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Nancy Webber
Communications, Office of Faculty and Academic Affairs

Bernice Pescosolido
Distinguished and Chancellor's Professor of Sociology

Last modified: Monday, March 2, 2009

Social and genetic views of alcoholism study recognized nationally

March 2, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Should sociologists be involved in research on the genetics of illness and disease? A recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education addressed the debate in the context of a recent special issue in the American Journal of Sociology.

Bernice Pescosolido

Bernice Pescosolido

Print-Quality Photo

That issue was devoted to understanding how a consideration of genetics changes the way that sociologists understand behavior, an often contested matter in the discipline. As part of the conversation, Chris Shea recognized Indiana University Distinguished and Chancellor's Professor of Sociology Bernice Pescosolido for her research on Alcoholism. "The Nature-Nurture Debate, Redux: Genetic research finally makes its way into the thinking of sociologists" details the investigative work of a team of researchers from Indiana University headed by Pescosolido. Using one of the premier medical studies, the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism (COGA), the team analyzed data from nine different centers across the United States, including the IU School of Medicine.

Their findings and their answer to the debate are provided in the American Journal of Sociology article "Under the influence of genetics: how transdisciplinarity leads us to rethink social pathways to illness" (2008) by Pescosolido and former IU graduate student Brea Perry (now Assistant Professor at the University of Kentucky); IU Associate Vice Provost for Social Sciences J. Scott Long; and IU Director of the Karl F. Schuessler Institute for Social Research Jack Martin, as well as genetic specialist John I. Nurnberger Jr., Director of the Institute of Psychiatric Research at the Indiana University School of Medicine and Victor Hesselbrock, chair of the Department of Psychiatry in the School of Medicine at the University of Connecticut.

Simply, the research team brought together the three major theories that the discipline of sociology has developed to understand health problems - fundamental causes, social stress, and social safety net theories - and considered their influence in the presence of the major candidate gene for alcohol problems, GABRA2. They find that both social and genetic influences are at work in the development of alcohol dependence. More importantly, the risk of alcohol dependence for individuals who have the genetic predisposition is virtually eliminated as the social support offered in their family increases. In addition, the experience of material deprivation in childhood may trigger the genetic risk. Their findings suggest a compelling mechanism underlying gene-environment interactions. "If correct, this epidemiological process represents a true blending of sociological and genetic causes: social conditions shape initial behavior while genetic predisposition increases the likelihood that this behavior becomes habitual, maladaptive, and constructed as a disorder in contemporary society. This social structure sets in motion a social process of coping, negatively spurred on by genetic predisposition and abetted by an absence of positive family network supports, resulting in a diagnosis of alcohol dependence" (Pescosolido et al. 2008, p. S194).

This line of research represents part of Pescosolido's larger research agenda which addresses how social networks connect individuals to their communities and to institutional structures, providing the "wires" through which people's attitudes and actions are influenced. This transdisciplinary agenda encompasses three basic areas: health care services, stigma, and suicide research. In the early 1990s, Pescosolido developed the Network-Episode Model that was designed to focus on how individuals come to recognize, respond to the onset of health problems, and use health care services. Specifically, it has provided new insights to understanding the patterns and pathways to health and disease; informal and formal care; adherence to treatment; and the outcomes of health care. As a result, she has served on advisory agenda-setting efforts at the NIMH, NCI, NHLBI, NIDRR, OBSSR and presented at congressional briefings.

The COGA study is funded by a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. The team received funding for their specific project from the Faculty Research Support Program, sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research.

For more information on her current work, correspond directly with Bernice Pescosolido, Department of Sociology, Indiana University, at

To review "The Nature-Nurture Debate, Redux: Genetic research finally makes its way into the thinking of sociologists" in The Chronicle of Higher Education, go to