Towards Neuro-Social Science: The Politics and Pragmatics of Collaboration

This article is part of the following series:

Workshop Report: King’s College London, 11 December 2014


Different forms of exchange between neuroscientists, social scientists, and humanities scholars have been emerging, and these have led to experimentation with concepts of nature and culture, biology and society, and affect and cognition, amongst others. There are, however, few accounts of how such collaborations can or have been done, or of what it is like to experience them. [i] The Neuroscience and Society Network symposium, organized by the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London on 11 December 2014, invited researchers invested and engaged in these interdisciplinary exchanges to explore the ‘politics and pragmatics’ of collaboration between the social sciences, humanities and neurosciences.

This is a summary of the workshop. It outlines three related lines of discussion that came through in the presentations and conversations. The first is the importance of thinking through what neurosocial science could be, and its conceptual and experimental potential. The second is the need to negotiate the challenges of collaboration between neuroscientists, social scientists and humanities scholars – particularly the sometimes awkward and difficult emotional work that guides them. The third is a reflection on the social context and implications of the neurosciences. In what follows, we highlight only some of the more prominent points and areas of debate explored in the workshop.

What is a neurosocial science?

Different models of neurosocial science were discussed in the workshop. As Andreas Roepstorff put it in the final debate: “We do not need a normative approach outlining what neurosocial science should look like. What we really need is to start with coming up with different models of what neurosocial science could be.”

In the workshop’s keynote, titled ‘A Microbial Unconscious’, Allan Young presented one such possibility – a view of neurosocial science in which we envisage the microbial world in social, political, and economic terms. This serves as a critical response to the growing brain-centered literature, with the argument that “once we extend our conception of the brain to include the brain-gut axis, we have an additional reason to call the social brain ‘social’, since its functional elements now include an interactive microbial society.” Using the lexicon of microbiologists and other scientists studying the immune system and infectious diseases, Young’s talk described the complex interactions and communication between bacteria using words like ‘communities’, with some bacteria ‘cheating’ by benefiting from the ‘social life’ but not contributing, some conducting ‘exploitation’, and some bacteria acting as ‘suicide bombers’ if sacrificing themselves means saving more bacteria. This begs the question, as Young asks, “Do bacteria have a ‘rich social life’, as microbiologists claim, or does this claim anthropomorphize a truly asocial nature?”

First, one must re-interpret what it means to be social – does something have to be cognizant to be social, defined by Young as capable of decision-making? While many would argue that a brain is necessary to perform any kind of decision-making, microbiologists would argue that the complex communication system exhibited by microbial networks is a form of decision-making. Young finishes his talk with the argument that the human microbiome is part of what Yale cognitive psychologist John Bargh has termed the ‘new unconscious’, placing “the gut-brain axis at the centre of a political economy, where colonies provide raw materials and essential services for the central nervous system and, ultimately, the brain and consciousness.” Young’s talk pushed us to think of the neuro beyond the brain, and to question what we mean when we talk about sociality.

What neurosocial science means was also explored by Mattia Gallotti in his paper, “Collective intentionality – theory and practice.” Gallotti presents a picture of neurosocial science as one that seeks to ‘bring theory and practice together’. Gallotti explored this by looking at what cognitive neuroscience and the philosophy of intentionality together have to tell us about ‘the social being of human beings’, to ‘naturalize intentionality’, as Gallotti put it. He argues that the ‘we-mode’ hypothesis, that social understanding is made possible by collective modes of thought, has become a vital tool for studying social relations. What emerges from this is a conception of how neurosocial collaboration can work; the neuroscientist providing the practice, and the philosopher the theory.

Indeed, what the future of neurosocial science might mean for how we think about and explore the relationship between ‘theory and practice’ was a prominent theme. In his talk, “What’s in a neurological concept?” Sam McLean provides a contrasting perspective to Gallotti on the relation of ‘theory and practice’. McLean outlined the emergence and affects of Drug Memory, a neurological concept he argued is in the process of changing drug addiction into a memory disorder rooted in ‘dysfunctional’ neurobiological systems. Based on fieldwork with neuroscientists at the University of Cambridge who are working on what he calls ‘drug memory neuroscience’, McLean proposes that neurological concepts are sites of ontological disclosure which forces us to question the distinction between theory and practice as two separate types of human activity.

Philipp Haueis reflected on his experience working as a philosopher of science at an institute for cognitive neuroscience. First, he distinguished between ‘neurophilosophy’, as using neuroscientific findings to re-explore fundamental issues in philosophy such as free will and morality, and ‘philosophy of neuroscience’, as questioning the explanation, method, and ontology used in neuroscience research. For Philipp, the philosophy of neuroscience is more fundamental since it questions what experimental methods are used, what kind of inferences can be drawn from the data, and how the inferences justify explanations. Philipp describes what he is doing as an ‘embedded philosophy of neuroscience’ – embedded because of its focus on the practice of neuroscience and on ongoing neuroscientific research, rather than neuroscientific textbook knowledge, and because as a philosopher he participates in the everyday work life of a neuroscientific laboratory. Philipp aims to devise adequate concepts to describe the human brain in his work, specifically ‘how can resting state functional connectivity studies proceed in an exploratory fashion?’

Negotiating the affective and political aspects of neurosocial collaborations

The contributions returned to the practical challenges of neurosocial collaborations. The theme of disciplinarity, and the place of intellectual disciplines in the future of neurosocial science, was explored. Ilina Singh asked how inclusive or exclusive they are likely to be. She asked “what disciplines are deemed acceptable or not”, given that the “social sciences are generally suspicious of industry for example”. Singh questioned how we might view the relationship between disciplines in the interdisciplinary space of neurosocial science. As she put it, “might we think of them in terms of critical kinship to recognize its shared, reciprocal nature?”

Other contributions, including that of Nikolas Rose, highlighted the importance of recognizing the value of disciplines ‘with their different histories, concepts, practices’, and the challenge of negotiating these. As Chris Frith put it, “there is something radical about bringing disciplines together” rather than overcoming their differences. A point made strongly by several other contributions, including Des Fitzgerald, Philipp Haueis and Jan Slaby, is that a neurosocial science must recognize disciplinary differences, and mobilize and foster the conceptual and experimental potential they can produce. This is related to the affective dynamics often at work in neurosocial collaborations.

Des Fitzgerald’s talk reflected on attempts that seek to ‘reconcile’ disciplinary differences – what can be reconciled in interactions between neuroscience and social science, and what can’t be? Drawing on Marilyn Strathern’s advocacy for an interdisciplinarity modelled on Fijian gift exchange, Des argues “that there is a kind of potent transaction embedded in division – and that this gets entirely lost in the will to reconciliation.” Pushing us to problematize the title of the workshop, “Towards Neuro-social Science”, Des is asking what it means to be together and what it means to be apart. Drawing on his experience in the European Neuroscience and Society Network (ENSN), as part of an event that drew together neuroscientists and social scientists to collaborate on specific projects, Des talked about how the group he worked with “never actually discussed – or acknowledged – the range of ambivalences that surrounded our collaboration. Instead, we quelled our anxieties; we never confronted one another; we kept things vague”. Their collaboration was not one of ‘reconciliation’, but in remaining different within the ‘unsettling’ collaboration. For Des, discomfort is what it means to be together and apart, and an acceptance of this discomfort, rather than an attempt to quell it, is what should be sought after in these kinds of interdisciplinary exchanges.

Felicity Callard, a geographer, and Daniel Margulies, a neuroscientist, reflected on their collaborative experience of critically re-examining the concept of the ‘resting state’ in cognitive neuroscience. Once they had navigated the temporal and spatial challenges as two researchers working in different countries with different sleeping and work schedules, one ‘rediscovered play’ in scholarly endeavor and the other found a ‘new way of doing neuroscience’ influenced by the history of scientific concepts. Callard and Marguiles outlined the 3 different ‘collaborative modes’ that they engaged in; reflective, disruptive, and entangled, and showed how their first collaboration in 2008 led to joint publications, eventually leading up to an interdisciplinary collaborative project between scientists, humanists, artists, clinicians, public health experts, broadcasters and public engagement professionals funded by the Wellcome Trust’s grant to “Hubbub, the first interdisciplinary residency of The Hub at Wellcome Collection”.

In some papers and interventions, the affective dynamic of neurosocial collaboration is entwined with the unequal power relations between disciplines, as highlighted by Jan Slaby. These are sometimes played out in the collaborations themselves. Nikolas Rose and Andreas Roepstorff both spoke of how the exchanges between neuroscientists, social scientists and scholars working in the humanities are one-sided in terms of effort to make neurosocial collaborations work. As Andreas Roepstorff said: “There are increasing numbers of social scientists working hard to understand the neurosciences. But there are very few neuroscientists reading anthropology, sociology, philosophy”.

Neuroscience and/in Society

The workshop finished where it began, with the relation of ‘the neuro and the social’ – in particular the social implications of the neurosciences, as well as what future engagements between the two could bring.

In his paper on the history of the social uses of neuroscience in France since the 1960s, Sebastien Lemerle reflected on ‘The Biologisation of the Social: Discourses and Practices’ programme in Paris, which aims to foster interdisciplinary exchange between the social and biological sciences. These collaborations are sometimes undermined by ‘fierce ideological differences’ marked by ‘mutual suspicion’, preventing the study of the social implications of the neurosciences, which may prove valuable in responding to matters of public policy. Lemerle argues that the relation of the neuro and the social, since the beginning, has been on abstract, theoretical matters. There is greater collaboration between neuroscientists and philosophers, rather than social scientists, Lemerle says – an example of this is the 2002 book by Jean-Pierre Changeux, a neuroscientist, and Paul Ricoeur, a philosopher, titled What Makes Us Think? A Neuroscientist and a Philosopher Argue about Ethics, Human Nature, and the Brain. For Lemerle, neurosocial collaborations need to be, or would benefit from, being situated in empirical concerns.

In his intervention at the end of the workshop, Nikolas Rose imagined the future of neurosocial science to be a ‘vitalist human science’ that places humans among the animals, sees humans as specific kinds of animals, but gives due respect to their differences, and recognizes that we are ‘living, breathing creatures who will grow, will sicken, and will die’. This ‘vital human science’ could, argued Rose, do worse than focus on new developments in psychiatry, from the efforts of neuroscientists to identify ‘biomarkers’ in the brain to explain mental distress, to the ‘urban brain’ and the relationship between what Simmel called the ‘metropolis and the mental life’.

Jan Slaby provided another perspective on the future of neurosocial science. In his final intervention, Slaby, like McLean, spoke of the importance of rescuing the ‘experiment’ from the confines of the laboratory. Slaby questioned the emphasis sometimes placed on the neuroscientific experiment as the ‘legitimate site’ of neurosocial science collaborations, and what neurosocial science should aspire to if it is to prove its value. For Slaby, this both reinforces the unequal power relations operating in neurosocial collaborations, and under-estimates the power of concepts to disclose important insights into the human animal. Slaby finished as Young began, by insisting that “just as we are biological beings all the way up, we are also social and historical beings all the way down”.


So what is a neurosocial science? It is a questioning of the neuro and of the social, a collaboration between the neuro and the social, the placing of the neuro within the social, or arguing for the social of the neuro. If there is any conclusion to be drawn from the different approaches outlined at the Neuroscience and Society Network’s workshop, it is that collaborations between the social sciences, neurosciences, and humanities take many different forms, and are more likely to thrive if they can negotiate and foster productive differences rather than seeking to overcome them.

This workshop is part of a wider programme of activity by the Neuroscience and Society Network (NSN) to develop and support collaborative exchanges between the neurosciences and the humanities and social sciences. The Network is building on the successes of its predecessor, the European Neuroscience and Society Network, which was launched at the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2007. The next NSN workshop takes place in April 2016, at the Free University of Berlin, and will explore the making and use of brain models in neuroscience and psychiatry.



[i] There are reflections on collaboration in synthetic biology, such as Paul Rabinow and Gaymond Bennett’s 2012 book Designing Human Practices: An Experiment with Synthetic Biology and Balmer et. al.’s Towards a Manifesto for Experimental Collaborations Between Social and Natural Scientists. In this workshop, we wanted to focus on collaborations with the neurosciences.


Sam McLean is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London. He is currently completing the first ontological history of memory in addiction neuroscience. His first book, Damn the Cows: An Essay on Memory as Sickness, is also nearing completion.

Tara Mahfoud is a PhD candidate at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, King’s College London. She is currently conducting fieldwork in Geneva, Switzerland as part of a study that explores the rhetoric and practices of data integration, modeling, and simulation in the European Union’s Human Brain Project.

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