Thu, 1 February 2018
The Western feud over “nature vs. nurture” dates back at least to an essay by John Locke in 1690. The idea that it’s an absolute binary – that our actions are determined solely by one or the other – is thankfully passé. And yet, in an academic setting, with scholars safe in their silos, the tension continues in practice if not in conversation.
For a bit of anecdotal evidence, look at Melinda Mills, the head of department and Nuffield Professor of Sociology at Oxford University. She studied the sociology and demography of families and family formation – things like when to choose to have a child, what a women’s age is when she first gives birth, or the number of children someone might have. “I was,” she tells interviewer David Edmonds in this Social Science Bites podcast, “looking at them in a very socially deterministic way. I was looking at things such as childcare institutions or gender equality or the kind of jobs that women and men have, and was childcare available and affordable and ... I was using those as explanations and predictors.
“And then I met some biologists and geneticists.”
Over drinks that day, these fellow researchers made fun of Mills: “This is Melinda and she studies fertility, but she doesn’t think it has any biological basis.” Much hilarity ensued. But the gibes bore a pleasant fruit – Mills broke free of the limits on her scholarship with which she had shackled herself. Her studies and collaborations now combined social science and molecular genetics; she now studies ‘sociogenomics,’ with a particular emphasis on how these interplay in the areas of inequality and life course. In that vein, she is the principal investigator of the SOCIOGENOME project and the ESRC National Centre for Research Methods SOCGEN project.
She notes that each part of the triad – social scientists, biologists and geneticists bring their real science to the table. “Wellbeing, depression, reproductive choice – [social scientist] are very good at measuring that. We then work with biologists and geneticists, who determine genetic loci, and then with biologists, who determine the biological function of those genes.
“As social scientists, we then create a score, your ‘reproductive score,’ and we add those to our statistical models together with the social science variables -- the usual suspects lie your family background or your partner or educational level – and we add those together with the genetic data and we look at the interaction between those.” And, as you’ll learn, there can be surprises for all concerned. Geneticists, for example, might assume that genetic loci are universal ... but are they?
The effort also harnesses the big data of genetics technology, tapping into databases like the UK Bio Bank or the direct-to-consumer testing services like 23andMe.
In addition to her sociogenomics projects, Mills is a leader of the Working Package on Childlessness and Assisted Reproductive Technology in the European Families And Societies network, editor-in-chief of the European Sociological Review, and a fellow of the European Academy of Sociology.