is my DNA making you make me quit smoking?

With this, my first post here, i suppose i should briefly also introduce myself. i am an Assistant Professor of sociology in the School of Social and Family Dynamics at Arizona State University.

So, i’ve been puzzling for a while over my thoughts on the numerous papers that have come out over the past few years by Christakis, Fowler et al using the Framingham Heart Study data. If you didn’t catch the story that recently ran on their work in the New York Times Magazine, i’d highly recommend taking the time to make your way over there at some point. The article does a pretty good job of summarizing what they’ve published and raising some of the pertinent questions that have been posed previously (both in print and not).

The one that’s had me thinking for a while is that the nature of the data really didn’t do much to allow for observing transitive triples (the notion of “a friend of a friend tends to be a friend”) – one of the more common observable patterns known in the networks literature. If you stare at their graphs long enough, you can find a couple, but not many. Why does this matter? Well, as pointed out in the NYTMag piece, their “three degrees of influence” argument – that people can be influenced by their friends’ friends’ friends on the variety of outcomes they’ve measured (even without the intermediary friends demonstrating the “transmitted” tendency) – may be slightly overstated if, in fact, their respondents are more likely to be connected to their friends’ friends than the data are capable of capturing.

Ironically though, the transitivity bit wasn’t what i came to post about at all. If you’ve heard Fowler in the Seed Salon or elsewhere of late, he’s really onto the DNA question that’s raised at the end of the NYTMag article. This is the real question i wanted to raise here. Do you have a take on the (new-found?) interest in genetics in the social sciences (see for example the special issue of AJS on the topic*)? There’s obviously a lot to unpack there, but i’m finding myself really slow in wrapping my head around how/if this marriage will best play out. i have my research question or two that i think could really benefit from the integration, but i also just don’t yet have a clear picture of how i think it should/will work. Do you**?

*Just to put it out there. That special issue came from a team of folks at the Columbia site of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Health and Society Scholars Program. i mention this because i just completed my RWJ H&SS fellowship at Columbia in the spring.

**OK, so the comments section of a blog may not be the ideal place to “solve” my puzzlement. However, maybe you can point me to your favorites who’ve dealt well with this integration. Or pimp your own perspective. i’m all for opening the floor for relevant self promotion!


3 Responses to is my DNA making you make me quit smoking?

  1. Michael Bishop says:

    Personally, I just can’t believe that Christakis, Fowler, et al. have identified causal effects. Of course, all science has its limitations, but I think the authors are pushing their claims just a little too hard.

    As for the the future of biologically informed social science, I think that its wonderful and inevitable. I think twin studies, despite their limitations, are probably the single most compelling evidence that genes account for a substantial amount of variation in many sociological outcomes.

    There are many other ways to incorporate biology into social science though. Hormones and drugs influence behavior. Research by Hammermesh and others suggests things like height/weight/attractiveness affect income. In other work, cortisol levels have been used as an “objective” measure of stress. It is an exciting time to be doing social science.

  2. jimi adams says:

    i’m glad to see you put “objective” in quotes. A psychologist colleague of mine’s head would have exploded if you hadn’t. i spent most of the last two years in pretty close exchange with a number of (among other fields) epidemiologists. The stress hypothesis and the role of cortisol was pretty prevalent within some of our discussions. i’m not nearly as skeptical about it’s usefulness as is my colleague* but it seems to be getting a LOT of attention these days.

    * Likely mainly because it’s been about 12 years since i had any chemistry, and i’ve never had any bio-chemistry, so i’m a bit suspect of any conclusions i’d reach on the matter.**
    ** Did i just footnote a comment to my first post? Wow, apparently i feel at home here already.

  3. Michael Bishop says:

    Truth be told, I’m not sure I’ve gotten any deeper than the abstract in a paper using cortisol levels as a measure of stress. I’d be really interested to know how it covaries with people’s responses to survey questions about stress. Perhaps they are highly correlated for some types of stress but not others, or for some people more than others.

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