Cover of Conviction by Oliver Rollins
The Making and Unmaking of the Violent Brain
Oliver Rollins


248 pages.
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Hardcover ISBN: 9781503607019
Paperback ISBN: 9781503627895
Ebook ISBN: 9781503627901

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Exposing ethical dilemmas of neuroscientific research on violence, this book warns against a dystopian future in which behavior is narrowly defined in relation to our biological makeup.

Biological explanations for violence have existed for centuries, as has criticism of this kind of deterministic science, haunted by a long history of horrific abuse. Yet, this program has endured because of, and not despite, its notorious legacy. Today's scientists are well beyond the nature versus nurture debate. Instead, they contend that scientific progress has led to a nature and nurture, biological and social, stance that allows it to avoid the pitfalls of the past. In Conviction Oliver Rollins cautions against this optimism, arguing that the way these categories are imagined belies a dangerous continuity between past and present.

The late 1980s ushered in a wave of techno-scientific advancements in the genetic and brain sciences. Rollins focuses on an often-ignored strand of research, the neuroscience of violence, which he argues became a key player in the larger conversation about the biological origins of criminal, violent behavior. Using powerful technologies, neuroscientists have rationalized an idea of the violent brain—or a brain that bears the marks of predisposition toward "dangerousness."

Drawing on extensive analysis of neurobiological research, interviews with neuroscientists, and participant observation, Rollins finds that this construct of the brain is ill-equipped to deal with the complexities and contradictions of the social world, much less the ethical implications of informing treatment based on such simplified definitions. Rollins warns of the potentially devastating effects of a science that promises to "predict" criminals before the crime is committed, in a world that already understands violence largely through a politic of inequality.

About the author

Oliver Rollins is Assistant Professor of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington.

"With the emergence of fMRI technology in the 1990s, neuroscientists have attempted to explain violent behavior by locating specific brainwave activity. However, because of the fluidity of the boundaries that define "violence," it has been a bumpy road. With Conviction, Oliver Rollins has made a significant contribution to explaining why the path has been so fraught—providing a 'sociology of knowledge' construction that illuminates how the scaffolding of key concepts have come into play, and as often, into conflict."

—Troy Duster, Chancellor's Professor Emeritus, University of California, Berkeley

"Oliver Rollins brilliantly probes claims by contemporary neuroscientists that brain science can investigate racist behavior divorced from bio-criminology's past promotion of biological determinism and racist stereotypes. He incisively exposes the social assumptions embedded in the new neuroscientific model of violence—the "violent brain"—and shows how researchers' attempts to ignore race actually help to perpetuate racist myths about potential criminals. Conviction makes an essential contribution to our understanding of the promises and pitfalls of biosocial science."

—Dorothy Roberts, author of Fatal Invention

"Conviction is a vital book that pushes social scientific critiques of neuroscience onto more sophisticated terrain. The biologization of crime and violence is a seductive and dangerous idea that scientists cannot seem to resist, even with all its ethical baggage. Concerned social scientists must meet it with arguments that are not recycled from the last battle but engage with the contemporary manifestations of this bad idea."

—Owen Whooley, New Genetics and Society

"Conviction is a fascinating book that addresses core issues in medical sociology, science studies, the sociology of race, biopolitics, and the sociology of knowledge.... [W]hat we get here is a nuanced, deeply researched portrait of a scientific program that is rife with political problems and uncertainty, wherein scientists' failed efforts to deal with 'the social' demand that we pursue bolder sociological engagements with science."

—Paige L. Sweet, American Journal of Sociology

"Rollins's final product is a sensible and respectful critique of modern neuroscience and its ambition to succeed in proposing a neutral and complete understanding of violence, where the brain is both the question and the solution and broader social contingencies are overlooked altogether. The book spares readers the redundant free will rhetoric attacking the flaws of biological determinism—which is very welcome. Instead, it confronts readers with a paramount limitation of the neuroscience of violence that is far more concrete, timely, and truly worth of consideration in interdisciplinary discussions on neuroscience, law, and society."

—Federica Coppola, Criminal Law and Criminal Justice Books

"Conviction arrives at a timely moment in which controversial questions surrounding neurological maturity, culpability, and future dangerousness present immediate concerns in the criminal justice system.... Rollins' blending of sociological and medical knowledge makes for a thorough and persuasive argument about the persistence of colorblind racial logics at the intersection of neuroscience and criminology."

—Ernest K. Chavez, Law & Society Review