Tag Archives: politics

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.

Efficacy

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.

Ethics

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.

Empowerment

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.

Jessica

The Making of Nudge Theory

How did the word ‘nudge’ get to be its own theory? Is it not simply a suggestion, a physical gesture, something which comes before a wink?

Of course these questions have been posed by numerous commentators since the publication of Nudge in 2008, and all the jokes have been made. But the important question remains: would there indeed have been a Behavioural Insights Team (aka Nudge Unit), a new health behaviours research centre at Cambridge University, a House of Lords Inquiry into Behaviour Change, if the publishers of Nudge had not made the wise commercial suggestion that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein not entitle their best seller ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ as apparently originally conceived.  Would anyone have taken any notice if it had been called something mundane like ‘An introduction to Behavioural Economics’ (with apologies to author Nick Wilkinson for what may well be an excellent book)?

Surely the media love-in with Nudge theory would not have materialised in this case – the ideas being simply ‘too academic’ for our sensitive eyes and ears.

Maybe I am just too obsessed with the elevation of Nudge to truth status, scientific discipline and social panacea, because since 2008 I have been working on a research project examining its politics and ethics. But it does seem hard to turn on the radio these days without somebody (often Evan Davies) heralding yet more novel insights that Nudge offers on the decidedly old problem of understanding  human behaviour.  We must listen to academics extolling the virtues of this novel approach to policy making – which both costs less and promotes human happiness! Not only can it encourage organ donation and more speedy tax-paying, but it can also help people give up smoking, become less obese, save the environment and famously, help men to pee more accurately.

But can Nudge theory really be this versatile and this marvellous?

What is most concerning is that I don’t hear any researchers offering alternative viewpoints on the political value of the Nudge theory. Rather, they seem busy trying to get onto the advisory boards of various Behaviour Change research networks, centres and institutes – perhaps in order to fulfil their duties to serve policy-makers in their research and to secure research ‘impact’ – now a pre-requisite of almost any research funding in an increasingly competitive funding environment.

I am all in favour of communicating research findings beyond a narrow circle of my academic friends, and ensuring that publically-funded research is worthwhile; contributing to the social good. But Nudge theory cannot claim this without interrogation. Nudge theory cannot help us to collectively decide on what that social good is. And its model of human behaviour is entirely reductive, denying any place for political agency, contestation or deliberation.  For that, we need to champion diverse approaches from the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Bunsen Beaker Plug and PlaySo whilst the House of Lords Inquiry recommended the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist, this has since been narrowed in the Government’s response published this week by that very Nudge Unit, who recommend the appointment focus on “Social Scientists within departments on behavioural science”. But behavioural science simply is not the sum total of social science, and the methods, assumptions and theoretical frameworks which make behavioural science count as plausible evidence for policy making are not shared by social scientists as a whole. Behavioural approaches still cannot tell us enough as a society about either the cumulative, long term effect of nudges on populations, specific social groups and the democratic polity, nor about the missteps we are making in terms of narrowing human agency to a set of automated, foolish and irrational psychological responses to various stimuli.

These blind spots were brought home to me when my own efforts to disseminate research to a non-academic audience – a magazine on science topics for Parliamentarians – was met with a disturbingly simplistic disdain for my ‘soft science’, academic jargon and a failure to specify a ‘sample size’. Instead, my unsubstantiated claims were best suited to the ‘mere’ journalism of a Sunday newspaper rather than a prestigious academic tome.

Leaving aside the fact that this soft (read ‘social’) science research was all previously published in international peer-reviewed journals, the incident confirmed the uphill struggle that social scientists beyond the behaviouralist frame have to bear in order to secure the ear of policy makers looking for sample sizes, tested models and cool hard facts that stand in for a wider understanding of the nature of the human condition, and issues of ethics and power in political decision-making.

No wonder then that researchers even from the discipline of political science are now turning to bio-medical methods such as Randomized Control Trials to ‘prove’ their theories, rather than asking the political questions that one might expect of researchers of politics. Who is left to interrogate a Nudge theory which itself explicitly aims to change the very behaviours, attitudes and ‘mindspaces’ of citizens?

So is Nudge theory a mere fabrication of a media-driven enthusiasm for catchy mnemonics, a genuine popular respect for behavioural economics, or is it in fact a political project (the oh-so jargony, “Libertarian Paternalism”) which allows its protagonists to justify all manner of cost-cutting and yet ‘welfare-enhancing’ initiatives? And where is the evidence that reducing the size of government whilst increasing its psychological infrastructures actually improves welfare, and for whom?

No , Nudge theory is not, as the authors claim, a set of policy tools to accomplish the ‘real third way’. It is a forth way: a political project which uses the methods of neoliberal thinking to counter those very excesses engendered by neoliberal culture, and in doing so reframes the flawed citizen as architect of her own self-defeat.

Jessica

 

To Nudge, Shove or Prod – when is a bag tax not a bag tax?

From this Saturday (1st October) all retailers in Wales will be required to charge 5 pence for every single use carrier bag it hands out [Note: the levy in Wales is not restricted to plastic bags]. Any business caught handing out bags without charging the levy face a £5,000 fine.

This will make Wales the first country in the UK to introduce such a charge. The Northern Ireland Executive is consulting on similar proposals now. Scotland and England may head in the same direction.  At a UK level plastic bag use fell quite substantially between 2006 and 2009 following a concerted effort by the Labour government, business and environmental campaigners to drive down the 11bn bags we used in 2006 to just under 6.5 bn in 2009. However that trend bottomed out and bag use rose again last year. As a result the Coalition Government is “looking carefully” at what happens in Wales with the introduction of a mandatory charge.

Although pejoratively referred to as the “Welsh bag tax” no money from the charge goes directly to the Welsh Government (VAT is collected for HM Treasury). Rather than a means of direct revenue generation instead the charge has been introduced with an explicitly behaviour change objective – to reduce the number of single use bags given out in Wales, (in 2009-10 this was estimated at 350 million bags from supermarkets alone). The Welsh Government anticipates the charge will see a 90% reduction in the number of bags distributed in Wales.

Not everyone, least of all the Carrier Bag Consortium or the pressure group the Tax Payers Alliance, is happy about this new “stealth tax”. Bag tax is also criticised as rather marginal in environmental terms. They form a relatively small component of the waste stream yet have been easy for politicians, environmentalists and even big business to characterise as a major menace that everyone can tackle providing a superficial quick win and self-congratulatory slaps on the backs all round.

Easy solutions - Not always are the best ones

By pushing onto the public yet another ‘easy step’ on the path to sustainability and encouraging the consumption of ‘eco-bling‘ (as George Monbiot describes it), the fetishisation of the plastic bag menace is charged with doing little to change underlying mindsets of consumption and disposability or more damaging behaviours. But one outcome will be an additional pot of cash for environmental projects in Wales.

Revenue raised is supposed to then go to “good causes”, causes of the retailers own choosing (estimated at £3 million in the first year). The extent to which this will happen is unclear as in another ‘nudge’ the Welsh Government will not prescribe where retailers spend the additional money. It has an expectation that the proceeds of the tax will “be passed on to charities or good causes in Wales, and in particular to environmental projects”. A little wooly and light touch perhaps but this carrot is backed up with the usual governmental stick of the promise of further regulations to determine where the money is spent if Welsh business does not play ball.

Of course none of this is particularly new. Many companies such as Marks & Spencer and Ikea voluntarily introduced charges on such bags a few years ago. Other countries have either imposed an outright ban or introduced a levy upon plastic bags (e.g. China, Italy, Rwanda, South Africa, Mexico City, Washington DC, Hong Kong, Ireland).

Citizens Pledge

The citizens pledge - Uttarakhand is a state in northern India

And a number of British towns and cities have tried to emulate the success of Modbury in Devon (Britain’s first “plastic bag free town”) launching voluntarist campaigns trying to persuade local retailers and consumers to switch from plastic carrier bags. With support from all 33 borough councils in London Borishas unsuccessfully spent two years promoting the idea of making “London a plastic bag free city” in time for the Olympic Games.

(2008 Survey)

 

You would think this issue would have been dealt with years ago, given explicit cross party political and public support (although nudgers would note the discrepancy between what people say and do, but see the Daily Mail/ICM Poll, 2008). Yet the lack the legal powers to impose and enforce a ban/levy coupled with the inertia and entropy inherent in much grassroots campaigning has seen many local campaigns flounder. So Wales has become the first place in the UK where the bag menace can be tackled through a combination of the nudge and the shove to try and achieve a shift in the behaviour of a population. Quite where the nudge comes in is perhaps less clear than might appear.

If this is indeed a nudge then it is really more about the state mandating the placement of a question and a consequent choice in front of the consumer where previously one did not exist. So the introduction of a charge, however small, for something that was previously a ‘free gift with any purchase’ (the cost was already factored in to retailers overheads) reframes the relative value of the bag.

A softer nudge would be training the cashier to ask you an innocuous sounding question like “Good morning, do you have your bags with you?” Underpinned by a legislative shove the Welsh Government nudge seems more of a prod that aims to inculcate a new social norm (bag for life, avoid the strife). No one has to pay the charge, they could make do without a bag or bring their own. In other words they could change their behaviour and from the Irish example it seems likely the majority will do so.

Arrggh! It's the Slovenian plastic bag monster!

Ireland married its bag tax with a large scale education programme and receipts went directly into an Environmental Fund so the link between tax and spend was clear. It is a shame Wales has been unable to do likewise. Unfortunately the awareness raising campaign in Wales has been limited so far, one consequence of which may be to compound resistance and irritation over the Welsh levy which may diminish its effectiveness. Setting the charge at the relatively low level of 5 pence may counter this, though conversely it may also make it easier for the consumer citizen to carry on as before (Ireland is increasing its charge to 22 cents as bag usage has recently begun creeping up again).

But it is an interesting experiment all the same. Watch this space to see whether this combination of nudge and shove does indeed produce a profound change in environmental behaviour of the Welsh population the government hopes for, or whether further prodding may be required …

Marc

Bashing the bookies, nudging the high street

An inanimate object belonging to the Ladbrokes in Lavender Hill has apparently  become “a symbol of defiance” against last month’s English urban riots. The Ladbrokes riot proof plasma tv screen valiantly, but inanimately, stood up to the sustained onslaught of a number of looters trying to prise it from the wall, an incident captured by Sky News.

According to the Ladbrokes press release (11th August) :  “a group called ‘Ladbrokes don’t f*** about when it comes to TV brackets’, which swiftly gained over 45,000 followers, was created after footage was shown of looters being unable to detach the television screen from the wall of the company’s Lavendar Hill shop, despite up to three people using their whole body strength by hanging off it.

 The footage, and the TV itself, quickly became iconic as a symbol of defiance against the criminals, […] a poll […] of several thousand votes, more than half have suggested auctioning the television for charity. Other suggestions included installing a blue plaque, nominating it as an official 2012 Olympic Torch Bearer, and putting it forward to replace Boris Johnson as the next Mayor of London.

Ladbrokes in Hackney

Amongst all the footage of destruction and violence it was noticeable that the brand names of many high street bookmakers were to be seen bobbing around in the background imagery of that week. Bookmakers (in stark distinction from bookshops) were seemingly targets in the riots. According to one report by the 3rd day of rioting and looting over 50 betting shops in London were attacked with Ladbrokes alone confirming that over 20 of their shops had been subject to violence. In report after report from different locations where the violence flared up bookmakers are identified as amongst the victims of the rioting. Whether bookies were attacked in some act of revenge by disgruntled punters or by opportunists who expected to steal cash from safes and gaming machines or simply smashing them up because they, at that time in that place, felt they could is moot. But given the clustering of bookmakers in deprived areas (which even the Association of British Bookmakers recognises has occurred in “some limited inner city locations”) the numbers looted and smashed up is perhaps explained as much by their visibility in the community and their location along main thoroughfares as by business occupation.

Burnt out and trashed William Hill, Tottenham - picture by Alan Stanton, Flickr

It is this visibility, this presence, as part of a redesign of their urban landscape that concerns of some residents of Tottenham. As Mark rightly highlights the production of ‘debtogenic landscapes’ is not confined to less wealthy neighbourhoods. In an era where technology increases the reach of not only ambient gambling opportunities but also an ambient consumption culture and access to lines of credit we are all subject to temptation and at risk of spending beyond our means in favour of short term gratification. Mark draws our attention to the “risk of (admittedly unwittingly) constructing a kind of irrational underclass, who are somehow unable to resist the temptation to gamble” though I argue that recognising that risk it remains important we interrogate the ways poverty and marginality play into the capital accumulation strategies of the wealthy.

High street shopping in the UK has declined as a result of the economic downturn, growth of internet shopping, the downsizing of national retail and banking chains and the diversification of supermarket trading into non-food sectors. Surveys by the Local Data Company and Ordnance Survey this year demonstrate increasing numbers of premises becoming vacant with building societies, pubs, estate agents and recruitment agencies all seeing dramatic falls in numbers since 2007 [NB: the data was disputed by building societies and bookies, nevertheless that high street vacancies are increasing is a finding in numerous surveys]. With the filling in of some of these sites, particularly in less wealthy districts by bookmakers, discount shops, charity shops and pawnbrokers the architecture and landscape of the high street has been changing and changing fast.

Like Mark I recently took a stroll down Tottenham High Road, this was before the riots. It was striking how obvious the clustering of betting shops there really is (there are 38 in the area). Popping in to a couple of bookies in Tottenham their function as leisure sites, as places for entertainment, social interaction and banter was obvious, as was their function as siphons of money from individuals, families and communities. However, Tottenham or Haringey Borough is illustrative rather than exceptional. Where Tottenham High Road has fifteen betting shops on it, Deptford has ten on or close to the High Street, Luton High Street has eight etc. And activists point to the lack of similar expansion into wealthier neighbourhoods. For example according to the Ladder Community Safety Partnership (representing neighbourhood watches and residents associations in Harringay) there is a clear targeting of betting shops “in the poorer areas of the borough and those with a known demographic which is more likely to gamble”. As a result the sixty six betting shops in the borough are clustered in much higher numbers (85%) in the poorer wards than in the wealthier ones (like Muswell Hill and Highgate). Similarly Hackney has 64 betting shops where again “a mapping of the location of these shops reveals that they cluster in the poorer areas of the borough”.

But the truths about bookies in the high street are contested. That they are a prominent element of contemporary urban architecture is not, but the extent to which this represents an exploitative expansion of gambling outlets or a relocation of business to markets where “demand is high” is. From the gambling industry side the case is far from clear:

  • overall numbers of bookies remains fairly static at about just under 9,000 with a number of (mainly independent) bookmakers going out of business,
  • the industry is in the midst of a period of reorganisation and takeovers and consolidation,
  • punters in the main make small manageable bets with only a few running into problems,
  • and the shift in revenue generation from over the counter betting to gaming machines (with over 30,000 ‘B2’ category machines – where you can bet upto £100 a game – they now account for over 50% of revenue) has changed both the costs and customer base for betting shops making competition for available gaming machine ‘punters’ fierce – hence the clustering (as Adi Smith describes in his reply to Mark below).

On the other side there are many community and political activists worried about:

  • the normalisation and penetration of gambling behaviours within their communities,
  • the proliferation of betting shops into communities that contain concentrations of vulnerable people and the gambling related harm that results,
  • and the wider context of a hollowing out and redesigning of welcoming vibrant community spaces – the local high street.

Now the location of things is a key component of the nudge mantra (fruit in school canteens for example). As Thaler and Sunstein note “the arrangement of settings is important to the choices consumers make. Behavior can be greatly influenced by small changes in the context. And the influence can be exercised for better or for worse” (LA Times, April 2nd 2008).

Until the 2005 Act all gambling in this country operated under the notion of “unstimulated demand” (i.e gambling was legal in particular places and could be offered as something people could do, but gambling companies could do nothing to encourage people to gamble, like advertise or allow the public to look in through their windows). One of the consequences of this was that betting shops had to demonstrate a local demand for their services. With the passing of the 2005 Act the ‘demand test’ was removed from legal consideration in the licensing of betting shops. This, coupled with the quirks of planning legislation – the so called Town and Country Planning (Use Classes Order) (1987) which allows change of use between betting shops, banks, estate and employment agencies, and financial service companies without requirement for planning permission – in effect has made it difficult for local authorities or local communities to refuse or influence the relocation of betting shops on the high street.

So under the current planning and licensing system the betting companies find themselves in the position of one of many choice architects in the design of the ‘debtogenic’ urban landscape, notably in economically disadvantaged areas. However, this may change.

Firstly, the DCMS Select Committee launched an inquiry into the implementation and operation of the Gambling Act 2005 back in May. Written representations by community groups have emphasised the clustering and demand test issues. And Joan Ruddock MP for Lewisham Deptford introduced a Private Members Bill in July to make betting shops subject to planning permission, reintroduce the “demand test” as well as allow local planning authorities to put a cap on the numbers allowed in an area.

The location of betting shops has become a highly politicised issue, one which pits Labour against Liberal and Conservative ideologies.

Conservative and Liberal MP’s generally didn’t support David Lammy’s earlier attempt to introduce a similar piece of legislation into the Localism Bill and there is little to suggest they will in January when Ruddock’s Bill gets a second reading.

But, if I might be forgiven for oversimplification, it seems that in the gambling debate larger ideological divisions in the way behaviour should be regulated or nudged are revealed. For example economic liberal and libertarian politicians seem to locate pathological problems that manifest in individuals (in this case associated with gambling) as lying with the individual, not their social context. Hence intervention should be limited and targeted at the body not the social body, which sits well with an emphasis on behavioural economic logics. Left of centre or progressive politicians seem to see such problems as being one in which context contributes to individual pathology which in turn produces a social harm necessitating the intervention of the state to both minimise social harm and change the context. The subtleties of ‘behaviour change’ techniques sit less comfortably with big thinking and a presumption of bigger government. Quite how behaviour change or nudge discourses are enrolled into the way the gambling issue is going to be debated in coming months will prove interesting.

Marc, Sept 2011

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).

Jessica

From Neuroknitting to Neurocapitalism

My attention was recently drawn to the Knit a Neuron project at Bristol University established by Anne Cooke and Helen Featherstone.  The project, aimed at public engagement with science, invited participants to craft a brain cell in the rich artistic medium of wool. This turns out to be a larger movement which goes far beyond philosophical wooliness to rethinking the relationship between art and science. (Have a look also at the Art-Science research project being conducted by Aberystwyth colleagues Deborah Dixon, Libby Straughan and Harriet Hawkins.) And just last weekend, there was a ‘cosmic craft’ event at the Science Museum where people collectively experimented with knitting the solar system and geometric shapes.

What has this got to do with soft paternalism, behaviour change, and this here geography-inspired blog, I hear you ask.  Interestingly, a group of geographers (Doreen Jakob, Hayden Lorimer, Kendra Strauss and Nicola Thomas) has recently instigated a novel discussion on the Geographies of Craft and Crafting, which is to be a conference session at the 2011 Association of American Geographers Annual Conference. This exciting session will examine, amongst other things, the re-emergence of craft as a cultural and economic movement; craft, labour and social reproduction; and ‘craftivism’ and the politics of craft and crafting.

Yes, but what has that got to do with soft paternalism and changing cultures of governing? The advent of neural knitting may be just another incarnation of the ‘new neuros’ currently sweeping political, economic, cultural and social explanation.  It will not have escaped your attention that the neurosciences have acquired something of an elite status in contemporary thought – both academic and popular. Neuroscientific expertise is mobilised in all manner of ways, from neuroeducation, neuromarketing to neuroeconomics. And public policymakers are increasingly looking to neuroscientific insights in developing more supple and sophisticated forms of governing which go with the grain of human cognition, as noted in the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government’s 2010 publication, MINDSPACE.  Even human geographers are in on it, with ‘geographers of affect’ readily adopting neural explanations of (pre-)cognition, embodied and emotional rationalities, and economic geographers adopting evolutionary, neurobiological and behavioural revelations in their accounts of – for instance – the global financial crisis, or the location of firms.

My question is whether all these new neuros add up to something called neurocapitalism – one in which the economic orthodoxies of capitalism are re-imagined through the biological certainties of the brain sciences (arguably economic and biological theories have always been closely intertwined). If so, should we be worried about it? Could neurocapitalism produce new neuro-citizens?  Do behaviouralist cultures of governing reinforce economic inequalities by segmenting irrational and rational publics? Are fears (or so-called ‘neurophobias’) of strategies of intervention, manipulation and management of the emotions and decision making justified? If the debate about human consciousness is over (as some prominent neuroscientists would have us believe), then why do we keep on acting as if we are active subjects able to make history, change futures and refuse to submit?

Is neuroknitting a slippery slope…?

Jessica