Society, Biology, and Health (Cluster and Certificate)
The primary objective of the Society, Biology, and Health Cluster is to create an interdisciplinary graduate training environment that will foster innovative research on the complex associations among human biology, society, and health.
Multi-level, multi-method research on society, biology, and health presents tremendous opportunities for enriching our understanding of the determinants and consequences of variation in health, but it also poses significant challenges. In particular, few social scientists possess the background in biological theory and method that is necessary to effectively measure, analyze, and interpret biological processes in community-based research settings. Collaborations with biomedical scientists can help address this gap, but if social scientists want to make the most of these efforts, it is incumbent upon them to share a common vocabulary with their collaborators.
The Society, Biology, and Health Cluster will likely appeal to students seeking degrees in anthropology, economics, human development and social policy, psychology, or sociology. We expect participating students to complement their disciplinary training with a level of biological knowledge that will allow them to think critically and creatively about how to use biological measures to address questions of interest to social scientists and policy makers.
Programs and events
The cluster will draw on, and contribute to, ongoing initiatives associated with Cells to Society (C2S): The Center on Social Disparities and Health at the Institute for Policy Research. This includes regular colloquia with prominent outside speakers, informal workshops, and the potential to become involved with a wide range of research projects.
Who should apply?
Doctoral candidates from any field are eligible to apply to join this intellectual “home” outside their department. Past participants have come from the following programs:
- Human Development and Social Policy
How to apply
First-year students are invited to take part in the symposia, work groups, and colloquia offered by all of the clusters to see what may interest them later in their career. At the end of their first year, students will apply to a cluster.
Who to contact
Please contact the program director, listed below, with questions about this program.
The following requirements are in addition to, or further elaborate upon, those requirements outlined in The Graduate School Policy Guide.
Cluster fellows are required to take three seminars in the second or third year of graduate study. The goals of the seminars are to introduce key concepts, to review integrative approaches to research on human biology and health in the social sciences, and to promote cross-disciplinary dialogue among cluster fellows and faculty. Full descriptions of the seminars are included below.
Integrative Seminar in Society, Biology, and Health
The objective of this course is to survey current efforts to understand the dynamic relationships among society, biology, and health. Many scholars and agencies recognize the need for interdisciplinary approaches that draw on concepts and methods from the social/behavioral sciences as well as the life/biomedical sciences, but successful linkage across levels of analysis has remained an elusive goal. What are the epistemological and methodological challenges to successful integration, particularly in an era of increasing specialization in training and the production of knowledge? What can be learned from prior attempts at integration emerging from distinct disciplinary traditions, including biocultural anthropology, biodemography, psychobiology, social epidemiology, and psychosomatic medicine?
Beyond Nature vs. Nurture: The Impact of Experience on Biology Across the Life Course
Nature (genetics and biology) and nurture (environmental experience) are no longer considered two opposing explanations for human developmental outcomes. This course discusses theoretical models and empirical findings regarding the interplay among genes, biology, and experience in development, including gene-environment correlations, gene-environment interactions, and epigenetics, and theoretical models for the interplay between biology and ecological conditions, such as life history theory. A focus on the development of specific physiological systems (e.g., endocrine responses to stress; immune function) provide opportunities to examine environmental influences on biology in a variety of settings, ranging from immediate microsystemic contexts such as interpersonal relationships, day care and school settings, and work settings, to macrosystemic influences such as culture and socioeconomic status. Examples from all stages of the lifespan (prenatal development, childhood, adolescence, adulthood and aging) will be presented. Implications for developmental and health outcomes, and for public policies regulating human environments are considered.
Biology and Social Inquiry
The intent of this course is to provide an overview of efforts to integrate human genetic information into social science research, with a particular focus on the interplay of genetics, social conditions, and health outcomes. The course will begin by discussing social science critiques of genetic/biological research, with attention to the history of use/misuse of biological measurement to contextualize the resurgence of genetic research. The course will consider perspectives on the relationship between evolutionary biology and social science, especially evolutionary psychology and life history theory. Then the course will consider quantitative and molecular approaches to genetic differences, with respect both to behavioral and medical genetics. Here, we will consider both individual- and population-level sources of gene-environment interaction and gene-environment correlation. Finally, we will consider how developments in genetic knowledge make genetic information an object of public opinion and a possible source of inequality in its utilization.
Introduction to Biology
Cluster fellows will be required to have at least one year of undergraduate-level biology. Students will receive credit toward this requirement if they have taken biology as an undergraduate prior to their arrival at NU. Students with no background in biology will be required to take the compressed, 9-week summer course offered by Northwestern’s School of Professional Studies. This requirement reflects our commitment to training social scientists who take biology seriously, and who can build on a solid foundation of biological knowledge in their efforts to conduct innovative social science research
Cluster fellows will be required to enroll in at least two graduate-level courses in statistical methods of data analysis. This requirement can be fulfilled by a range of currently available graduate courses.
A certificate will be awarded for successful completion of three required courses, and two elective courses. To request the certificate students must apply to The Graduate School upon completion of these requirements.
Integrative Seminar in Society, Biology, and Health (Anthropology 490)
The objective of this course is to survey current efforts to understand the dynamic relationships among society, biology, and health across a wide range of social and biomedical science disciplines.
Beyond nature vs. nurture: The impact of experience on biology (HDSP 451)
This course discusses theoretical models and empirical findings regarding the interplay among genes, biology, and experience in development, including gene-environment correlations, gene-environment interactions, and epigenetics, and theoretical models for the interplay between biology and ecological conditions, such as life history theory.
Biology and Social Inquiry (Sociol 476)
The intent of this course is to provide an overview of efforts to integrate human genetic information into social science research, with a particular focus on the interplay of genetics, social conditions, and health outcomes.
- Methods in Human Biology Research (Anthropology 386)
- Medical Anthropology (Anthropology 490)
- Human Population Biology (Anthropology 312)
- Cultural Neuroscience (Psychology 470)
- Demography and Population Problems (Sociology 305)
- Medical Sociology (Sociology 355)
- Behavior, Society, and Health (Public Health 301)
- The Role of Community in Public Health (Public Health 320)
- Child and Adolescent Sleep—Causes and Consequences (HDSP 451)
- Social Determinants of Health (PPH 323)
The objective of the electives is to encourage students to increase their breadth of knowledge beyond their discipline. Students may petition to add courses to this list with the approval of the SBH governance group.