Des Fitzgerald, Nikolas Rose, and Ilina Singh, King’s College London

What can biological research contribute to the study of society? What might developments in the life sciences tell us about the politics of a given society – and about the ways in which we should understand and intervene upon social, economic and political problems? In an era in which the biological sciences are increasing in prominence and visibility these are profoundly important questions – not least for social scientists. In neuroscience alone, two projects begun in 2013, the EU’s Human Brain Project, and the US-based BRAIN Initiative, will receive several billions of pounds of funding in coming years.

And yet many social scientists remain deeply skeptical about the use of biological research in social policy arenas. Recently, in these pages, a team of social scientists drew on their research on policies suggesting the use of neuroscience in early intervention, to argue that: “assertions of the cause of poverty as transmission across generations are receiving a new lease of life. We are witnessing a shift away from prevalent ideas about the cultural transmission of disadvantage towards a new biologisation of poverty.”

Thus misused, the authors argued, biological ideas can produce a ‘meritocratic construction of the wealthy and privileged as biologically superior,’ can lead to an ‘incipient biologised racism’ and can ‘be used to promote white, Western conception of optimum childrearing.’

In its most straightforward sense, ‘biologisation’ (and the related term, ‘medicalisation’) means taking a phenomenon previously understood as ‘social’ or ‘political,’ and re-interpreting it through a biological lens. To ‘biologise’ poverty might be to seek causes of poverty not only in political decisions, or in social relations, but also in neurodevelopment and in genetic inheritance.  But the term biologisation is often also a form of political critique: it implies that explanations linking biology and social phenomena are reductionist and ideological – that they can make socio-political problems look ‘natural,’ producing a dangerously anti-progressive biological determinism.

The relationship between social science and biology has never been easy. At least since the Victorian polymath, Francis Galton, explored what he saw as the social and political implications of Darwinism – an inquiry that Galton named ‘eugenics’ – social scientists have, at different historical moments, been attracted to, and repelled by, the consequences of interpreting human affairs and human problems in ways that draw upon biology. Indeed, as one of us has described elsewhere (Rose, 2013), the sciences of society and of human biology are, in some ways, estranged twins.  Born together as institutionalized disciplines in the nineteenth century, the early social sciences, under the influence of biological thought, took on an overtly ‘biopolitical’ role: many scholars saw their function as working out how best to manage and govern societies of human beings, in light of what biology seemed to be revealing about those beings’ biological nature.  Today, of course, the picture is very different. While there are a small number of counter-examples, scholars in the mainstream social sciences, in almost a direct mirror-image of their forebears’ enthusiasm, work to keep biology out of their domain –to ward off the ‘appalling appeal of nature’ (Jackson and Rees, 2007).

These efforts are understandable: an early enthusiasm for biological ideas in the social sciences was deeply entangled in beliefs that human beings had a fixed ‘essential’ nature derived from evolution, and was pervaded with crude notions about the biological heritability of categories like race, gender, and class, often legitimating situations of gross inequality and injustice.  The horrors of the 1930s and 1940s, as well as the casual brutality of eugenic ideas that persisted throughout the twentieth century, show very clearly the dark paths down which such ideas might ultimately lead.

Suspicion towards the role of biological research in social policy was thus once very valid.  However, we wonder about the degree to which such suspicion remains unquestioned. In particular, we suggest that there is a risk that an older, productive integration of the ‘bio’ and the ‘social’ will be lost to memory and to knowledge. Social scientists might thus fail to grasp the often deeply progressive implications of contemporary developments in the life sciences, as well as the more cosmopolitan and emancipatory forms of politics that can sometimes flow through and beyond those sciences into policy.

Consider, for example, a longstanding theme for social science and its relationship to biology – the association between mental health and city life. We have known for a long time that there is an association between living in a city (or the quality of ‘urbanicity’) and the risk of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder. In fact, the relationship between the metropolis and mental life has been a central theme of social science since its foundation – from the social theory of Georg Simmel to the classic urban sociologies of Robert Faris and Warren Dunham.  But this topic has not only been a foundational interest for social science: in many ways, the urban sociology of mental health was a guiding-light for helping us to explore a more complex terrain.  First, it helped us to think about developing a shared ‘biosocial’ account of urban marginalization – one that may help us to imagine how such an experience might be felt in body and in mind, and might in fact be inscribed in the ‘vital’ existence of people living in these zones.  Second, and especially in this literature’s concern with social class (Hollingshead and Redlich, 1958), and its sustained attention to the cumulative stresses of metropolitan deprivation, it suggested a progressive and even emancipatory politics that could be rooted in such an inquiry.

Although the social sciences largely turned away from such research from the 1960s, this is not merely an historical theme.  Lately, these questions have received sustained attention from biological researchers. As the physician and epidemiologist Sandro Galea and his colleagues pointed out recently: “There is an emerging interest in identifying biologic explanations that may clarify the link between features of the urban environment and individual mental health” (2011: 401). In direct pursuit of these links, Galea and his group, have studied a Detroit neighbourhood, where most residents will experience some traumatic event over their lifetime, to show how distinctive methylation profiles, in particular gene clusters, can be associated with residents who meet criteria for lifetime posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression (methylation is a process that mediates gene expression, and ultimately the production of proteins or enzymes. See a sociological review by Landecker and Panofsky).

Showing a correlation between some of these distinctive profiles and the number of assaultive events experienced by an individual with lifetime PTSD, Galea and his colleagues suggest that, in neighbourhoods like this one, ‘cumulative traumatic burden may leave a molecular footprint’(ibid.: 402). In a related series of experiments, within the research-group headed by the German psychiatrist Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, Florian Lederbogen and his colleagues designed a series of experiments to associate not just city living, but also city upbringing, with distinctive patterns of neural activity in response to stress. Their work helps us to understand how ingrained patterns of social-stress-processing might be an environmental risk that links city life to mental ill-health – showing us not only that city life becomes embodied, but also potential mechanisms for how it becomes embodied.

How are such developments to be understood? What role should they play in progressive social thought about the contemporary city, and in policy development for urban reform? And how are these unabashedly ‘biological’ accounts of urban mental health to be interpreted and developed in relation to the ‘sociological’ scholarship that they both build-upon and push in new directions?  We suggest that the dominant, sterile, rhetoric of biologisation and medicalisation has little to contribute here. It is certainly necessary to think carefully about how such research might shift policy attention – and social science has a role in attending to such shifts.  But crucially it seems to us that this kind of research does not portend the elision of social structure or the elimination of political ideology from our understanding of the production and maintenance of mental suffering and distress. Indeed, quite the opposite.

This research reminds us that if we are to meaningfully understand contemporary landscapes of urban distress, and the ideologies that produce and sustain them, then we need to pay attention to the biological traces that are produced through the practices and ideologies of the city. Taking up the task begun by Faris and Dunham, social scientists and policy makers will need to learn to see how the social life of the city is inseparable from the biological life of the body and the brain.  It is precisely through the generation of such a ‘politics of life’ that we see the potential for more attention to biological research on social phenomena. Certainly, much refinement is needed. But we suggest that the first step is to leave behind the conceptual tools of twentieth century critique – biologisation, medicalisation – and to begin to build an analytic framework for our own century, one that can learn, again, to track and understand the mutually constitutive relationships between biology, and embodiment, and social suffering.  


Faris, REL, and Dunham, HW (1939) Mental Disorders in Urban Areas: An Ecological Study of Schizophrenia and Other Psychoses. Chicago: Chicago University Press

Galea, S, Uddin, M and Koenen, K (2011) ‘The Urban Environment and Mental Disorders: Epigenetic Links.’ Epigenetics 6(4): 400–404

Hollingshead, AB, and Redlich, FC (1958) Social Class and Mental Illness: A Community Study. London: John Wiley & Sons

Jackson, S, and Rees, A (2007) ‘The Appalling Appeal of Nature: The Popular Influence of Evolutionary Psychology as a Problem for Sociology. Sociology 41(5): 917–930.

Landecker, H, and Panofsky, A (2013) ‘From Social Structure to Gene Regulation, and Back: A Critical Introduction to Environmental Epigenetics for Sociology.’ Annual Review of Sociology 39(1): 333–357

Lederbogen, F, Kirsch, P, Haddad L, et al (2011) ‘City Living and Urban Upbringing Affect Neural Social Stress Processing in Humans.  Nature  474(7352): 498–501

Rose, N (2013) ‘The Human Sciences in a Biological Age. Theory, Culture & Society 30(1): 3–34

Simmel, G (1964 [1923]) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press

Singh, I (2012) ‘Human Development, Nature and Nurture: Working beyond the Divide. BioSocieties 7(3) 308–321

Des Fitzgerald is a postdoctoral researcher at the Urban Brain Lab in the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine, at King’s College London. His research interests are in neuropsychiatry and mental health, urbanicity, and the autism spectrum. A frequent cross-disciplinary researcher, he is especially interested in the politics and pragmatics of collaboration between the social and life sciences – and is committed to understanding what is intellectually and emotionally at stake in transdisciplinary research.

Nikolas Rose is Professor of Sociology and Head of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London. He has published widely on the social and political history of the human sciences, on the genealogy of subjectivity, on the history of political thought in sociology, on law and criminology, and on changing rationalities and techniques of political power. Over the past fifteen years he has paid particular attention to the conceptual, social and political dimensions of the contemporary life sciences and biomedicine, paying particular attention to the new brain sciences.  Arising from this work, he has argued for a radical rethinking of the relations between the social sciences and the life sciences.


Ilina Singh is Professor of Science, Ethics and Society, and Director of Research, at the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London – where she is cross-appointed at the Institute of Psychiatry. Her work examines the psycho-social and ethical implications of advances in biomedicine and neuroscience for young people and families, where she has sought to assess the benefits and harms of biomedical technologies for children and families, enable evidence-based policymaking in child health, and bring social and ethical theory into better alignment with children’s social, emotional and behavioural capacities.

1 Comment responses

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    February 19, 2014


    Thanks for the interesting article. We have several comments we’d like to make, given that your arguments are in part structured around our piece in the previous issue of Discover Sociology.

    First, we’d suggest that mainstream social sciences and biological research are not quite as polarised as you make out. For example the ESRC are funding a not insignificant amount of biologically orientated substantive and methodological work (including your own project) and bio markers increasingly are collected alongside social variables in longitudinal cohort and household studies. Further there many examples of productive collaborations across the ‘divide’ such as Choudhury and Slaby 2012, or the field of neurofeminism. Indeed, in tracing the biologisation of early years policy we have actively consulted with neuroscientists ourselves (several will be attending and speaking at our dissemination event next month).

    Second, you are concerned that social scientists might miss the ‘deeply progressive implications of contemporary developments in the life sciences’. Surely the point is not that social scientists routinely deny the potential for such ‘positive’ developments, but that they insist they are critically interrogated. Definitions of ‘progression’ are contingent and contestable. Similarly the drive to ‘optimise’ which underpins the current neurofication of policy is pursued within a normative late capitalist framework. Who gets to decide what is the optimum? And are we not at risk of enforcing a tyranny of compulsory ‘self betterment’? Biology cannot answer these social and political questions, but it is often touted as if it can, thereby closing down spaces for debate and resistance.

    Third, the ‘emancipatory politics that you foresee in pursuing biologised directions is hard to decipher in such a short article, but we do detect a certain over-optimism in the discussion of how new knowledge can feed into and inform policy. You appear to be working with an idealistically pure understanding of the transfer of research knowledge into policy and practice, whereas our study highlights the instrumental way in which science is raided and distorted for political ends. The appropriation of brain science to argue for the vital significance of the first 18 months of life has ‘coincided’ with the austerity agenda and has been used to justify the decimation of family support services. Intervention is now targeted towards the very poorest in society and focuses on increasing mothers’ sensitivity to their infants as a solution to social problems. However improbable, the concept of neuroplasticity has been rendered highly deterministic and used to biologically Other disadvantaged populations over the age of two.

    As a result we take issue with the idea that suspicion towards the role of biological research in social policy belongs in the last century. Our research demonstrates the very real dangers of crude appeals to science to shore up neoliberal paternalism, with some echoes of the barbarity of eugenics-inspired initiatives that were regarded as positive and progressive at the time. For example, increasing numbers of disadvantaged mothers (particularly victims of domestic violence) are facing the threat of losing their children. In part this is because of benefit cutbacks and withdrawal of funding for refuges and family support more broadly. But it is also because family justice professionals increasingly are ‘trained’ in neuroscience factoids which emphasise irreversible risks to developing brains if children are not removed from their mothers early on.

    While developments in social and scientific knowledge may give rise to optimism, the misshapen version that is being used to justify early years intervention initiatives, and which positions those living in poverty as having sub-optimal brains and parenting capacities, most decidedly does not.

    Ros Edwards, Val Gillies & Nicola Horsley


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