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 biopsychosocial processes, with a particular focus on differential biological susceptibility and epigenetics. Importantly, rather than being a new and isolated area of research, this line of work enhances 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. Indeed, in a recent piece in Criminology co-authored with Ronald Simons, we are strongly critical of genetic main effects and “gene-centric” models and highlight the problematic methods and assumptions used in models that purport to show strong direct effects of genetic influences on variation in complex social behaviors. Instead, we point biosocial research in criminology in a different direction, towards research consistent with recent and rapidly advancing knowledge on biological influences that inform what has been called the “postgenomic era” (Burt & Simons 2014). A few scholars have written 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 have written 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.

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 great potential for sociological work that can integrate knowledge across various levels. I seek to gain new knowledge so that I can engage in studies that explore the ways that social adversities and supports become biologically embedded and influence development in ways that have implications for social behaviors, especially risky and antisocial behavior, recognizing that we have evolved to adapt to conditions, and thus the potential for change is ever present.

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