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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unlocking the Violent Brain: A Sociological Analysis of Neuroscientific Research on Violent and Aggressive Behaviors

  • Author(s): Rollins, Oliver
  • Advisor(s): Pinderhughes, Howard
  • et al.

This dissertation examines the social and ethical implications of neuroscientific research on violent and aggressive behaviors (VAB). It describes how neurobiological research on the determinants of VAB are formulated, structured, and contested, and how neuroscientists understand and use race in neuroscientific VAB research. This dissertation employs a multi-sited methodology, which includes four interrelated methods: historical overview of biocriminology; qualitative content analysis of neuroimaging research on VAB (1990-2012); semi-structured, in-depth interviews with neuroscientists who research VAB, and ethnographic observation/neuroscience training.

One key focus of the dissertation is to examine specific critiques of the production and use of biological research on VAB and crime, and the reactions, rebuttals, and methodological steps taken by contemporary biocriminologists in an effort to address and/or resolve such objections. To help address this focus, I start with a historical examination of biomedical VAB research, which helps historically situate the dissertation by threading together specific continuities pertaining to epistemologies, methodologies, ideological debates and material consequences that underpin biological inquiries of VAB. I then provide a description of the increasing use of innovative imaging technologies in research on violence and crime, arguing that such transformations are part of larger processes of the biomedicalization of deviant behaviors. I argue that the use of neuroscience practices and technologies better positioned biocriminology to address critiques from its past. However, it has also produced newer, more discursive ways to construct and use biocriminology knowledges and to make and understand violent, aggressive and criminal bodies and brains.

Historically, the `question of race' has always been intimately tied to research on VAB, and at times has helped reinforced both racism and sexism. Contemporary biocriminologists have acknowledged such misuses, and often expressed that such practices have been both denounced and rejected by biocriminologists today. Using interviews with neuroscientists who study VAB, this dissertation provides a greater understanding of the operation and impacts of race in neuroscience research on VAB. I address the way neuroscientists use race in the design and execution of their work, and provide an overview of the potential social impacts of biocriminological knowledge on the operation of race and violence in society. Overall, this research helps elucidate current and future impacts of researching, preventing, and potentially treating VAB through biomedical technologies, and it contributes new knowledge to the longstanding conversations on race and biomedicine, including the intertwined relationships between racialized/gendered inequalities, criminal justice, and mental health.

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