2021 Summer Institute on Biological Approaches in the Social Sciences

Project: Research project

Project Details

Description

BACKGROUND
Over the past decade, there has been an explosion of interest in biology among social scientists. This interest is fueled by recognition that much of human biology is fluid rather than fixed, and accordingly best understood as a dynamic process, in which the body’s genes, cells, and organs adapt to contextual demands, particularly those in the social and physical environment. These insights have given rise to novel intellectual frameworks and fresh methodologic approaches, and in the process facilitated an integrative biosocial research paradigm that addresses questions that have long captivated social scientists. For instance, as a result of this consilience, we are poised to understand how structural inequalities in American society get “embodied” in biological systems across the lifecourse, and specify the consequences for social, economic, and living conditions.

The enthusiasm for this integration is apparent in numerous trends. Three of the largest ongoing research efforts in the social sciences – The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent to Adult Health, and Health & Retirement Study – have incorporated biological measures into their routine assessments. In 2014, the Russell Sage Foundation launched an initiative entitled “Integrating Biology and Social Science Knowledge” (BioSS), and issued a subsequent request for proposals that was co-sponsored by the Ford Foundation. Similarly, the portfolios of the William T. Grant Foundation and Spencer Foundation indicate these organizations are increasingly enthusiastic about supporting research at the biosocial interface.

Despite the enthusiasm for this approach and the opportunities it presents, there are significant obstacles to its implementation. Among the most pressing is the shortage of scholars adequately trained to undertake it. In particular, few social scientists possess the background in biological theory and method that is necessary to effectively measure, analyze, and interpret biological processes in community-based research settings. Collaborations with biomedical scientists can help address this gap, but if social scientists want to make the most of these efforts it is incumbent upon them to share a common vocabulary with their collaborators. Furthermore, future leaders of this research endeavor should be conversant in theory and method from both the social and biological sciences. Only with that joint expertise can they effectively, and credibly, deliver on the promise of this integrative, biosocial research. Equally imperative is training in ethical issues. Research in this area has the potential to harden (false) beliefs about biology as destiny, and to be mis-used to achieve ideological and political ends. Thus, we must train scholars to frame questions, interpret data, and discuss results in an ethically informed manner.

2019 WORKSHOP
With these issues in mind, we held the inaugural workshop on “Biological Approaches in the Social Sciences” from June 10-14, 2019. It was sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation, with additional support provided by Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research and School of Education and Social Policy. Led by senior Northwestern faculty, and guest speakers from other institutions, the workshop lasted for a total of five days. It included didactic lectures, small-group breakout sessions, and hands-on laboratory exercises. The goals were for attendees to (1) develop an understanding of the conceptual basis for integrating the social and biological sciences
StatusActive
Effective start/end date8/1/217/31/22

Funding

  • Russell Sage Foundation (2004-22672)

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