Accepted Paper:

Moving past reductionism through biological research on mental illness  


Anna Starshinina (University of California - San Diego)

Paper short abstract:

This paper examines how neuroscientific, genetic, and molecular biological research on mental illness challenges the idea that mental illness is solely a biological problem. I propose that the findings of basic science research can be mobilized to make a case for social interventions.

Paper long abstract:

Even though the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) increasingly funds basic science research, insights from neuroscience, genetic research, and molecular biology have not transformed clinical diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. Conditions like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression continue to elude mechanistic explanations. In this paper, I examine scientific research practices at neuroimaging, genetic, and animal studies laboratories to demonstrate that these complex conditions cannot be understood in solely biological terms. My observations show that even as scientists attempt to identify the biological processes underlying mental illness inside the human body, they always take into account a person's social and environmental contexts. For example, the findings of epigenetics demonstrate that genes are responsive to environmental conditions. As a result, scientists readily acknowledge the importance of social relationships, environmental exposures, and the experience of stress in the emergence of mental illness. As part of a growing body of literature that engages with the biosciences (Littlefield and Johnson 2012, Lock 2013, Wilson 2015), this paper considers how scientific research might help to move past biological reductionism. I propose that given findings from biological research, NIMH and other government agencies should recognize the importance of supporting social interventions, psychotherapy, community treatment, housing, and vocational and other services that are desperately needed by people who are suffering from severe mental illnesses. If so, then basic science research might finally transform clinical practice in psychiatry and psychology.

Panel T059
Making Worlds: Feminist STS and everyday technoscience