The proposed collaborative project is a qualitative, empirical study of the knowledge practices, circuits of intellectual exchange, and cultural values at play in the emerging field of "neuroeconomics," a hybrid discipline that joins novel approaches and technologies in neuroscience to the longstanding theoretical problem set of economics, one that attempts to locate economic reason (or valuation) and action (or choice-making) in the physical substrate and chemical processes of the brain. The resulting fusion of a life science with a social science analyzes economic behavior in biological terms and biological processes in economic terms. Intangible aspects of human behavior not typically conceived as economic, including social behaviors such as love and trust, are understood as a function of evaluative computations unfolding along neural circuitry. Societies, in turn, are understood as composed of individuals who act according to their internal valuation of events, goods, and services. Neuroeconomic researchers articulate a two part agenda for their new field: (1) to study the brain architecture and chemistry of normal individuals as they make choices, and (2) to study irrational behaviors (at the individual and social level) in order to understand how these failures are a product of that architecture, and then find ways to change it. The aim is to understand the pathways that run "from synapse to society," as one neuroeconomist phrased it. The burgeoning field is a timely and analytically rich area of study in two key respects. First, neuroeconomics offers an opportunity to examine knowledge production within a scientific field in the early stages of its construction. The proposed project will investigate the new intellectual collaborations, experimental practices, technological developments, and institutional arrangements by which the interdisciplinary field is forged, paying close attention to the conceptual, methodological, and technical challenges and tensions that this process entails. Second, neuroeconomics offers an opportunity to examine how socio-cultural and political-economic values influence shifting scientific models, and how, reciprocally, these models influence such values. The analysis will pay particular attention to the ways in which notions of individual freedom of choice at stake in the contemporary neoliberal world enter into the research questions and experiments of neuroeconomists, how these notions are transformed as they are incorporated into the models of individual and society that these scientists are producing, and how they loop back into public debate. To track the field's formation and follow the conceptual transformations of individual, society, and freedom of choice that emerge from the fusion and fissures at play in the collaborative work of neuroscientists and economists, the investigators will conduct semi-structured interviews with key actors, multi-sited ethnographic field research, and analysis of texts and their circulation. The intellectual merit of the proposed project is its potential for contribution to the literature in science and technology studies on the emergence, consolidation, and hybridization of scientific fields, and will provide new empirical data on the knowledge practices that shape scientific innovation and change. By illuminating how a new body of scientific expertise establishes itself and how, in the process, it shifts the meaning and significance of the social values in which its own work is embedded, the project will enhance understandings of the complex and dynamic relationship between science and society. The broader impact of the project is that its finding may provide a basis for evaluating the role that new forms of scientific knowledge concerning human behavior should play in informing consumer policy and the regulation of corporate marketing practices. Judging from the level of interest expressed thus far by potential informants, the investigators also anticipate that the project will provide an opportunity for neuroeconomists to reflect on their own research questions, experimental design, and conceptual innovations, as well as the relationship of their work to broader fields of social values.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Social and Economic Sciences (SES)
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Michael E. Gorman
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New York University
New York
United States
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