Social Genomics & Biopsychosocial Processes

I am particularly excited about a new area of my research that is consistent with my focus on understanding the mechanisms through which social-environmental factors influence individual development. Specifically, I have begun to study and research genomics.This work extends my current research on processes by linking the influence of social adversities and supports to the implicated biological pathways building on advances that underscore the social nature of biology.

Significantly, this work is informed by an approach that is antithetical to genetic or biological determinism and instead recognizes the inextricable interplay of genes/biology and the environment drawing upon mounting evidence of the social nature of biology and gene expression. In an earlier piece in Criminology co-authored with Ronald Simons, we are strongly critical of genetic main effects and “gene-centric” models and highlight (long discussed) problematic methods and assumptions used in models that purport to show strong direct effects of genetic influences on variation in complex social behaviors. We aimed to redirect biosocial research in criminology to engage with recent and rapidly advancing knowledge on biological influences that inform what has been called the “postgenomic era” (Burt & Simons 2014). A few scholars wrote a response to this article, and we responded in a (hopefully productive and informative) commentary and discussion with scholars in the February 2015 issue of Criminology (Burt & Simons 2015).

More recently, I wrote a critique of heritability studies of adverse health outcomes for the journal Advances in Medical Sociology (Burt 2015) that continues the theme of my earlier work that we (social scientists) need to move away from studies that attempt to parse the effects of “genes” and “environments” towards studies that seek to elucidate mechanisms and pathways recognizing the interactions between genes, cells, organisms and physical and social environments. This was not a new argument, but postgenomic advances underscored the limits of a ‘gene-centric’ approach.

Although some have wrongly interpreted this work as “anti-genetic” or “anti-BG” (where BG = behavioral genetics), my critiques have been explicitly focused on heritability studies (see my blog entry here).

Overall, given recent advances in our understanding of genetic function, especially the social nature of biology, there is a need for social scientists to engage with this work. Currently, with support from a K01 Mentored Research Scientist Career Development Award from NICHD, I am training in genomics to engage with this work.

Part of my K01 training involves training in the responsible conduct of research, which stimulated my interest in open science and awareness of ongoing debates, within and outside of the genomics field. Regarding the latter, Marcus Munafo and I have written a piece stimulating a discussion around what we consider to be a move away from open science in GWAS studies. This piece, resubmitted to PLOS Biology, can be found here. 


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