Interview with Victoria Pitts-Taylor

Jennifer Singh caught up with Victoria Pitts-Taylor, Professor of Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at Wesleyan University and winner of the 2017 Robert K. Merton Book Award for The Brain’s Body: Neuroscience and Corporeal Politics (Duke University Press, 2016). Her book was also awarded the Feminist Philosophy of Science Award from the Women’s Caucus of the Philosophy of Science Association. In our interview, Professor Pitts-Taylor discussed key theoretical lessons of her book, insights on neuroplasticity, and future directions of this work.

Singh: Congratulations on winning the Robert Merton Book Award.

Pitts-Taylor: Thank you. I am very honored.

Singh: What inspired you to write The Brain’s Body and what are the main theoretical lessons your book offers for sociology of science and technology?

Pitts-Taylor: I got really interested in this topic in part because I am interested in how neuroscience is being taken up in all of these different fields, including sociology, although not as much as some other fields like economics.  The neuro-turn worried me a lot, not because I wasn’t interested in the brain and neurobiology, but rather because our field was at risk of taking up neuroscience uncritically.

My background is interdisciplinary, and my STS interests and feminist training taught me to be critical of scientific knowledge, and I saw a lot of inroads that neuroscience was making in the social sciences without that kind of robust critique of how that knowledge production was happening.

At the very same time on the other side, social neuroscientists have become the sociologists and philosophers of our era. So, I think, it’s really important for sociologists to be literate and critical and not just skeptical of scientific knowledge. Some of us are trained to do that and others are not. So, when I started the project I had to learn about neuroscience. But the project was never intended to merely be a critique. I took Bruno Latour seriously when he said, “it has run out of steam.” So, I am also interested in materialism and biological aspects of body and the embodiment. Taking all of those different threads and weaving them together was my goal.

In terms of what lessons there are for sociologists, I think of the book as one road map. One way you can think about how to try to do an assessment of scientific knowledge without being skeptical, while remaining critical. One of things I think sociologists have to offer is a really robust and nuanced sense of what social difference is. When we read social neuroscience we get frustrated at that kind of rudimentary classifications that are sometimes used in terms of race, class, gender and so on, or if any are used at all. So there are an awful lot of claims about neurobiology that either ignore difference or use rudimentary notions of difference. We have a lot to offer to 21st century knowledge if we are scientifically literate.

Singh: Can you tell us more about your approach to feminist new materialisms and new ways of thinking about the body?

Pitts-Taylor: If you read only one chapter of the book you might come away from the idea that it is a critique of neuroscience. But if you read the whole thing, you will see that there are counter-moves that I am trying to make where I really try to take neurobiology as seriously as it needs to be taken. In the fourth chapter especially I really push the idea of what it would mean for feminist theory, queer theory and the sociology of gender to take neurobiology seriously, which we can’t do without being critical of the heteronormativity of the literature on oxytocin, kinship, and attachment. But if we include a critique and robust sense of the pitfalls of making claims of kinship and attachment based on heteronormative models, none the less, we can still think about the neurobiology of attachment and social bonding as a really interesting place to look for resources to understand the stakes of the regulation of kinship. Drawing on the neurobiology literature, what I argue in this chapter is that biological relatedness does not need to be genetic or blood based. I argue that close intimate interactions with other people we care for changes our biology. So, biological relatedness need not be based on a reproductive heteronormative model. If you bring a queer and feminist critique to a deep interest in neurobiology you get a totally different idea of what biological relatedness could be, which I think is really exciting. This kind of relatedness is material ;  includes the body. It includes feelings. It includes more than symbolic representations of discourse.

Singh: The idea of plasticity is an interesting component of your book. What is plasticity and how do you think through this idea in The Brain’s Body?

Pitts-Taylor: Neuroplasticity is a huge area of neuroscientific research and it’s really part of the turn in the late 20th and early 21st century toward new biological models that also includes epigenetics. The idea of plasticity is that the brain is not only developmentally plastic in terms of being able to grow and change in its early years. Increasingly, it is understood as plastic throughout life. So even in adult brains, there is potential for significant morphological changes. Which is really great news. There are a lot of people who have been really interested in plasticity beyond the clinical potential. So what is it mean for nature and nurture? If we have a bifurcation of nature and nurture then we have a very brief developmental plasticity early on. We really get brains that are fixed for life. But if we have this open-ended plasticity then suddenly nurture has a whole lot more to do.

In the chapter on plasticity I take up the implications for some significant social differences like sex/gender and class. I’m looking at sex/gender – using those two terms together as one, like as Anne Fausto-Sterling does – as one place where the politics of the body have come up to the shores of the new neuroscience. People are really excited about plasticity because it means, for example, even if we find differences in adult male and female brains we no longer have to assume that those difference were genetically hardwired, but rather we could explore how socialization could make a difference in creating different kinds of brains. What you get is a biologically deep biosocial understanding of the brain. However, what I try to show is in various ways that plasticity is this really, really broad umbrella concept in neuroscience that in practice actually means different things in different research programs. So there are different kinds of plasticity, there are different processes that are considered to be plastic. There are still different life stages that are thought to be more plastic than others. The different regions are considered to be varyingly plastic. Adding these all together what you get is an economy of plasticity. So if you have something like, in research on the adolescent brain, an immature pre-frontal cortex and a mature amygdala. When some neuroscientists map that on to a localized view of brain function, then can make arguments like, “adolescents have poor executive function and overactive anger issues,” which confirms our cultural biases.

In research on class, you might get a really interesting biosocial picture of how class difference can have neurobiological effects. It really matters then how plastic the brain is and for how long. Are we now going to declare that people are who in the lower social classes have different brains that are fixed for life? The politics are really troubling. And so what I try to show is that plasticity is not a Band-Aid or a prescription for the problems of biological reductionism and determinism, because plasticity is deployed in multiple different way and means many different things. Plasticity gets arrested at different times in different research programs.  Eleanor Maguire’s studies looked at taxi drivers in London who learned the 25 thousand streets of the city to take the license test, and she and her colleagues found some volume growth in the hippocampus. This research was hailed as evidence that the adult brain can change based on learning, which is really exciting. But she also found that some people pass those tests and some people do not pass the test. Maguire speculates that some people have more plastic hippocampi than others. So plasticity is not universally distributed and there is an economy to it. Neuroplasticity is becoming one of the new frontier of social difference, like epigenetics. Because of this, I think that we really need to learn how to read this work and pay very careful attention to the kind of political claims that might be attached to them.

Singh: If you were to write an epilogue, what would you include?

Pitts-Taylor: I dealt only a little bit with race in this book and I would like to return to that. The research that I write about in the book is ostensibly colorblind. But if you read it through a critical race lens you can see that there are actually a lot of racial implications to research on poverty and the brain. Some of my current writing and thinking right now are about how I can understand race as a ghost variable. Like how race is actually operating in this work even though it is ostensibly not there, and what are the racial implications of making claims about poverty, which is a highly racialized phenomenon even if researchers don’t think that they are studying race.

I am also interested in exploring the chronopolitics more than I did in The Brain’s Body. As I mentioned before, there are speculations that some groups are more plastic than others; that some people with certain kinds of experiences actually have the plasticity of the brain reduced. But what really matters here is time. How long does plasticity last? When does it get arrested? I want to address plasticity in chronopolitical terms and there is a lot more thinking to be done.

Are We Complicit? Talking Social Constructionism in the Age of Trump

by Owen Whooley

Like many, the presidential election has left me with a profound sense of unease. This unease operates on three registers, the combination of which concoct a veritable witch’s brew of angst.  The first is the unease I feel as a citizen, concerned about the state of our democratic institutions.  The second is the unease I feel as a sociologist, who despite claiming some expertise on, you know, society, didn’t see this coming (and worse, insisted throughout the election that a Trump presidency would never happen).  Both of these sources of unease have received their due attention in election post-mortems and hallway discussions with my peers.  However, it’s the last sources of disquiet that’s the bitterest to swallow, for it raises inconvenient questions regarding the way I think about the world.  I fear that I, as a social constructionist, have contributed to the mess in which we find ourselves.

Did my research, and the research of my like-minded peers, lead us, in some small way, to this point? Can we draw a line, however circuitous and indirect, between decades of critical science studies and the Trump administration’s “alternative facts”? Is the phenomenon of fake news a logical, albeit extreme, destination on a slippery slope we created? And if so, what does that mean for SKAT going forward? How do we defend a politics of “truth” when we’ve published reams of paper problematizing that very notion?

For me, these questions have crystallized around the March for Science (https://www.marchforscience.com/). As someone dismayed by the administration’s denigration of science and its propagation of falsehoods, I’d like to support these efforts and not just from a distance. I want to create a clever sign and march along.  But I can’t escape the tension between scientists’ professed commitments to objective, apolitical knowledge and my life’s work. Can a sociologist of science become a sociologist for science?  Would marching be hypocritical? Would I even be welcomed?

After all, before the administration’s War on Science – waged via climate denialism, threats of defunding and hostile cabinet appointments – we had our own Science Wars – waged via laboratory studies, philosophical tracts and snarky hoaxes published in academic journals.   Admittedly, our war carried more modest implications; at stake was disciplinary politicking and intellectual prestige, not the future of the planet.  But I can’t shake the sense that our war has fueled theirs. I worry that what we’re witnessing has its roots in our critical research, which has (rightfully in my mind) taken science and expertise down a peg.  I’m concerned that decades of undermining “that noble dream” of objectivity, of applying a symmetry principle in assessing knowledge claims, and of revealing the extra-scientific factors that shape “facts” have become parts of the arsenal for this administration’s full-throttled assault on reality.

My training antedated the height of the Science Wars.  By the time I came around, an uneasy truce had been declared.  And while social constructionism is by no means commonsense – at least not in my discipline of sociology – it won’t get you laughed out of the room or pilloried as a dangerous subversive.  Under the big tent of sociology, we now have a home base in SKAT, from which to launch novel forays into social constructionism. With the headiest days of battle behind us, this cozy niche is sheltered from the vexing criticisms that were so often hurled at the social constructionists in the past. Perhaps naively, I have been able to avoid the stickier issues and tougher challenges that a commitment to social constructionism entails.  I can avoid these no longer.

I wonder if, safely ensconced in our own bubble, we missed the political threats our research carries.  In the wrong hands, our nuanced, laborious analyses have become weaponized.  Sure, we’ve long known about the “production of doubt” and the venerable tradition of using science to serve political ends.  But did we ever consider that our efforts might lead us to something like Trump?

This administration’s approach to knowledge – if we can call it one – represents something distinct, if not in kind, then certainly in degree.  Their promotion of the most easily debunked falsehoods presents, simultaneously, a less sophisticated strategy and a more pervasive challenge. Curiously, in its baldness, it’s easier to identify (it fools nobody who hasn’t consented to being fooled), but harder to combat.  In this way, the treatise of our time is not Orwell’s 1984 but a slim book by Harry Frankfurt, On Bullshit.  Read with an eye to contemporary events, Frankfurt seems to be describing Trump, Kellyanne Conway, and Sean Spicer when he argues that bullshitting is more cynical than lying. At least liars, in lying, acknowledge that it matters what is true.  Bullshitters are not at all concerned about whether anything is true; they assert what needs to be asserted to convey a desired impression, with no concern that these assertions meet any sort of empirical test or even should. The Trump administration feeds us a false dystopian picture of the U.S. in which the economy is in shambles (it’s not), the murder rate is at a 40-year high (wrong), the “inner city” is a war zone (it isn’t), hordes of violent immigrants are pouring over our Southern border (they’re not), and all Muslims are potential agents of ISIS (c’mon).  Shameless, their bullshit is immune to practices like fact-checking, which draw their strength from shaming. The embarrassment that results from being caught in a lie serves as perhaps the most important failsafe for civic and civil discourse. Without it, everything becomes just bullshit noise meant to distract from the blunt exercise of power.

Has our social constructionism provided tools and legitimating cover for this excrement? At our core, social constructionists believe that argumentation, honest debate, and intellectual rigor matter; otherwise we would have chosen another craft. But by whittling away at truth, have we unwittingly undermined the possibility of reasoned discussion?  By raising such concerns, I don’t intend to reignite the science wars. Nor do I think it’s productive to resort to tired debates over what social constructionism is, to spend hours cataloging and comparing its variations along a spectrum of weak to strong, or to once again take up arms against the bugaboo of relativism.  Rather I want to call attention to the effects of social constructionism, however unintended they might be.  I want to encourage a collective, sober reflection, to look ourselves in the mirror and assess our culpability.

My brand of social constructionism has deep roots in American pragmatist philosophy. With William James, I share an abiding appreciation of “blooming, buzzing confusion” of human experience and the limits of our minds to comprehend it in all its multidimensionality.  With Charles Sanders Peirce, I recognize the social, communal nature of knowledge production. With John Dewey, I reject the “quest of certainty” and in its place, insist on democratic processes that engage an educated citizenry. With pragmatism in general, I refuse to separate thought from action and note that the acceptance of a belief is dictated by its practical effects, its “cash-value” to use James’s admittedly problematic metaphor.   But where do these cherished notions leave me today?  Having renounced external validators of truth and sullied science with practical political and social concerns, have I reduced knowledge to a mere trial of strength or worse, adjudication via the Electoral College? Trump often parries criticisms with the retort that he won the election.  This rhetorical move, unsubtle as it is, speaks to the imbrication of knowledge and power, the way in which might can dictate right – essentially a key insight of social constructionism.  As Trump puts this insight of ours into problematic action, a nettlesome doubt creeps in. Might everyone be better off if we left well enough alone?

Like so many things these days, I just don’t know.  I’m not ready to jettison the project of social constructionism, which has achieved a deeper understanding of science.  But I also fear that decades of deconstructing the soapbox have left us without a leg to stand on in the current fight. And worse, I’m worried that we have armed our enemies.

Given the urgency of the situation, I believe that it would be neither wise, nor responsible, for the SKAT community to duck these difficult questions.  This moment demands of us the courage to interrogate our convictions. We need to talk about social constructionism in the Age of Trump.