Tag Archives: policy

Bio-social Methods Workshop Commentary and Presentations

IAS imageBio-Social Methods for a Vitalist Social Science

Institute of Advanced Studies Workshop, University of Birmingham

16th July 2013

workshop commentary written by Dr Bryony Enright is available here (PDF).

Some interesting quotes on the concept of the bio-social can be found here (Powerpoint).

Presentations and audio recordings of presentations will be added as available below:

Helen Cobain @flikrNudging Into Subjectification (Powerpoint)

Dr John Cromby, Loughborough University (AUDIO)



hinchliffe porosity vitality contagionPorosity, Virality and the Study of Contagion (Prezi Presentation)

Professor Steve Hinchliffe, University of Exeter (AUDIO)


callard and fitzgerald experimentalExperimental Entanglements in Cognitive Neuroscience (LINK)

Dr Felicity Callard, Durham University and Dr Des Fitzgerald, Aarhus University


Fishin widow @flikr Nanny, Nudger or Therapist? Therapeutic Approaches to Behaviour Change in an age of ‘Vulnerability’

Professor Kathryn Ecclestone, University of Sheffield (AUDIO)


Using Mindfulness Training in Pro-environmental Behaviour Change (Powerpoint)

Rachel Lilley, Aberystwyth University (AUDIO)


peter stevenson @fllikrWhat is Impact? Producing Modest and Vulnerable Knowledge

Dr Megan Clinch, The Open University



Hammersley_drugs_Waleed Alzuhair flikrNudge Meets RCT: Evidence-based Manipulation for the Public Good? (POWERPOINT)

Professor Martyn Hammersley, The Open University (AUDIO)


speech bubble

Closing Remarks

Dr Jessica Pykett, University of Birmingham (AUDIO)



A ‘3E’ model of soft-paternalism

It seems that no ‘policy relevant’ research is complete without its own easy to remember, easy to say, easy to spell mnemonic or catchy abbreviation for you to take away and apply to all manner of related and not-so-related scenarios (more on the status of mnemonics in public policy later), so here is ours:

Another triangle

The UK Sustainable development strategy (2005, see also DEFRA 2007) developed the well-known ‘4Es’ framework (enabling, engaging, encouraging and exemplifying), only to be trumped by the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government’s ‘6Es’ model (adding explore and evaluate). But we have come up with our own ‘3Es’ to throw into the mix of important things beginning with E: efficacy, ethics and empowerment. Here I provide a quick summary as a taster for the analytical model we are developing in our forthcoming book, Changing Behaviours. On the Rise of the Psychological State, to be published in 2013 by Edward Elgar.


No we haven’t gone all instrumentalist on you. Our concern with efficacy is not to ask ‘does behaviour change work’, since there are plenty of people asking such a question. Rather, throughout our research we have sought to interrogate the grounds for evaluation as presented in behaviour change policies. First, this raises a concern with the monetisation of behaviour change outcomes in terms of VFM (value for money) or ROI (return on investment). Whilst these are clearly important where spending of public funds is concerned, we urge those evaluating behaviour change policies to consider alternative outcomes in terms of the quality of public deliberation engendered by such interventions.  Secondly, we want to draw attention to the need for long-term and large-scale measures of success, which may in fact defy measurement within the terms or resources of a single intervention. We are concerned to show how behaviour change evaluations may be based on a narrow conception of the times and spaces of decision-making, unable and unwilling to account for the socio-technical, cultural and environmental drivers of meaningful and sustainable social change.


Of course we are banging on about ethics like there’s no tomorrow, since this is notably absent from the other E models, and because it is the element most likely to evade measurement and audit.   Three main issues are worth considering, though there are no doubt many more. First, what is the political legitimacy of those designing behaviour change? Where novel governmental tactics exist to explicitly target the collective subconscious, where is the infrastructure to monitor and check this form of ‘psychocratic power’? Secondly, in the settling of new defaults, norms and social goods, how are notions of evidence, expertise and status advanced? I.e. who gets to say what is a desired behavioural outcome in any given situation? Related to this is a third concern, that in targeting behavioural interventions at those behaviours, segmented groups and individuals deemed less rational, does the behavioural agenda itself create and irrational an risky underclass, echoing previous examples of victim-blaming in public policy? This circularity issue is well known to students of political theory, and it remains crucial to ask whether and how behaviour change produces vulnerable subjects.


Finally, we argue that it is essential to evaluate behaviour change policies in terms of their potential for empowering citizens to develop the capacity to act in the future. We have identified that one of the unintended consequences of the sum total of behaviour change interventions is that the homo economicus presumed in prior economic accounts of decision-making is being replaced by a more psychologically inspired vision of the citizen fool. Following on from this is a perceived requirement for policy makers to create foolproof geographies based on naïve conceptions of time and space. And finally that such a decision-making environment removes opportunities for social learning. In its place, we argue for public policy interventions which value more-than-rational forms of decision-making, sensitive to inexpert knowledges, a wider spectrum of what counts of evidence and a more ambitious attitude to the possibility of social change.


House of Lords Inquiry on Behaviour Change reports that nudging is not enough

Today the House of Lords Science and Technology Sub-Committee published its extensive report on behaviour change, which was reported in headline news in between yet more revelations about News International and the phone hacking scandal.

The main points reported were:

–          That whilst nudging is a useful tool for changing behaviours, particularly in the health sector, it is not a substitute for government regulation – it needs to be used within a framework of more traditional legislative and financial tools;

–          That the Coalition Government have been rather too keen to promote nudging as a soft, cheap alternative to more regulatory and infrastructural provisions;

–          That there is not enough evidence on how behaviour change can be effective at the scale of governing whole population – it is not adequate to aggregate research findings from individuals without proper evidence of the real impacts on the population;

–          That there is a need to appoint an independent Chief Social Scientist to advise government on the social effects of behaviour change initiatives, to promote behaviour change across government and to provide an evidence base of successful interventions.

The report goes much further in considering how appropriate the pilot projects of the Behavioural Insight Team might be, specifically how Government should be working with businesses and voluntary organisations, provides guidance on evaluating behaviour change interventions, and discusses the ethics of such programmes according to (a) their intrusiveness, and (b) their transparency.

This is a much welcome corrective to the apparently unbridled popularity of the behavioural sciences amongst contemporary public policy-makers.  The report goes some way to questioning not only the definition of a ‘nudge’, but also the certainty of the ‘sciences of human behaviour’ (p9), and subjects the methods and evidence of behavioural scientists to critical scrutiny.

But the main question immediately raised for me is ‘what is a Social Scientist?’ What is this person going to do and will they be expected to provide definitive answers to Government’s still narrow questions around behaviour change. Will they be charged with generating their own questions?  Given that there is little agreement within the Social Sciences around even what counts as true evidence and appropriate methodologies, let alone the practical and ethical bases for evaluating policy, how will the Chief Social Scientist adequately represent Social Science?  With the notable exception of Professor Elizabeth Shove, it seemed that most of the academic witnesses giving evidence to this Inquiry were behavioural scientists, social psychologists, public health psychologists and medical scientists – already coming to the table with very particular epistemological and methodological assumptions about human behaviour not shared by Social Scientists across the board.  So who will the Chief Social Scientist be and will they be able to ask difficult questions of value, interests and political struggle within a technocratic search for effective policy levers? I like Bent Flyvberg’s take on this – see Making Social Science Matter (2001).


Behaviour change agendas and the ‘re-scientisation’ of decision-making

Governments have always been interested in shaping people’s behaviour, but under New Labour, we have seen the proliferation of government documentation, think tank reports and cross-departmental seminars on the topic of governing through behaviour change. Soft paternalism can be seen as a key component of this broader governmental agenda.

The academic roots of soft paternalism can be traced to the influence of US-based behavioural economists, neuroscientists and psychologists developing theoretical insights on, and new empirical observations of decision-making.  Ideas from these disciplines have become part of the received lexicon in policy-making circles, and are used in the design of more effective policy instrumentation.

Policy strategists have been particularly interested in how these disciplines have re-thought both culture and nature. First, in exploring the socio-psychological dynamics and ecological, behavioural resources required to achieve cultural change, and secondly, through a radical break with the decision-making models of ‘rational economic man’, being replaced by a human nature which is described as ‘predictably irrational’ (Ariely, 2008).

With the advent of a new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, we shall be monitoring developments in the behaviour change agenda with interest.  What will be the key differences between a soft paternalist justification of New Labour’s ‘Active Government’ and its use in realising what Cameron has termed ‘Big Society’?

What practical, political and ethical issues are raised in the interpretation and use of the behavioural sciences by parties across the political spectrum and what are the risks and opportunities posed by the gradual replacement of homo economicus with homo psychologicus?


Inventing commodities and policies

Nigel Thrift (2006) has written recently about the way in which capitalism increasingly uses the whole intellect as a means of innovating new commodities. What he means by this is that – in a desperate search for profits – capitalism is increasingly trying to ‘outsource’ the process of commodity innovation by using the (tacit) knowledges and experiences of consumers. For instance, Thrift discusses how capitalists actively seek to create ‘consumer communities’ with a view to forming groups of people with both a loyalty to a particular commodity and an ability to contribute in substantive ways to the ongoing and continual process of re-inventing that commodity. innovative chairs by alex osterwalder@flikr

Is it possible to think about the way in which the state – potentially through its emphasis on libertarian paternalism – is also increasingly seeking to make use of this kind of creative outsourcing of innovation and inventions? To what extent are state policies or strategies commodities that must be sold to citizens? To what degree do citizens contribute to the process of fine-tuning state policies and strategies through their own (tacit) knowledges?

Capitalism is in crisis because of a long-term profit squeeze…
The state is in crisis because of a squeeze on democracy and citizenship
Capitalism seeks ways of making profits by intermeshing commodities with consumers…
The state seeks legitimacy by intermeshing policies with citizens
Affectively binding consumers through their own passions and enthusiasms sells more goods…
Affectively binding citizens through their passions and enthusiasms sells more policies
Commodity projects are extended over time through incremental innovations derived from consumers…
Policy projects are extended through incremental innovations derived from citizens
Commodities are placed into new worlds created by capitalists/consumers…
Policies are placed into new worlds created by the state/citizens
There is a new market in which dialogue takes place between capitalists and consumers…
There is a new agora in which policies are co-produced by the state and its citizens
Capitalism seeks to increase profits through a spatial extension of intelligence, particularly with regard to IT…
The state seeks to increase legitimacy and rule through a spatial extension of intelligence

Two separate but interlinked issues seem to arise here. First, the possibility of thinking about policies as commodities that can be ‘sold’ to citizens or that can fine-tuned to take heed of the disparate needs of citizen. Echoing Walter Benjamin (1977[1938] quoted in Thrift 2006: 284), can we suggest that ‘if the soul of the commodity [read policy]…existed, it would be the most empathetic ever encountered in the realm of souls, for it would have to see in everyone the buyer [read citizen] in whose hand and house it wants to nestle’ (Benjamin 1977[1938] quoted in Thrift 2006: 284)?

Second, we need to think about the extent to which citizens are part of this process whereby policies are developed, adapted and fine-tuned. Are citizens part of this agora within which new kinds of state policies are developed, whether explicitly or unwittingly? Which citizens actively contribute in a positive manner to the development of these policies, e.g. through contributing to blogs, participatory planning events or focus groups? Which citizens are merely an unfortunate backdrop against which policies are framed?