How to combine sociology with biology – and why do it?

David Blane is professor emeritus of Imperial College London and professorial research associate of University College London. Former (2008-2012) deputy director of ESRC International Centre for Life Course Studies in Society and Health (ICLS), his interests include health inequalities, social gerontology and life course research.

Here, in the latest of our biosocial blogs, Professor Blane gives his ‘how to’ on combining sociology and biology in research.

Rudolf Virchow was a physician who believed that “Medicine is a social science; and politics is nothing else but medicine on a large scale”.

Rudolf Virchow

Rudolf Virchow

In 1848 he served on a commission of investigation into an epidemic of typhus in Prussian Upper Silesia. His report identified the social conditions there that made typhus (a louse-borne disease) endemic, and periodically epidemic, and wrote a social prescription to eliminate these circumstances by building roads, schools, democracy and jobs. As well as being one of the founders of public health, Virchow was a medical specialist in pathology, which he saw as the way to understand the link between social conditions and disease.

Virchow’s contribution to the study of social-biological transitions (how life gets under your skin) was part of a long tradition which more recently in the UK has included, among others, John Boyd Orr’s studies of nutrition and health and JN Morris’ estimates of the minimum income for healthy living. The UK’s Registrars General in their occupational supplements to the decennial censuses have long documented social class differences in the likelihood of premature death, although whether and, if so, how the one causes the other remains to be understood. Fortunately the means to do so are coming on stream in the form of representative population surveys collecting high quality social and biological data; and, thanks to the foresight of the UK Economic and Social Research Council and the USA National Institute of Aging, these data are well documented and available from data archives on open academic access.

How to use these resources

This is a new area of research, so there are few clear guidelines.  I studied basic sciences (physics, chemistry, botany, zoology) at secondary school; undergraduate clinical medicine; postgraduate sociology; taught medical students for 30 some years; and researched and applied knowledge in public health. These days, when I’m asked to give an authoritative answer, mostly I sigh and shrug my shoulders because I’ve learnt there are differing points of view on almost every question and, even when a general consensus has been reached, as often as not it will change 20 or 30 years down the line as a result of new techniques, new findings, new ways of looking at things or a shift of priorities in the political or funding climate. Personally, I think sociology and biology are quite similar in these respects or, at least, not as different as they are sometimes portrayed. So there’s some common ground on which the two can meet.

How to combine sociology and biology in research?
(I’m talking about a quantitative sociology that uses concepts from social theory to generate hypotheses which can be tested statistically in large population surveys)

First, if you’re not to be driven crazy by the complexity of it all, you need to focus down to the bits of this potentially limitless research area which are of interest and relevance to you. It’s up to you to make this choice, influenced by research funders’ priorities. Personally, my interest is how the social becomes biological, particularly how social class gets into the molecules, cells and tissues of the body to produce social class differences in life expectancy and cause of death. And I’m interested in this process of social-biological transition because, from a public health point of view, I’m interested in causality and am not content with the many possible interpretations of a statistical association.

So, my interest in social and biological plausibility is part of my interest in causality which, in turn, is part of my interest in public health.  Of equal importance, being clear about your focus tells you what is not of interest and relevance to you. So, for example, while I try to keep aware of work on such things as the effects of biology on social phenomena and the development of metabolomic and genetic technology, I am happy to leave this work to others.

Second, I see research in my area as walking on three legs: sociology, biology, statistics; and nobody can be an expert in all of these. The best you can hope for is to be a trusted practitioner of one and to have respectful collaborative relations with experts in the other two. This is easier said than done. Respect includes an understanding that another discipline’s specialist language is not the same thing as jargon and that its conceptual and measurement precision are preferable to common-sense.   

It includes also a familiarity with the basics of the other two disciplines so that collaborative discussions can be mutually informative and benefit from the originality released when new perspectives are integrated into your own discipline’s taken-for-granted ideas. And don’t accept that the difference in the rate of pay between the disciplines reflects the potential importance of their contributions.

Third, don’t accept the guff that biology is synonymous with genetics.

Genetics is part of biology, but so are anatomy, biochemistry, embryology, endocrinology, immunology, neurology, pathology, pharmacology and physiology – to name but a few. Once again, it comes down to your research interests. If you are interested in variation between individuals, then genetic variation may be part of the story. But if you are interested in the biological plausibility of a statistical association between a social factor and a health outcome, then the relevance of genetics is less obvious – epigenetics may prove an exception, but it’s too early to say for sure. What the sociologist and statistician need to know is to consult with their biologist colleagues about which of the many potential pathways between the social and the biological are likely important to the health outcome of interest and whether biomedical measurements are available to test these ideas.

The good news is that researchers interested in this area don’t have to do it all on their own.

There are a number of initiatives under way which are designed to help. Most of these come from the Economic and Social Research Council, such as the workshops offered by its National Centre for Research Methods, its UK Household Longitudinal Study (Understanding Society) and its International Centre for Life Course Studies in Society and Health (ICLS); as well as its joint (with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council) Centre for Doctoral Training. The recent referendum vote means that nobody is quite clear about future arrangement between the UK, Mainland Europe, Asia and the rest of the world, but the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies, an international learned society, is holding a pre-conference day school on social-biological transitions and, possibly, future summer schools.

Good hunting.

2 thoughts on “How to combine sociology with biology – and why do it?

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

  2. Pingback: How to combine sociology with biology – and why do it? | A quem interessar possa...

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