. New CEOs—especially those who step into troubled situations—like to have a clean slate. There are a few basic narrative arcs to CEO stories—the phenomenal success story, the crash and the comeback/turnaround. The ideal time to take over is after the company has hit bottom, when all the bad news has been absorbed by the market. That way, from Day 1, the story the new CEO tells is of cleaning up his predecessor’s mess, fixing the damage and repairing the company’s image.

The Safest Job in the World, Daniel Gross, Slate, 7 June 2010.

Soldering towards media democracy

by Noortje Marres, Research Fellow in Science and Technology Studies

During last week’s STS seminar, Christina Dunbar-Hester, who is currently based at the Virtual Knowledge Studio for the Humanities and Social Sciences in Amsterdam, presented her work on media activism. Drawing on ethnographic studies of a US-based radio activist organisation, she engaged with what can be construed as a “problem of scale.”

Christina Dunbar-Hester

Christina Dunbar-Hester

In her talk, Dunbar-Hester concentrated on a particular tension media activists have encountered in their activities in recent decades: that between their commitment to large-scale policy reform and small-scale grassroots initiatives. As she put it, media activism of the 1990s and 2000s was heavily invested in a major political project – a radical transformation of the media system, or more specifically ‘the fight against media consolidation’. At the same time, however, they were actively committed to media practices situated at the local level, such as community radio.

The talk took an empirical approach to exploring the tension between these commitments, focusing on a specific group of media activists, a small US-based radio activist organisation, examining the different ways in which the problematic emerged, and was or was not negotiated in their practices. This organisation, that she referred to using the invented code name ‘Pandora’, engages in community-based projects in the US, helping local groups set up their own radio stations. But it is also involved in policy advocacy on the national level, centering on the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). As the FCC actively welcomes the participation of grassroots organisations in consultations on media policy reform, the question became acute as to how exactly the activist group Pandora was any different from more mainstream policy organisations. Interestingly, as Dunbar-Hester pointed out, this problem of political integrity encountered by activists is in some respects a fairly common ‘political’ problem (think of election campaigns). Perhaps it can be understood as a particular version of the classic problem of political representation – how to be loyal to the many while building political influence in the centres of government. However, she went on to emphasise that radio  activists draw on a special repertoire to negotiate the problematic: she argued that practical technical work provided a crucial way of addressing it.

For much of the talk, Dunbar-Hester focused on the “hands-on” work performed by Pandora’s members, such as building a micro-broadcasting-station in a lunchbox, or erecting radio towers for community radio broadcasting – ‘somewhere in Tennessee’. Indeed, in this respect, her talk made clear that the problematic of partly contradictory commitments of media activism is certainly not only a problem of scale, but also a problem of  the ‘media’ of political action: activists she interviewed described a distinct sense of discomfort about having to make their point in legal terms – in the official forums. By contrast, making these points through the medium of ‘socio-technical’ devices, i.e. through radio practice, seemed somehow “right.”

However, at the same time, she warned against taking the role of “technology” too literally. Drawing on the work of people like Julian Orr and Sherry Turkle, she suggested the use of radio technologies should be understood as a form of “identity work”: it is symbolically important. She suggested that precisely because hands-on work has these symbolic capacities, it may achieve a wider political significance or resonance, and may help to differentiate media activism from more ‘mainstream’ or ‘technocratic’ forms of policy advocacy.

Finally, she also noted certain problems with this deployment of “hands-on work” for symbolic purposes:  devices like the radio station in a lunch box or a local community erecting a radio tower might evoke the idea or promise of a more democratic technology – i.e. a world in which everyone may be a broadcaster. But at the same time devices like these come with specific restrictions and a particular gender bias, as they favour a technical, hardware-centred approach to media practice. Indeed, in this respect, these devices could or should perhaps be approached as devices of problematisation themselves. That is, as Dunbar-Hester suggested as a final point, these objects can also be used to raise further questions about the kinds of commitments an “anti-technocratic” media activism should or could involve. Such a reflexive approach to media activism, I would like to suggest, may also have to take seriously the changing political significance of “community media”, in a context in which small-scale “community broadcasting” is fast being integrated into the big “media system”, in the form of wi-fi, mobile phones and location-based media.