Q&A with ‘Tracing Autism’ author Des Fitzgerald

In Tracing Autism, Des Fitzgerald offers an up-close account of the search for a neurological explanation of autism. As autism has gained cultural prominence with more diagnoses and more controversy, its biological causes remain elusive.

Through in-depth interviews with neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists, Fitzgerald examines what it means to do scientific research in the ambiguous terrain of autism research, a field marked by shifting horizons of uncertainty and ambivalence. He draws out how autism scientists talk and feel their way through their research, demonstrating its profoundly affective character, and expanding our understanding of what is at stake in the new brain sciences.

Today we speak with the author about his book, published this summer.

What inspired you to get into your field?

Des Fitzgerald: I’ve always been pretty comfortable describing myself as a sociologist. I actually entered university (in Cork, Ireland, where I’m from) to study literature, but fairly quickly realized that I had zero interest in spending my life as a literary scholar. I dropped out for a few years and came back to study sociology—and have been pretty happy ever since. It’s a cliché, but I like that we are empirical, and actually in-touch with things in the world and the issues of the day, but we’re also literary and philosophical too. I like that in sociology departments (in Britain at least) you’ll still find people who are basically continental philosophers, as well as people who are super-positivist big-data number crunchers. I think our field often suffers in policy and public debate for being neither one thing nor the other—not having the cultural weight of the humanities on the one hand, or the perceived instrumental value of the natural sciences on the other—but this neither-one-thing-nor-the-otherness is what I like most about sociology. Some days it’s the only thing I like about sociology. Within the discipline, I’ve always been interested in how sociology grapples with the material world: I wrote my undergrad thesis about architecture, and was actually barely an inch away from becoming a museums studies person as a master’s student. Thinking about how the body gets torqued in the contemporary life sciences, and especially in the neurosciences, has been really fruitful for me on this score. I can imagine myself working on other things, but I’m going to mine this seam for another couple of years yet, I think.

Describe the process of writing the book.

DF: Honestly, it might annoy some people, but my memories of writing this book are all highly pleasurable. I don’t at all mean to diminish anyone’s struggles, and I know lots of people find writing hard and painful in various ways, but I also feel that sometimes too much of the discourse around academic writing, and especially PhD writing, is about the alleviation of pain and anxiety. Maybe we don’t talk enough about the savoring of pleasure, and about how lovely it can be, actually, to spend time writing a thesis or a book (again, I acknowledge: that pleasure is of course entangled in the multiple kinds of privilege that I embody, but it’s pleasure all the same). The year or so in which I wrote the first draft of this book were probably the happiest twelve months of my life – if I could whistle (which I can’t), I would have whistled going into the office every morning. The rewrite, much of which took place over one winter at Cardiff Central Library, was also pretty good. In terms of process, I essentially collected data over a twelve-month period, and then really sat down and wrote the book, fairly methodically, chapter by chapter, over the course of another year. The actual core argument—centered on the image of tracing—emerged halfway through, and appeared only fitfully in the first version. It was only when I went back to rewrite the manuscript some years later, having done a lot of other things in-between that I was really able to articulate what I wanted to say about neuroscience, and how badly it had been construed in and by the social sciences. The gap between dissertation and book was important, I think—I needed a few years to make sense of what the dissertation had been trying to say.

Who do you see as the audience for this book?

DF: Anyone who’s interested in understanding what contemporary neurosciences are actually like, how they work, and want to  hear the voices of some of the people who make them up. I’m not shy about saying that there is a serious attempt to make a contribution to some strands of contemporary social and cultural theory—studies of affect, of course, but also wider attentions to materiality, especially as that materiality gets crystallized in the objects of the life sciences—but I’ve worked hard to write it in a fairly approachable and easygoing style, and to cleave pretty closely to what the people in the interviews are actually saying.

What would you have been if not an academic?

DF: I actually asked some colleagues this a couple of years ago, and it turns out that many academics nurture surprisingly well elaborated alternative-career fantasies. My own is artisanal café and bicycle-repair shop owner—which is a fantasy that I like to maintain despite not knowing very much about coffee, or anything at all about bicycle repair. More seriously, I would say that I have never been the kind of person who can only imagine a fulfilling intellectual life in and through the university, or while being acknowledged as that still fairly recent historical figure, “an academic.”  Not to be po-faced about it, but I think the question of how to craft intellectual and scholarly futures in the absence of the university is going to be a big question in the coming years: “what might you yet be” is probably a better way to put this question than “what would you have been?” And of course many people at the sharp end of the academic job market have already started to craft responses to this issue. I definitely don’t invest all of my intellectual hope in academia.

What are you reading right now?

DF: The truthful answer to this, of course, is “lots of Twitter with special attention to the quality and frequency of my own mentions.” But I do manage to read other stuff too.  I’m currently coauthoring a new book on urban neuroscience and am trying to think about the ways in which the study of the city and the study of the body might have gotten into one another historically—so I’ve been reading a lot of late-nineteenth-century urban studies literature. My favorites so far are W. E. B. Du Bois’s brilliant and pioneering study, The Philadelphia Negro (I’ve also enjoyed Aldon Morris’s excellent recent reclaiming of Du Bois’s legacy for sociology, The Scholar Denied, which all sociologists should read) and Seebohm Rowntrees’s surprisingly, and deeply, weird monograph from 1901, Poverty: A Study of Town Life. Charles Booth’s more famous Life and Labour volumes turn out to be more of a drag than I anticipated, and Booth himself not especially pleasant company as an author or editor (although obviously I still like the maps). For vaguely work-related pleasure-reading, I’ve been reading Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression and McKenzie Wark’s General Intellects. For other kinds of pleasure, someone recently recommended Octavia Butler to me at a conference and I am getting really into her Dawn series at the moment.

What do you think is the book’s most important contribution?

DF: I think what I have been trying to say, with various coauthors in the last couple of years (in particular, with Felicity Callard in the book and papers we wrote together on collaboration, and with Nikolas Rose and Ilina Singh in the papers we wrote on urban sociology) is that we have not at all understood the life sciences in general, and the neurosciences in particular, in sociology, medical anthropology, and science and technology studies. Too many of my colleagues still think neuroscience is either a crudely reductive would-be science of everything, or, even worse, some kind of running-dog of neoliberalism working hard to individualize and cerebralize social life. But it seems to me, and Tracing Autism is where I think I make this case most forcefully, that actually, when you get outside the journals, and the press releases, and the media pronouncements, neuroscience is a much more modest, ambiguous, complex,  interesting, emotional, and (in the best sense of this word) weird practice than we have really understood. Recognizing the complex ways in which social, political, and neurological lives are caught up in one another, and how much of social life is lived in and through the body and brain, and vice versa, there are loads of ways in which social scientists, STS scholars, and life scientists, can work together to get some more compelling analytical and methodological grip on the present. I’ve said versions of that—with colleagues—elsewhere, but I think the central contribution of Tracing Autism is to show, in detail, and with lots of good data, just what kind of practice cognitive neuroscience is, and can be, when it encounters a human phenomenon as complex and fraught as the autism spectrum.

What is the biggest misunderstanding people have about your field and what you do?

DF: I think a lot of people, looking at the sociology (or anthropology) of science and medicine, or at science and technology studies, from the outside, still see them as working through some kind of 1990s-style social-constructionist culture war, or at least as practices for bringing the natural sciences down to size in some way. I will say that is not always a misconception—and frankly I despair a bit when I see colleagues, in sociology especially, rehashing fairly tired tropes about big bad biology. But by and large this is not where things are at: it’s true that some people are never going to leave the twentieth century, and good luck to them, but the most creative and interesting working happening in these fields, right now, is work that is trying to inhabit, make sense of, and create new paths through, the multiple intersections of these two domains. I’m not sure that’s always as visible to people on the outside as maybe it should be.

Des Fitzgerald is lecturer in sociology at Cardiff University. He is the coauthor of Rethinking Interdisciplinarity across the Social Sciences and Neurosciences.