Criminalizing the brain: Neurocriminology and the production of strategic ignorance

Abstract

With the increasing use of imaging technologies like fMRI in prison sentencing and penal policy, sociologists must comprehend the consequences of these trends and the scientific assumptions upon which they stand. This article uses insights from the sociology of knowledge to interrogate the epistemological and ontological assumptions of neurocriminology, an interdisciplinary field that studies the neural basis of crime. Through a discourse analysis of research articles that embrace what we term the “neurocriminological vision,” we demonstrate how features of the research design eschew the consideration of social factors underlying crime and antisocial behavior. Focusing on the selection of control variables, the ‘thinness’ of experimental tasks, and the management of inconvenient facts, we demonstrate how neurocriminological research transforms complex, socially situated behaviors into problems of neurocircuitry. We link these practices to the field-specific dynamics in which neurocriminology is situated, specifically as an interdisciplinary field which derives authority from neuroscience but is met with skepticism within criminology. In response to these dynamics, neurocriminologists produce not only knowledge, but also ignorance that is strategically useful given their professional goals. Beyond the particular case at hand, we emphasize the relationship between internal dynamics within scientific fields and their effects on the co-production of knowledge and ignorance.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    We carried out an analysis of the disciplinary affiliations of the first authors for each article in our sample. We used their PhD discipline as indicative of their primary affiliation. The majority of articles in our sample were written by researchers with PhDs in psychology (n = 40). The remaining authors are affiliated with psychiatry (n = 16), neuroscience (7), medical fields (neurology, neurosurgery, and neuroradiology) (7), criminology (2), law (2), health science (1), history (1), and philosophy (1).

  2. 2.

    Neurocriminologists interface with behavioral genetics, neuroscience proper, psychology, and other neurodisciplines like “neurolaw” (Jones et al. 2013), “neuroethics” (Roskies 2002), and neuroscientific research on morality (Heekeren et al. 2003), but the primary orientation of its knowledge claims are toward criminological research.

  3. 3.

    We conducted a search of these journals for the keyword “fMRI” and found only 16 mentions since 1990. Fifteen of these mentions occurred in Criminal Justice and Behavior, which also ran a special issue on Biosocial Criminology in November 2009. This signals that the applied criminal justice wing of criminology is slightly more amenable to neurocriminology than its social science counterparts.

  4. 4.

    For example, Kiehl works in close concert with the New Mexico State Correctional Department (Kiehl 2014). Previously, his research was supported by the Correctional Services of Canada.

  5. 5.

    We conducted the following keyword searches: “antisocial personality AND fMRI”; “psychopathy AND fMRI”; “antisocial personality AND brain imaging”; “psychopathy AND brain imaging”; “conduct disorder AND fMRI”; “conduct disorder AND brain imaging.” We also did an initial search of the keyword “neurocriminology” but this search yielded mostly review articles, rather than the research articles that are the focus of our analysis. Similarly, searches such as “criminal behavior AND fMRI” did not yield as many substantive results as the other keyword searches.

  6. 6.

    We excluded articles that used PET and SPECT methods in their research design. Nevertheless, insofar as event-related imaging research shares similar logic, our analysis can be extended to research using technologies other than fMRI such as Positron Emission Topography (PET) and Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography (SPECT).

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Fallin, M., Whooley, O. & Barker, K.K. Criminalizing the brain: Neurocriminology and the production of strategic ignorance. BioSocieties 14, 438–462 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-018-0135-y

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Keywords

  • Neuroscience
  • Criminology
  • Ignorance
  • Sociology of knowledge
  • Discourse analysis