Social Science vs. Neuroscience? Epistemologies and Stereotypes

It just seems so much at odds with the idea of the coldly reductive neurobiological imperialist, marching unblinking toward her epistemological destiny – at least as we have come to imagine the prototypical neuroscientists in the social sciences. Obviously I caricature here. But still, what happened to our single-minded, all-conquering neuroeducer? (96-97)


Tracing Autism

What, indeed, happened to the coldly reductive hard scientists? Perhaps nothing, perhaps they never existed. In Tracing Autism, Des Fitzgerald presents and analyzes the reflections of autism neuroscientists on, fittingly, autism and neuroscience. As a social scientist studying neuroscientists, he grapples throughout the book with stereotypes about and differences between these two different types of researchers. To some extent this is an admonishment against certain reductivist perspectives on the natural sciences within the social sciences, but I think it is also a meta-exploration of tensions (real or imagined) between the two types of sciences. In this brief comment, I will explore two key contrasts between natural and social sciences: epistemology and stereotypes about affect.


In my classes,[1] I teach about the tension between positivism versus interpretivism as a key concept in order to understand medical anthropology. In short, positivists aim to uncover universal truths that exist “out there” in nature by maximizing reliability and reducing the role of the researcher, whereas interpretivists aim to explore the many different truths that are constructed through interaction and discourse by maximizing validity and reflecting upon the role of the researcher. But I also try to show that it’s not a strict opposition. This is especially the case when it comes to the interpretivist turn and interpretivist criticisms of the positive approach as reductive, detached from lived experience, and somewhat naïve about the feasibility of removing the influence of the researcher on the collection and interpretation of data. Often, positivists in fact share some of these concerns. While there are strong differences between the two epistemologies, both share a certain skepticism. This is no surprise to many Somatosphere readers, but Fitzgerald’s work gives some nice concrete examples. Autism neuroscientists are skeptical about autism – balancing the ways in which they saw autism as both “biologically true” and “an umbrella of convenience.” They are also skeptical about neuroscience, and readily discuss the limits of brain imaging and the ways on which it rests on assumptions and interpretations.


This book also explores some stereotypes about neuroscientists and social scientists as people. Fitzgerald explores the affect and emotion that comes through in interviews with neuroscientists. The neuroscientists talked about interpersonal love for their research participants and their families. They talk about empathy, heartbreak, and gut feelings. Scientific detachment has been praised as a virtue for generating unbiased and objective results. Fitzgerald raises the possibility that scientific detachment can be a language by which researchers distance themselves from the inevitably affective and emotional entanglements involved in research with human participants – an inherently relational endeavor – but quickly squashes it. In contrast to what we might expect, “the specific, dry, and technical issues about the objective make-up of autism that skate endlessly across the top of these accounts are not simply a way to avoid talking about love; they are there, in fact, precisely to explain it” (110). The “dry” and the “visceral” aspects of research are entangled, and researchers need not banish the latter in favor of the former. I imagine this is not a surprise to many bench scientists or those of us who know and work with them. But it is an aspect of scientific work often left out of the popular imagination, and worth re-asserting; and Fitzgerald goes beyond simply stating that neuroscientists have affective and emotional lives too, into exploring how those lives are integrating into scientific inquiry itself.

These issues might not be limited to autism research, but autism is a compelling topic through which to explore these issues. Fitzgerald uses the organizing metaphor of tracing to describe how autism neuroscientists talk about their work in a way that encompasses both the “objective” and “constructive” views of autism. Tracing is a type of drawing (constructing, created), but only on the basis of some previously existing thing (in this case, the notion of a biological thing called autism). This metaphor demonstrates how autism scientists balance the idea that autism is an objective biological entity “out there” to be discovered, but also a socially constructed category. This ambiguity makes autism especially rich for exploring tensions between interpretivist and positivist epistemologies. Autism research is also a heavily relational endeavor. It often involves human participants, sometimes entire families. Even when it doesn’t, implications of autism research are heavily discussed and enmeshed in social networks. This relational aspect makes autism especially rich for exploring stereotypes about the affective and emotional aspects of research.



[1] Hello to past, present, or future students!


M. Ariel Cascio is an anthropologist specializing in critical and cross-cultural autism studies as well as the cultural study of science & biomedicine and the anthropology of youth. They are currently a postdoctoral researcher at the Neuroethics Research Unit of the Insitut de recherches cliniques de Montréal and the Department of Neurology & Neurosurgery at McGill University. More information on Dr. Cascio’s ongoing research can be found at

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