Rayna Rapp

Rayna Rapp

Fellow: Awarded 2014
Field of Study: Anthropology and Cultural Studies

Competition: US & Canada

New York University

I am writing a book tentatively entitled A Child Surrounds This Brain: How Neuroscientists, Families, and Young Adult Activists Think About Disability and

Neurodiversity. The fieldwork on which the book is based grows out of my longstanding commitments as a medical anthropologist.  In my research, I explore how neuroscientific notions of the brain have come to the fore across diverse sectors of American culture.  My data are drawn from fieldwork among pediatric neuroscientists studying relatively new and expansive childhood diagnoses like ADHD, learning disabilities, and autism spectrum disorders, and with parents whose children now have diagnoses for these conditions: how do families drawn from the diverse backgrounds represented in New York City schools understand their children’s differences, school struggles, and where do ideas about the brain fit into family life?  I am also interested in how young adult activists who grew up with such labels now see themselves, their futures, and their brains in ways that both make use of and sometimes contest neuroscientific understandings.  In the expanding world of “neuro-everything,” notions of neuroplasticity, neurodiversity, and neurotypicality circulate in many directions.  These concepts are sometimes used by advocates seeking acceptance and accommodation of children and adults living under different diagnostic labels.  At stake in the diffusion of brain imagery, language, and constructs are notions of human diversity and disability. Neuroscience makes powerful and universal claims. Yet the world from which their subjects are drawn exhibits profound prejudice against disability. And it is continuously intersected by diversity and discrimination based on racial-ethnic, class, national, religious, and gendered backgrounds. These social facts are never far from the experiences of those living under different labels, while they rarely appear in the emergent brain-terrain new science seeks to map. In my research and writing, I explore these existential gaps between different stakeholders in rethinking the brain.



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