Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa

In January I asked  in my post on RSW Blog  ‘Brains, biology and tests for future burdenhood

Who hasn’t seen the brains?

The luridly coloured images of two children’s brains, side by side. Presented as cast iron evidence of the impact of child neglect.  I remember exactly where I was when I first saw that image. The venue was a lecture theatre at my university (at least 10 years ago) and the presenter was a professional I knew and (still do) held in high regard. The emotional impact of seeing the two brains was considerable- the ‘normal’ brain of a child of a particular age contrasted with the apparently shrunken brain of a child who had suffered abuse and neglect.

And  the brains were to reappear with alarming regularity….. I heard a while ago that there are still social workers handing around pictures of those brains., presumably to frighten struggling parents.  Perhaps they still adorn the staff room walls in early childhood centres.

The brains were a con. The most commonly used image, as pointed out by Healy (2015, p.1499) is devoid of a detailed case history and fails to provide a comparison scale, both of which would be evidence of good academic rigour, and most importantly:

… the technologies themselves provide compelling visual images that are accessible, but also easily misinterpreted, by a range of health professionals, users of services and the general public

what do we have in Aotearoa New Zealand? Growing numbers of children in care (yet every social worker knows that the state is a very poor parent and can’t deliver love); an enormous prison muster that is disproportionately Maori; persistent and racialised health inequalities, the impact of welfare austerity (Edmiston, 2016) and growing homelessness.  The sad sight of people queuing with their children to get basic food at the foodbank days before Christmas (RadioNZ, 2016).

We have a callous, cynical and morally bankrupt lot in power. They will spend money on anything to show they ‘care’ as long as it’s not dismantling this regime that dresses up punishment and cruelty as rehabilitation. For more discussion of these issues and a review of the literature please read our new article  Beddoe and Joy (2017) here for more  


Beddoe, L. (2017)  Brains, biology and future burdenhood. Reimagining Social Work.

Beddoe, L., & Joy, E. (2017). Questioning the uncritical acceptance of neuroscience in child and family policy and practice: A review of challenges to the current doxa. Aotearoa NewZealand Social Work, 29(1), 65-76.  Read here

Edmiston, D. (2016). ‘How the other half live’: Poor and rich citizenship in austere welfare regimes. Social Policy and Society, 1-11. doi:10.1017/s1474746416000580

Healy, K. (2016). After the biomedical technology revolution: Where to now for a bio-psycho-social approach to social work? British Journal of Social Work, 46(5), 1446-1462.

RadioNZ (2016, 7 December). Christmas Queues.

Other refs

Beddoe , L. (2014). Feral families, troubled families: The rise of the underclass in New Zealand 2011-2013 New Zealand Sociology 29(3), 51-68.

Belsky, J., & de Haan, M. (2011). Annual research review: Parenting and children’s brain development: The end of the beginning. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 52(4), 409-428.

Crossley, S. (2015a). Realising the (troubled) family’, ‘crafting the neoliberal state’. Families, Relationships and Societies, 5(2), 263-279(doi:

Crossley, S. (2015b, May 25). ‘Feral families’ or a ‘filthy civilization’? [Blog post]. Retrieved from Re-Imaging social work:

Telegraph (2016, 12 December). Test predicts which children will grow up to be drain on society – when they are just three years old

Macvarish, J.(2016).Viewing children as future criminals: Debunking a new study predicting which kids will become a ‘burden’.  Accessed 23-12-6 at

About socialworknz

I'm a social work researcher in Aotearoa New Zealand
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