Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Sociology and Genetics

Might we be in the midst of a "genetic turn" in sociology?

This interesting piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education notes the concerns sociologists have in integrating the findings of the biological sciences into their analyses. The piece also highlights this special issue of the American Journal of Sociology which is a special issue on genetics. Here is a sample from the editorial of that issue:

This special issue was motivated by what appeared to be a strange paradox.Just about every week the Science Times—one of the places where science meets the public—enthusiastically reported on new research findings that revealed the genetic basis for something (intelligence, voting behavior, obesity, depression, sexual behavior, religiosity, orgasms, altruism and egoism, generosity, thrift, and, of course, earwax type). Aside from the earwax, the phenomena reported to be “genetic” were largely of sociological interest. Yet sociologists were rarely discussed in these articles. Meanwhile, the prevailing sentiment of the discipline appeared to be that the emphasis on genetic expression as explanation for human behavior and social outcomes was at best undermining sociological perspectives
and at worst a return of the eugenicist project of the first half of the 20th century. The two reactions—enthusiastic embrace and uncritical adoption (as represented in the Science Times) and fear and loathing (from sociologists)— appeared to be in some tension. However, thinking about it a little more, one realizes that they arise from the same source: a naive overvaluation of “genetics.”

And here are some of the abstracts from the issue:

Happiness and Success: Genes, Families, and the Psychological Effects of Socioeconomic Position and Social Support
By Jason Schnittker

Although there is considerable evidence linking success—including wealth, marriage, and friendships—to happiness, this relationship might not reflect, as is often assumed, the effects of the proximate environment on well-being. Such an interpretation is contravened by evidence that both happiness and the environment are influenced by genetic factors and family upbringing. Using the National Survey of Midlife Development in the United States, which includes a subsample of twins, this study evaluates the relationship between happiness and various features of success before and after eliminating the influence of endowments. The results suggest that many putative indicators of the environment are highly heritable and, indeed, that the same genes that affect the environment may affect happiness as well. Yet the results also suggest that the role of genetic endowments varies considerably across different features of success, suggesting complex patterns of selection, reinforcement, and causation among genes and the environment.

The Intergenerational Correlation in Weight: How Genetic Resemblance Reveals the Social Role of Families
By Molly A. Martin

According to behavioral genetics research, the intergenerational correlation in weight derives solely from shared genetic predispositions, but complete genetic determinism contradicts the scientific consensus that social and behavioral change underlies the modern obesity epidemic. To address this conundrum, this article utilizes sibling data from the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and extends structural equation sibling models to incorporate siblings' genetic relationships in order to explore the role of families' social characteristics for adolescent weight. The article is the first to demonstrate that the association between parents' obesity and adolescent weight is both social and genetic. Furthermore, by incorporating genetic information, the shared and social origins of the correlation between inactivity and weight are better revealed.

Environmental Contingencies and Genetic Propensities: Social Capital, Educational Continuation, and Dopamine Receptor Gene DRD21

By Michael J. Shanahan, Stephen Vaisey, Lance D. Erickson, Andrew Smolen

Studies of gene-environment interplay typically focus on one environmental factor at a time, resulting in a constrained view of social context. The concept of environmental contingency is introduced as a corrective. Drawing on the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health and qualitative comparative analysis, the authors focus on an example involving social capital, a gene associated with a dopamine receptor (DRD2), and educational continuation beyond secondary school. For boys, (1) DRD2 risk is associated with a decreased likelihood of school continuation; (2) one configuration of social capital—high parental socioeconomic status, high parental involvement in school, and a high-quality school—compensates for this negative relationship, consistent with environmental contingency; but (3) boys with DRD2 risk are less commonly observed in settings that are rich in social capital.