Workshop: Bio-Social Methods for a Vitalist Social Science

A workshop to be held at the University of Birmingham, to consider the potential for integrating critical and applied approaches contemporary ‘bio-social’ challenges.  16th July 2013 [9.00am-4:30pm]

If you are interested in attending, please contact Sarah Myring [].


9.00am Tea/coffee and register                                                                       
9.30am Welcome and Introduction

Dr Jessica Pykett, School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences

9.45am Nudging Into Subjectification

Dr John Cromby, School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences, Loughborough University

Psychological research methods are ubiquitous in relation to the behaviour change agenda, because large parts of the evidence that behaviour change strategies rely upon is generated using them. Such methods make various assumptions – for example about cognition, affect and meaning, the putative distinctions between them, their interlocking dynamics, and the ways in which they can therefore be made visible for research purposes. At the same time, some methods have considerable potential to act back upon those who encounter them: they can function as ‘technologies of the self’ capable of inculcating modes of subjectivity consonant with the neoliberal ideology that the behaviour change agenda reproduces. In this talk I will consider these issues with respect to the recently-publicised initiative to compel UK benefits claimants to undergo psychometric personality testing.

John Cromby is a Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University,  whose research interests relate to the character of experience; in particular, the way that experience is jointly constituted at the intersection of social influence and the body.

10.30am Porosity, Virality and the Study of Contagion – some notes on biosocial sciences

Professor Steve Hinchliffe, Geography, University of Exeter

In recent years, a correspondence has emerged from two quite separate fields – neurology and, for wont of a better term, more than human social sciences.  The correspondence is along these lines – we are beginning to understand how little of our thinking, reasoning, emotions or even our cells are ‘ours’.   From micro biomes to somnambulant subjectivities, ‘we’ are, it seems, porous selves.

This paper uses recent and soon to start work on contagion as a means to open up conceptual and methodological debates on bio-social science.  It starts in a chicken shed and ends in social media, but the questions are the same.  How do things spread, or better, how can we access the bio-social atmospheres that are the very conditions for contagion?

Steve Hinchliffe is Professor of Human Geography at the University of Exeter. He works on the geographies of nature, non-humans and environments.  His current work focuses on the geographies of contagion and disease, investigating scientific, agricultural and institutional approaches to securing life in the face of emerging infections, neglected endemics and food borne disease. The work uses multi-species ethnographies and spatial theory to explore the insecurities generated by conventional approaches to biosecurity.

11.15am TEA/COFFEE
11.45am Experimental Entanglements in Cognitive Neuroscience

Dr Felicity Callard, Social Science for Medical Humanities, Durham University and Dr Des Fitzgerald, Interacting Minds Centre, Aarhus University


In this presentation, we briefly outline some of the methodological, conceptual and empirical research that we have been pursuing since 2011 under the rubric of “Experimental entanglements in cognitive neuroscience”. The phrase “experimental entanglements” signals our desire to move beyond dialogical or interactive models of engagement between neuroscientists, social scientists and humanities researchers. Entanglement points, instead, to a muddier process in which practices of experimentation attend to how shared concepts and questions from these different fields emerge from complex and overlapping disciplinary histories, perspectives and modes of practice.

In our current historical moment, it is increasingly hard to talk about social, cultural, and political ‘lives,’ in isolation from the biological and neurological possibilities that inflect and texture those lives. But if there is growing interest in apprehending these exchanges, still no new paradigm, including the bio-psycho-social, has successfully conjured the entangled relations that constitute them. Simultaneously, the most sophisticated conceptual engagements with them have failed to achieve purchase outside rarefied theoretical spaces. We wager that a more committedly experimental exploration of this interdisciplinary space might reinvigorate the methods and epistemologies of both the ‘social’ and the ‘biological’ sciences. The articulation of this interdisciplinary domain depends, we argue, not on more convincing theoretical accounts, but in a much deeper entanglement of those accounts with emerging spaces of biological experiment and demonstration. Drawing on empirical examples, our presentation unfolds the implications of such a claim.

Dr Felicity Callard is Senior Lecturer in Social Science for Medical Humanities at Durham University. She has broad research interests in the history and present of psychiatry, psychoanalysis and cognitive neuroscience. Dr Des Fitzgerald is a Postdoctoral Researcher in the Interacting Minds Centre, at Aarhus University. His research interests are in sociologies of neuroscience and the autism spectrum, and in the emergence of ‘interdisciplinary’ knowledges.

12.30pm LUNCH
1.30pm Nanny, Nudger or Therapist?: Therapeutic Approaches to Behaviour Change in an age of ‘Vulnerability’

Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, School of Education, University of Sheffield

The much-touted phrase ‘from nanny to nudge’ implies new forms of governance and images of human subjects targeted for intervention across a growing range of social policy areas. Yet the sophisticated alliances between emotional psychology, neuroscience, behavioural and social psychology emerging from these developments suggest that the state as ‘nanny’ or ‘nudger’ is only part of the story.  An overlooked dimension is the powerful intertwining of therapeutic ideas, assumptions and practices reflected in a 15-year rise of therapeutically-informed interventions throughout mainstream education, and the permeation of ‘therapeutic culture’ in everyday life, politics and popular culture.

In Britain, America, Australia and Finland, an ad hoc, eclectic range of interventions that aim to develop mindsets, attitudes and behaviours associated with ‘emotional well-being’, and a huge expansion of state-sponsored lay experts competing to offer effective therapeutic approaches are predicated on a consensus about a crisis of psycho-emotional vulnerability and mental health.  The legitimization of the state as ‘therapist’ raises questions about whether new forms of subjectivity and agency refracted through images of vulnerability are educationally and politically progressive.

Kathryn is Professor of Education at Sheffield University. Her research explores the political and cultural rise of ‘therapeutic culture’ in growing numbers of countries, reflected in the therapisation of policy and practice around interventions for ‘emotional well-being’ and ‘resilience’ across social policy, including education and family interventions.

Using Mindfulness Training in Pro-environmental Behaviour Change

Rachel Lilley, Institute of Geography and Earth Sciences, Aberystwyth University

Mindfulness practice is increasingly being used in mental health contexts, schools and as an alternative approach to ‘top down’ behaviour change theories.  This paper reports on primary action-based research on mindfulness training (based on a Buddhist Meditation Technique) in the sphere of pro-environmental behaviour, particularly relating to Climate Change.  The rationale for using mindfulness in public policy has been variously couched in terms of neuroscientific evidence, the science of positive psychology, cognitive developmental theories, behavioural trials and ancient wisdom relating to the mind. In this research, two research methods were combined to consider the outcomes of a long term and a short term practice of mindfulness and the views of long term mindfulness practitioners and activists working in climate change.  By becoming conscious of their mental patterning, both long and shorter term mindfulness practitioners are able to consider different ‘out of habit’ choices to support their wellbeing and their desire to live according to their deepest values which generally include pro-environmental values. One strong emergent theme from the research was the potential of mindfulness to cultivate the intrinsic value of compassion. This was seen to support the development of wellbeing, a feeling of a greater sense of connectedness to others and to the wider world, and a consequent desire to act more pro-socially/pro-environmentally.   The research outcomes are currently being used to develop training programmes in the application of behaviour change and mindfulness in leadership and social change. Clients include the New Economics Foundation, WWF and Powys based social enterprise Cwm Harry. She is based in Mid-Wales.

Rachel Lilley (BA Hons, PGCE, BWY dip, MPhil) initially trained as a journalist and has spent the last 20 years working with NGOs in social change. She is a consultant, lecturer, facilitator, coach and project manager and more recently, researcher with Aberystwyth University. She also has 15 years experience as a yoga and meditation teacher. She also currently works for Ymlaen Ceredigion applying behaviour change to their work in sustainability in the community.

2.45pm Tea/coffee
3.15pm What is Impact? Producing Modest and Vulnerable KnowledgeDr Megan Clinch, The Open UniversityIn recent years there has been an emergence of array public health interventions that aim to act on the multiple behavioural, organisational, biomedical and social determinates, that are now thought to constitute health and disease. One aspect of this trend is the integration social scientific approaches, in particular qualitative research methods, into the design and evaluation of interventions. However, in spite of such interdisciplinary research, the evidentiary standards through which such interventions are assessed remain wedded to the logic of the Randomised Controlled Trial (RCT). In particular, the principle of observing and measuring the effects of a discrete ‘active ingredient’ in order to make definitive and unyielding claims. As a consequence, such endeavours tend to produce limited accounts of the very phenomena they are trying to capture.  In the conclusion to the paper, the results of this form of interdisciplinary research will be reflected on in terms of the type of impact that social scientific research concerned with health, disease and illness, is increasingly expected to demonstrate. Subsequently, it will be suggested that social scientists engaged in such work need to develop an alternative approach to impact, and in particular, a set of evidentiary standards that can communicate the value of producing knowledge that is both modest and vulnerable.

Megan has a background in Social Anthropology and completed my PhD at the LSE in 2010. Since then, she has worked at the Institute of Public Health at the University of Cambridge and undertaken a Visiting Postdoctoral Fellowship at The Centre for Medical Science and Technology Studies at the University of Copenhagen. She is currently developing research which explores how the concept of liminality can enhance social scientific understandings of situations characterised by multiple forms of uncertainty and indeterminacy.

Nudge Meets RCT: Evidence-based Manipulation for the Public Good?

Professor Martyn Hammersley, Faculty of Education and Language Studies, The Open University

I will examine the document Test, Learn, Adapt, produced in 2012 by the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK Cabinet Office (often referred to as ‘The Nudge Unit’). This advocates the use of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) for the selection and development of government policies, with an emphasis on those designed to operate via the ‘nudge principle’. My focus, for the most part, will be on the excessive claims this document makes for the capacity of RCTs to assess the quality of policies. But I will go on to consider some of the assumptions about the relationship between policies and human behaviour that the document makes; and the way in which these operate as a subtext, positioning both policymakers and the people who are the targets of their policies.

Martyn is Professor of Educational and Social Research at the Open University. His early research was in the sociology of education. Later work has been concerned with the methodological issues surrounding social and educational enquiry. These include objectivity, partisanship and bias; and the role of research in relation to policymaking and practice. 

4.30pm Close

One response to “Workshop: Bio-Social Methods for a Vitalist Social Science

  1. Pingback: The Gambler | Transforming Behaviours

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