Enacting the ‘consuming’ brain: An ethnographic study of accountability redistributions in neuromarketing practices

Tanja Schneider*, Jonna Brenninkmeijer, Steve Woolgar

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
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The figure of the brain has continued to rise in prominence for at least 30 years. This development continues to raise important questions: in particular, to what extent and in what ways does the brain supplant the person as the presumed origin of human behaviour? Whereas it has previously been discussed in general terms, here we address this question through an ethnographic study of the experimental articulation of the brain in neuromarketing research. Drawing on analytical themes from science and technology studies, we argue that it is crucial to investigate the enactment of the brain in situated practice and to understand the effects on prevailing accountability relations. We analyse the enactment of the ‘consuming’ brain in neuromarketing experiments and in experts’ communication of experimental results. We show how the consuming brain emerges from reconfigured sets of socio-material relations (between e.g. consumers, brains, brain scanning operators, consultants) and how this entails a redistribution of accountability relations. This results in an ontological respecification of the consumer, who is no longer deemed accountable for his/her actions. Instead spokespersons on behalf of the brain – neuromarketing technologies and experts – assume accountability for revealing why consumers buy what they buy. We conclude that the putative shift from person to brain is in fact characterised by a redistribution of accountability relations in neuromarketing practices. We call for further studies of accountability redistributions in practice, so as better to situate novel explanations of human behaviour.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1025-1043
Number of pages19
JournalSociological Review
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Sept-2022


  • accountability
  • consumer behaviour
  • enactment
  • ethnography
  • ontology
  • science and technology studies
  • social studies of neuroscience

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