Targeting brains, producing responsibilities: The use of neuroscience within British social policy

Tineke Broer, Martyn Pickersgill

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Concepts and findings 'translated' from neuroscientific research are finding their way into UK health and social policy discourse. Critical scholars have begun to analyse how policies tend to 'misuse' the neurosciences and, further, how these discourses produce unwarranted and individualizing effects, rooted in middle-class values and inducing guilt and anxiety. In this article, we extend such work while simultaneously departing from the normative assumptions implied in the concept of 'misuse'. Through a documentary analysis of UK policy reports focused on the early years, adolescence and older adults, we examine how these employ neuroscientific concepts and consequently (re)define responsibility. In the documents analysed, responsibility was produced in three different but intersecting ways: through a focus on optimisation, self-governance, and vulnerability. Our work thereby adds to social scientific examinations of neuroscience in society that show how neurobiological terms and concepts can be used to construct and support a particular imaginary of citizenship and the role of the state. Neuroscience may be leveraged by policy makers in ways that (potentially) reduce the target of their intervention to the soma, but do so in order to expand the outcome of the intervention to include the enhancement of society writ large. By attending as well to more critical engagements with neuroscience in policy documents, our analysis demonstrates the importance of being mindful of the limits to the deployment of a neurobiological idiom within policy settings. Accordingly, we contribute to increased empirical specificity concerning the impacts and translation of neuroscientific knowledge in contemporary society whilst refusing to take for granted the idea that the neurosciences necessarily have a dominant role (to play).

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)54-61
Number of pages8
JournalSocial Science & Medicine
Early online date12 Mar 2015
Publication statusPublished - May 2015


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