Biology and Social Science (BioSS) Working Group


  • Frances Champagne, Columbia University
  • Greg Miller, Northwestern University


  • Daniel Benjamin, University of Southern California
  • Edith Chen, Northwestern University
  • Dalton Conley, Princeton University
  • Nathan Fox, University of Maryland
  • Adriana Galván, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Kathleen Mullen Harris, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
  • David Laibson, Harvard University / RSF Trustee
  • Sara McLanahan, Princeton University / RSF Trustee
  • Colter Mitchell, University of Michigan
  • Shelley Taylor, University of California, Los Angeles / RSF Trustee


A rapidly growing body of empirical evidence suggests there are complex and important interactions between the social environment and individual biology, which have the potential to help us understand a wide range of health and social behaviors and outcomes over the life course. In recognition of this, not only have an increasing number of large-scale social surveys added biological measures as part of their data-gathering, but an increasing number of social scientists are incorporating these measures into their research.

Recent research has documented that incorporating biology into social science research can better our understanding of the different life outcomes that people experience. But much of this research is subject to data limitations and methodological challenges. To move these issues forward, the Russell Sage Foundation has formed a working group in Biology and Social Science (BioSS) to examine how the incorporation of biological concepts, processes and measures in social science research might improve our understanding of a range of social and economic outcomes.


Recent studies have investigated whether some individuals may have a biological disposition to respond differently to social environments (e.g., Belsky and Pluess, 2009). This "differential susceptibility" hypothesis holds that individuals with certain genetic profiles may experience especially noxious outcomes when exposed to adverse social environments, but that the same individuals may experience especially positive outcomes when exposed to supportive environments. Such a phenomenon could help explain why many types of interventions display only modest efficacy - by aggregating more and less-susceptible individuals, researchers may be underestimating effect estimates. Understanding how particular genotypes interact with environmental contexts (G x E) could therefore improve our understanding of social phenomenon and provide greater insights into which interventions work and for whom.

In analyses of rural African-American youth, Brody, et al. (2013) and Miller et al. (2015) point out that despite significant socioeconomic risk factors (e.g., chronic poverty, limited educational and occupational opportunities, racism, poor medical care), a substantial number of those youth display remarkable resilience, achieving academic success and positive social development in spite of significant adversities. Theoretically however, there are reasons to hypothesize that for high-risk youth, the conditions and stress associated with maintaining success can take a psychological and biological toll. The investigators showed that young adults who experienced high SES-related risk as youth displayed signs of worse health if they were rated higher on measures of competence and self-regulation than if they were rated lower on these same measures. In short, achieving success in some life domains may be associated with "costs" to health that ultimately give rise to poorer outcomes in other life domains.

Recent studies have also documented substantial socio-economic disparities in academic achievement beginning very early in childhood. In a recent longitudinal study carried out using data from four countries, Bradbury, et al., (2015) found that those early socio-economic disparities in achievement tend to persist without diminishing well into the school years. However, little is known about the mechanisms underlying the relationship between socio-economic status and children's achievement. In a novel study with a unique dataset, Hair and colleagues (2015) examined whether structural brain development mediated the relationship between low-SES and academic outcomes. Not only did the investigators find that lower-SES children showed systematic structural differences in brain development and that these differences were concentrated among the poorest children, but they also conclude that these differences may explain as much as 20% of the achievement deficits for these low-income children. This suggests that brain development is vulnerable to the processes of and stresses associated with low socio-economic status, and that this may have implications for academic success.

Working Group

The Working Group will look for promising ways to stimulate a research agenda that will bring different conceptions of biology into social science research. Indicators and concepts from neuroscience, immunology and physiology, and genetics and epigenetics, among others have the potential to improve social science research. The working group might focus on the costs associated with social mobility and how that might vary across different racial and ethnic groups, how exposure to early life adversity might be associated with developmental and biological disruptions and what that means for later life outcomes, and whether children with particular genetic profiles respond differently to adverse vs. supportive environments, and how this might inform our understanding of their development and subsequent life outcomes.

The Foundation has already provided support for the Summer Institute in Social Science Genomics, a two-week workshop to be held at the end of June, 2016. The two-week workshop will introduce graduate students and beginning faculty in economics, sociology, psychology, statistics, genetics, and other disciplines to the methods of social-science genomics-the analysis of genomic data in social science research.

The BioSS Working Group will also consider potential projects that might bring together different datasets representing different stages of the life course that can be used to address questions of common interest. The Foundation also expects to release a general RFP in mid-2016.


Belsky, Jay, and Michael Pluess. 2009. Beyond Diathesis Stress: Differential Susceptibility to Environmental Influences. Psychological Bulletin, vol. 135 (6): 885-908. DOI: 10.1037/a0017376.

Bradbury, Bruce, Miles Corak, Jane Waldfogel, and Elizabeth Washbrook. 2015. Too Many Children Left Behind: The Achievement Gap in Comparative Perspective. Russell Sage Foundation, New York: NY.

Brody, Gene H., Tianyi Yu, Edith Chen, Gregory E. Miller, Steven M. Kogan, and Steven R. H. Beach. 2013. Is Resilience Only Skin Deep? Rural African Americans' Socioeconomic Status-Related Risk and Competence in Preadolescence and Psychological and Adjustment and Allostatic Load at Age 19. Psychological Science, 24(7): 1285-1293. DOI: 10.1177/0956797612471954.

Hair, Nicole L., Jamie L. Hanson, Barbara L. Wolfe, and Seth D. Pollak. 2015. Association of Child Poverty, Brain Development, and Academic Achievement. JAMA Pediatrics, 169 (9): 822-829. DOI: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.1475.

Miller, G. E., Yu, T., Chen, E., & Brody, G. H. (2015). Self-control forecasts better psychosocial outcomes but faster epigenetic aging in low-SES youth. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(33), 10325-10330. doi:10.1073/pnas.1505063112