Nikolas Rose, Neurosociology, and Neurochemical Selves

Nikolas Rose, a well-established sociologist at the London School of Economics, has become increasingly interested in how the brain sciences and sociology can constructively interact. Like many of us, his own intellectual history reflects this; originally trained as a biologist, he then switched to psychology before finally ending up in sociology. His older research centered on “social and political history of the human sciences, on the genealogy of subjectivity, on the history of empirical thought in sociology, and on changing rationalities and techniques of political power.”

Today, Rose has turned to “biological and genetic psychiatry and behavioural neuroscience, and its social, ethical, cultural and legal implications.” He has a recent book, The Politics of Life Itself: Biomedicine, Power, and Subjectivity in the Twenty-First Century. Here is one review describes it:

From tattoos to organ transplants, cosmetic surgery to circumcision, obsessive dieting to exercise, the practice of manipulating bodies is increasingly widespread. But have we passed into a new phase of manipulation evidenced by the prevalent use of medicine to adjust our moods, enhance sports performance, slow ageing or alter fetuses? Nikolas Rose . . . argues that a threshold has been crossed into a world of ‘biological citizenship’ in which humans view themselves at the molecular level, medicine is based on customization, and biology poses fewer and fewer limits on life.

On his site, Rose has several downloadable papers on topics such as biological citizenship and Foucault. But I’ll focus on one entitled “Becoming Neurochemical Selves.” As he opens the paper, Rose asks, “How did we come to think about our sadness as a condition called ‘depression’ caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and amenable to treatment by drugs that would ‘rebalance’ these chemicals?” The chapter then presents an historical and sociological treatment of how we have gotten to this point, focused on pharmaceuticals. But as he notes, he could have just as easily started with brain imaging or genomics.

Rather than a disciplinary self, matched to some norm (think old-style gender roles or Soviet citizens), we know have Gilles Deleuze’s society of control—an active and responsible citizen who is constantly monitoring self, risk and achievement. “The new neurochemical self is flexible and can be reconfigured in a way that blurs the boundaries between cure, normalization and the enhancement of capacities.” Given this type of self, today psychiatric drugs are “conceived, designed, and disseminated in the search for biovalue,” a concept that is entangled not just in pharmacological efficacy but also “conceptions of what humans are and should be.”

The broader Brain, Self and Society program that Rose runs is also focused on biological citizenship, neurochemical selves, and discipline and control.

As we enter the 21st century, we need to explore the extent to which the languages, techniques and personnel of the new brain sciences are supplementing or supplanting the psychological ways of thinking and acting that were shaped by the development of psychology in the past century 20th and with what consequences. And, in our increasingly globalised world, how are these ideas interacting with ideas of selfhood, personhood, ideas of freedom and self-fulfilment from radically different cultural traditions.

In particular, Brain, Self and Society is interested in “the social, political, economic, scientific and technological conditions for the emergence of these new ways of thinking” about brain sciences and society, particularly through “specific case studies of approaches to mental distress, in the courtroom and criminal justice system, and in the military and security apparatus.” Distinctions between normal and pathological and the concepts of risk and enhancement are central to how these new ways of thinking are playing out in society.

Here at Neuroanthropology, we have similar interests, but we are also concerned with how anthropology, sociology and other social sciences can help us better understand our own brains. A critical stance is important, even vital. But it also misses another equally important development. As our understanding of our own biology advances, the social sciences will also need to change. This conundrum means that we have to take a step beyond “a ‘descriptive sociology’ of complex interactions” defined in terms of “social, political, economic, scientific and technological conditions.” We also need to complete basic description of the everyday sorts of processes involved “brain, self and society” at a more person-centered level—stress, free will and identity, balance, and so forth.

If we don’t adapt, then the brain sciences will dictate our ideas about self and society. And that, frankly, is wrong—an integrative approach is much closer to the truth than what any field, whether social or biological, can offer on its own.

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