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Critical Studies of the Sexed Brain: A Critique of What and for Whom?


The NeuroGenderings project is reminiscent of an interdisciplinary program called Critical Neuroscience. But the steps towards a feminist/queer Critical Neuroscience are complicated by the problematic ways in which critical neuroscientists conceive of their critical practices. They suggest that we work and talk across disciplines as if neuroscientists were from Mars and social scientists from Venus, assigning the latter to the traditional feminine role of assuaging conflict. This article argues that brain science studies scholars need to clarify how we want to frame our critical practices—a critique of what and for whom?—and promote interdisciplinarity. The challenge is to articulate a critical stance that could not be collapsed into the all-encompassing claims of neuroscience, Critical Neuroscience included. I suggest we shift focus: from enhanced communication to the study of controversies (but also non-controversies, failed controversies, etc.) and conflicts. I explore the productiveness of this shift through two examples: the non-controversial notion of brain plasticity, and the controversial question of whether gender identity formation in intersex people is a function of their brain or their genitals. “Socializing” neuroscience with insights from gender and science studies is good; highlighting the conflicting dimensions of social life in the same gesture is even better.

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  1. Accessed 27 January 2010.

  2. See the keywords in the 2009 Critical Neuroscience manifesto and the related website: Accessed 7 December 2009. The Critical Neuroscience program is part of a larger project called “Neuroscience In Context. Critical Perspectives, Neuroethics, and Anthropology,” initiated in 2007 and sponsored by the Volkswagen Foundation. See Accessed 27 January 2010.

  3. I owe this specific example to my friend and colleague, Vincent Barras.

  4. The double meaning of the Greek term krisis.

  5. Although critical neuroscientists make explicit reference to Honneth’s work on the “pathologies of reason” [1], they dismiss the notion of conflict central to his critical theory of the social and the fact that struggles for recognition involve “a moral grammar of social conflicts.”

  6. In this context, it would be rather odd not to mobilize such a discourse. Also, let’s not forget here that in people’s everyday life and language, brain talk coexists with other scientific discourses about the body, the self, and society, in particular genetics and biochemistry (especially in the case of psychoactive drugs).

  7. This is not an isolated case in the history of science. For instance, the term “gene” was coined in 1909 by Wilhelm Johanssen to break with earlier (preformationist) conceptions of heredity, making it possible to address the issue within a Mendelian framework. In 1933, Thomas Hunt Morgan still noted that geneticists could not agree about the nature and very existence of genes—were they real or only hypothetical entities? [see 29]. As we know, this did not prevent classic geneticists from doing genetics, before molecular biology took on this area.

  8. In this regard, psychiatrist and 2000-Nobel laureate, Eric R. Kandel seems to have played a prominent role in promoting the notion, see [5, 27].

  9. I present here a selective history of this debate. For a more detailed discussion, see [34].

  10. Over the years, this “rivalry” would have to be constructed even further, because the organizational theory became an “obligatory point of passage” for anyone, including Money and his colleagues (in particular Anke Ehrhardt), involved in the study of masculine and feminine behaviors in the ‘70s, see [41].

  11. In January 2008, the German Association of Intersexed People honored Milton Diamond for “his years of service to the intersex community and his endless commitment to their well-being and acceptance within society.” The award ceremony took place at the 2nd Interdisciplinary Forum on Intersexuality held at the University Clinic of Hamburg-Eppendorf. Organization Intersex International joined in, see Accessed 2 June 2009.

  12. I draw the quotes from the documents distributed to the conference attendees. I thank Dr Blaise-Julien Meyrat, pediatric surgeon at the University Hospital CHUV in Lausanne, Switzerland, for passing them on to me.

  13. The advantages of a controversy and conflict-centered perspective for inquiring into the relations between neuroscience, medicine, gender and society, as well as the normative commitments involved in this “dissensus framework,” with consequences for research, training, and action, have been discussed in more details elsewhere, see [52].


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I would like to thank Isabelle Dussauge and Anelis Kaiser for organizing the NeuroGenderings Conference, and all the participants in this exciting event for inspiring conversations about gender and neuroscience. My thanks also go to Ellen Hertz, my long-time first reader, for helpful comments on an earlier draft.

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Correspondence to Cynthia Kraus.

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Kraus, C. Critical Studies of the Sexed Brain: A Critique of What and for Whom?. Neuroethics 5, 247–259 (2012).

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  • NeuroGenderings
  • Critical neuroscience
  • Critique
  • Interdisciplinarity
  • Controversy
  • Social conflict
  • Scientific norms
  • Brain plasticity
  • Intersexuality