The AB(B)CDE of biosocial research

In the third of our series of blogs on biosocial research, Professor John Hobcraft – who for several years has been a Strategic Advisor to the ESRC on data resources in the longitudinal and biosocial domains – writes about how our behaviours and experiences alter our biology and our biology plays a part in shaping our behaviours

 John Hobcraft

Can we understand choices and behaviours without combining neuroscience and social science? Can we understand employment and social relationships without attention to mental and physical health, and the underlying biological pathways? Can biologists and medical scientists ignore the roles of social and economic experiences in the study of health and disease, or the study of genomics? In all cases the answer is predominantly no, whether for ‘no brain’ or ‘disembodied’ social science or for ‘asocial’ medicine or biology.

The need for biosocial science is most evident for understanding the pathways and mechanisms involved for any process or behaviour. Feedbacks across levels ranging from molecular biology to macro-level contexts (‘cells to society’ or ‘neurons to neighbourhoods’) all matter in shaping individuals and their responses to experiences.

A biosocial research agenda demands collaboration across the biological, medical and social sciences. The AB(B)CDE of the blog title refers to:

  • Alleles,
  • Brains,
  • Bodies,
  • Contexts interplaying with the individual through…
  • Development and
  • Experience over the life-course.

Contexts and ‘social’ experiences are core elements of much social science research:

  • Contexts include both structural elements, such as gender, class, ethnicity, schools and work, or neighbourhoods, and inter-personal ones such as family, friends, and peer groups.
  • And these can alter the Experiences of an individual, whether through constraints on opportunity or, for example, through bullying or partnership breakdown.

Much social science research examines the consequences of adverse experiences through the life-course in shaping outcomes and behaviours.

biosocial image

There is considerable interest in persistent effects of adverse experiences, for example short and long-term consequences of poverty or parental divorce, or ‘scarring’ and health effects of spells of unemployment.

Persistence of these effects is partly through ‘biological embedding’ whereby the adverse experiences ‘get under the skin’ to alter biology at one or more levels.

This biological embedding can include lasting physiological responses in the Body, lasting cognitive and affective changes in the brain, and deeper epigenetic or other molecular responses on the genome.

There is already evidence for biological embedding of adverse experiences: income or class is clearly associated with wear and tear on the body which grows over time when the individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress as a pathway to disease.

And harsh parenting and child poverty have been linked to lasting epigenetic changes. But how does experience get biologically embedded?

Experience of poverty has povertyto operate through channels that act as pathways to embodiment: stress, diet, disease, health behaviours, memory, and exercise are examples.

The embodiment may be modified by personality, immune systems, or the genome. Biology can also get ‘outside the skin’ to affect behaviours, choices and outcomes.

At a high level mental and physical health have strong reciprocal associations with lifestyles, choices and social inequality.

There is growing evidence on genetic differential susceptibility to environments and parallels have been drawn to comparisons between orchids (environmentally reactive) and dandelions (less reactive).

For example, children with more ‘reactive’ Alleles (one of a number of alternative forms of the same gene) show a greater deterioration in behaviour when their fathers leave the mother, compared to those with fewer reactive genes; but a different group of ‘reactive’ children whose non-resident fathers at birth subsequently cohabit with the mother show differential improvements in behaviour.

As yet we have very little direct evidence that epigenetic (non-genetic influences) differences or changes have consequences for behaviour, but this is an important emerging topic for research.

A rapidly growing body of research focuses on the interplays of early experience with child Development.
Two key topics are emerging:

  • the role of experiences in shaping the synaptic pruning that is a critical stage in Brain Development;
  • the role of Experiences in shaping the epigenome.

During adolescence there is a further critical period of brain development associated with mechanisms of control; and exploration of the epigenetic changes during adolescence and their interplays with experience is under way – in the US Fragile Families & Child Wellbeing Study, for example.

At the other end of the life-course, ageing studies and the older birth cohortsold hands are exploring how biology and experience interplay throughout life to shape cognitive and physical decline.

Among the key questions are whether early or more recent Experiences exert stronger roles on biology and behaviours, and what pathways are involved.

Early experiences often do matter a lot. The long running UK Birth Cohort studies are a critical evidence base.

The ESRC has invested significantly in extending its ‘jewel in the crown’ longitudinal studies to encompass ‘bio measures’. Direct mental and physical measures now include cognitive performance, indicators of depression, height and weight, grip strength and exercise levels.

There are also ‘biomarkers’ derived from blood or other tissue samples that can be used to assess health, such as indicators of stress or inflammation.

Sometimes these are combined into measures of emerging ill health such as ‘allostatic load’ that indicate systemic signs of health deterioration.dna2
At the molecular level DNA attention is turning to deriving epigenetic markers, such as methylation (DNA is the blueprint but epigenetic changes alter how this gets translated into proteins and reflect the impact of experience on the genome).

As part of its ongoing commitment the ESRC developed its Framework to Enable Biosocial Research (2014) and initial collaborations demonstrate there is a need to strengthen training and capacity-building enabling effective communication, mutual respect and understanding for interdisciplinary partnerships.

Extending awareness and use of the core biosocial longitudinal resources among social, medical and biological scientists is essential.
Further targeted multi-disciplinary initiatives are required to leverage high-quality research with impact from the current extensive resource investments.

Many new domains and initiatives will emerge as biosocial science matures and demonstrates importance and impact.

The core goal will be to increase understanding of pathways and mechanisms involved in individual development and response to experiences over the life-course. This will enable improved targeting of interventions, with policies that take account of previous life experiences and social and biological embedding, and lead to more precise ways of reversing these consequences.


This article was originally written for ESRC’s Society Now magazine (issue 24). You can read the full piece on page 18.

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