Nature vs nurture: how the ‘social’ in biosocial studies has shifted the debate

Rebecca Fairbairn is ESRC’s new Head of Longitudinal Studies. She was Head of Knowledge Exchange until summer 2015 when she took up a short-term role to look strategically across ESRC’s biosocial activity.

Rebecca Fairbairn

“Biosocial? Is that even a thing?” was what ran through my mind when I was approached to undertake a piece of work looking across ESRC’s biosocial engagement. The more I learned, however, the more interested I became in this exciting area – and I’m now completely hooked!

There’s so much potential for the application of biosocial approaches to traditional social science challenges and to offer new insight to many of our existing interests, that the ESRC has decided to create a series of biosocial blogs (keep a track of them on Twitter, #biosocialblog), and this is the first.

To begin with, I better explain what ‘biosocial’ means to me: biosocial is about how our social experience and environment “get under the skin” and affect our biology, and conversely how our biological make-up impacts us and our behaviour in the social world. It is about the interplay between a person’s biology, experiences and behaviours throughout their lifetime.

Professor John Hobcraft has been an ESRC Strategic Advisor, focusing on biosocial, for a number of years, and he neatly explained to me that biosocial simultaneously brings social science down from the level of broad societal understanding to that of the individual person, and bioscience from the level of the molecule up to that of the whole human being. John has an article in the forthcoming edition of Society Now.

Biosocial has truly shifted the old “nature vs nurture” debate to an understanding that nature and nurture work interdependently. You can listen to a fascinating discussion of this on BBC Radio 4’s Start the Week programme, and Professor George Davey Smith’s Life Scientific gives wonderful insight into the biological and social factors that impact our lives, and the importance of public policy that recognises this interplay. Here are some examples of what social science has to do with biosocial:

  • Geneticists can now use polygenic scores to summarise the effect of genes on people, for example if we are genetically predisposed to be intelligent, or to develop a specific physical or mental illness, or even to be smokers. In other words, through biology we can see the importance of “nature” on how we develop as people. However polygenic scores cannot tell us what translates this “score” into IQ or actually getting depression or taking up smoking. It can only tell us if there is a “risk”. Social science is needed to progress the use of polygenic scores so that we understand what it is in the social environment within which we exist (“nurture”) that translates “risk” (nature) into an outcome.
  • By using social science led longitudinal studies to compare family dynamics in children that are adopted and those that are not, we now know that genetic factors and specific environmental factors (such as parenting practices) affect a child’s risk of developing mental health problems, aggressive and/or disruptive behaviour or depression. We also know more about what helps children avoid these problems (positive early rearing experiences, for example). Neither biology nor social science alone can understand the relationship between “nature” (biological parenthood) and “nurture” (social environment) in child development. Professor Gordon Harold, a new member of ESRC’s Capability Committee, is a pioneer in this research area.
  • Some people seem to be more prone to substance addiction than others. We have growing evidence pointing to the association between substance exposure, epigenetics (the variations to the way a gene is expressed) and addiction. Complex conditions like addiction are the result of both genetic and external factors (these are often termed “environmental” factors), but how these factors interrelate to result in addiction is not clear.  While there is evidence that DNA methylation (the epigenetic change) is associated with addiction, there is a lack of longitudinal research that includes repeated measurements of both addiction and DNA methylation over time. It is therefore not yet possible to disentangle cause from effect: Does addiction lead to DNA methylation or does DNA methylation lead to addiction? Without (bio)social science it will not be possible to understand the relationship between exposure (which we all have), DNA methylation and addiction, and therefore how policies can be targeted to prevent addiction. One of our Future Research Leaders, Dr Charlotte Cecil, addresses this topic in her research.

ESRC, working with the Wellcome Trust, Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Medical Research Council, published a Framework to Enable Biosocial Research in December 2014. This outlined our vision to overcome barriers and combat challenges for this emerging research area; a statement of our intent to build UK biosocial partnerships, resources and capacity.

Since then we have:

I am now picking up responsibility for ESRC’s longitudinal portfolio which will keep me close to my newly discovered interest in biosocial. I hope this blog will have whet your appetite for the next edition in our series.

2 thoughts on “Nature vs nurture: how the ‘social’ in biosocial studies has shifted the debate

  1. The blog sparked a few thoughts:
    1. What Rebecca Fairbairn calls “biosocial” research is not new: Rudolf Virchov, for example, raised the issue in the mid-19th Century and spent the rest of his life studying pathology, in an attempt to understand how the social becomes biological. I think Virchov’s response to Rebecca’s blog would have been: by all means study genetics, but don’t ignore the rest of biology (anatomy, biochemistry, embryology, endocrinology, immunology, neurology, pathology, physiology & so forth).
    2. The likely importance of the genetic component of biology varies with the topic investigated. Some large scale social phenomena, like the recent fall in mortality rates at middle age, probably happened too quickly for a significant genetic contribution to be plausible.
    3. What is new is the availability, on open academic access at a data archive, of high quality social and biological measurements, often repeated, on the same individuals selected as a large scale random sample of the population. This facility, for which we thank UK Social & Economic Research Council and USA National Institute of Aging, enables us to pursue Bradford Hill’s criterion of social and biological plausibility.

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  2. Pingback: Your top 10 ESRC blogs from 2016 | ESRC blog

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