A century ago, phrenologists would measure people’s heads in a quest to explain differences in their social position, and healthy, well-behaved families would be sent to ‘eugenics camps’ to breed more of their kind. Today, policymakers seek to explain everything from income equality to anti-social behaviour through the formation of toddlers’ brains, and parents are instructed in the precise arts of cuddling their children and singing nursery rhymes in order to optimise synaptic development.
Why has modern society become re-enchanted with biological explanations for human behaviour – and what does that mean for social policy about the family? This was the key question explored at the conference ‘Monitoring Parents: Science, Evidence, Experts and the New Parenting Culture’, held at the University of Kent on 13-14 September 2011.
Papers presented at the conference by academics from across Europe, North America and Australia explored the international trend towards gearing social policy around the principle of ‘early intervention’. The papers raised a number of important ideas and questions about where this might lead – for politics, for individuals, and for families.
The rise and rise of ‘neurotrash’
In a discussion of ‘parenting and the “new phrenology”’, Dr Ellie Lee, director of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, described the extent to which social policy in Britain is increasingly informed by claims made in the language of ‘brain science’. This is particularly noticeable in the high-profile documents recently produced by Labour MPs Frank Field and Graham Allen, and the work done by the ‘social conservative’ think-tank the Centre for Social Justice, which was established by now work and pensions secretary Iain Duncan Smith.