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From the popularity of ‘Nudge’, to the initiatives of the UK government’s Behavioural Insight Team and the RSA’s Social Brain project, the politics of the brain seems to be increasingly central to how we understand the world and to how policy responses are shaped. Following recent developments in psychology and behavioural economics it seems that the gap between the promise of liberalism – with its assumptions of universality and progress - and the realities of constructed and structural differences and inequalities can be understood as a product of faulty or problematic mechanisms of human cognition. Rather than the rational, interest-bearing Homo Economicus of liberal thinking we are increasingly conceived (individually and collectively) as vulnerable and fragile Humans ill-adapted for the complex choice-making necessary in today’s world. Following on from the work of Anthony Giddens it is argued that we live in a globalised late modern world of ‘reflexive modernity’ and ‘manufactured uncertainty’ where individuals increasingly need to be more responsible and reflexive in understanding how the decisions they make construct and shape their lives and communities. It is often argued that real Third Way thinking - beyond Left perspectives of state intervention and Right perspectives of free markets – is that of capacity- and capability-building individuals and communities in order to achieve greater adaptive efficiency and resilience. A similar approach dominates international concerns with development and conflict-prevention in failing and fragile states. This approach of good governance, which regards the state’s role as a facilitator rather than a director – as necessary to construct and shape markets and societies through indirect mechanisms of ‘choice architecture’ – has been engaged with through the language of neoliberalism, new institutionalism and Foucauldian biopolitics. However, one thing seems clear to us, that policy practices seem to be running ahead of theoretical understandings in this area. This day event, bringing departmental members together with outside experts hopes to develop our understanding and to facilitate further research.

The day will be composed of invited keynote speakers and 4 plenary panels:

09.30 – 11.00 - Opening Keynotes

Chair – David Chandler (University of Westminster)
Owain Service (Deputy Director, Behavioural Insights Team, UK Cabinet Office)

Applying behavioural science to public policy

Dr Jonathan Rowson (Head, Social Brain project, Royal Society for the Arts)

Socialising with the Brain: A Reflexive Approach to Autonomy


11.15 – 12.30 - Panel 1: Nudge (convened by Ricardo Blaug)

Advances in neuroscience and cognition are already well established in advertising and are now being increasingly being used in the making of public policy. Democratic citizens are now to be ‘nudged’, beneath their own awareness, into behaviours deemed desirable by states. Such techniques have so far largely escaped critique, and are thus characterised as mild forms of ‘libertarian paternalism’, as relatively harmless importations from consumer marketing and as largely value-free. This panel examines the ideological underpinnings of such ‘choice architectures’, inquiring into the values they in fact advance, their impact on politics and their compatibility with democracy. A central concern is to ask whether our increasing ‘neurological reflexivity’ might lend itself not only to an elitist view of democratic citizens as blind horses, but also for more democratic ends, such as greater public control of representatives, the avoidance of citizen manipulation and the increased effectiveness of public deliberation and decision-making.
Chair – Paulina Tambakaki (University of Westminster)

Jessica Pykett, (Aberystwyth University)

Vulnerable Citizens: Constructing the Feminised Subjects of Soft Paternalism

Ricardo Blaug (University of Westminster)

Nudging in Reverse
Patricia Hogwood (University of Westminster)

Poor but Happy? Subjective Wellbeing and the German ‘Inner Unity’ Project


1.30 – 2.45 - Panel 2: Adaptive Efficiency (convened by Dan Greenwood)

Several recently emerging research trajectories in political science strongly emphasize the presence and significance of complexity as the context for policy-making. The concept of complexity is used to refer to the plurality of criteria that need to be taken into account in decision-making, the web of inter-relationships between various governance actors and institutions and the difficult, inter-related choices and trade-offs they face in developing political strategies and policy. These actors, it is stressed, inevitably have limited knowledge and face significant uncertainty in the face of complexity. In seeking to define and implement governmental strategies and goals, the difficulties if not inevitability of potential unforeseen consequences and the need for a continual process of adaptation and learning are emphasized.  Hence, it is argued, there is a need for ‘adaptive’, ‘reflexive’ forms of governance. The aims of this panel are threefold. Firstly, to consider contributions from prior research in political science and public policy to understanding the need for ‘adaptive efficiency’ in the face of complexity and the significant epistemological challenges to which complexity gives rise. Secondly, to consider the significant potential for future research to more closely consider how effective, ‘adaptive’ governance and policy processes can be designed and developed. Thirdly, to consider the inter-relationships between this research agenda and ongoing debates about the need for greater democratic accountability, public engagement and progressive policy change.

Chair – Ricardo Blaug (University of Westminster)

Dan Greenwood (University of Westminster)

Evaluating policy in the face of complexity

Richard Barbrook (University of Westminster)

Electronic Brains: Herbert Simon and Cybernetic Fordism

Professor Christopher Hood (University of Oxford)



3.00 – 4.15 - Panel 3: Resilience (convened by Liza Griffin)


‘Resilience’ has fast become a key discourse in political and environmental circles and has posed a challenge to previously hegemonic concepts like ‘sustainability’. A once technical term used in relation to ecological systems, resilience is now used to describe the ability of social and political communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from moments of so-called crisis. Featuring regularly in media, policy and academic debates, the term is not a neutral one. Today it is not only being used by radical activists as a potentially empowering concept but is also deployed by governments as a new (neo-liberal) technique for governing.  Citizens and communities across the world are being interpellated by policy initiatives designed to bring about their resilience in the face of perceived security and environmental threats, giving rise to new political subjectivities and political geographies. This panel will chart the rise of this emerging political discourse, explore its articulations and try to consider its potential dangers and opportunities.

Chair – to be confirmed

Chris Zebrowski (University of Keele)

The End of Panic: A Genealogy of the Resilient Subject

Liza Griffin (University of Westminster)

Making Communities Resilient To Crisis: Exploring the Tensions & Dilemmas

Tassilo Herrschel (University of Westminster)

Localising Globalisation – Inclusions and Exclusions in the Battle for Economic Opportunities – and Survival

Roland Dannreuther and Wojciech Ostrowski (University of Westminster)

Resilience and Critical Energy Studies



4.30 – 5.45 - Panel 4: Vulnerability (convened by David Chandler)


In an age of ‘manufactured uncertainty’ it is held that through the choices we make we construct our own vulnerabilities to the world we live in. However, we do not make the world through rational conscious collective and individual actions but often unconsciously through unforeseen and unintended effects. We make decisions and choices without full awareness or knowledge but based upon our social rootedness, the forms of embodiment of our subjectivity and past practices and experiences. We are therefore vulnerable subjects rather than knowing and directing and controlling subjects imagined in Enlightenment discourses of Cartesian rationality which sharply pose a distinction between us and our contexts and environments. This panel seeks to explore the rise of and role of vulnerability in understanding the human subject and how this vulnerability is increasingly understood to be linked to our embodiment and the environment.

Chair – Nicholas Michelsen (King’s College, London)

Julian Reid (University of Lapland)

A New Bodily Ontology? Cutting the Political Subject off its Life Support

David Chandler (University of Westminster)

The Autotelic Subject: A Biopolitical Analysis of The ‘Real Third Way’ and the Politics of the Brain

Rob Macmaster (University of Westminster)

The Body: Vulnerability, Resilience and Adaption

5.45 – 6.15 Summing Up