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Home > About OBSSR > History > BSSR Definition
Behavioral and Social Sciences (BSSR) Definition
A Definition of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research
Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research
for the National Institutes of Health
National Institutes of Health
When the United States Congress created the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR) at the National Institutes of Health, it mandated that the Office develop a standard definition of the field to assess and monitor funding in this area. This definition of health-related behavioral and social sciences research was developed in 1996 in consultation with behavioral and social scientists and science organizations, and benefited from the leadership of OBSSR's founding director,
Dr. Norman B. Anderson. This definition divides behavioral and social sciences research into two sections: Core Areas of Research, and Adjunct Areas of Research. The core areas of research are further divided into basic or fundamental research and applied research. Adjunct areas of behavioral and social sciences research include many types of neurological research and some research on pharmacological interventions--areas that have implications for, and are often influenced by, behavioral research.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) mission is to fund and conduct research that will result in an improvement in health. The Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), which is located in the Office of the Director, serves to stimulate the growth of the behavioral and social sciences at the NIH. Although behavioral research has a long funding history at the NIH, its vital importance to the NIH’s overall mission has never been more apparent. Behavioral and social factors are important contributors to health and illness and frequently interact with biological factors to influence health outcomes. They also represent critical avenues for treatment and prevention.
When Congress created the OBSSR, it mandated that a standard definition of behavioral and social sciences research be established. This definition was to be used to assess and monitor funding for behavioral and social sciences research at all of the NIH institutes, centers, and divisions. Heretofore, there had been no single definition of the field that could be used to assess and monitor NIH support of the behavioral and social sciences across all NIH Institutes and Centers. The definition developed in 1996 has been updated periodically to improve clarity and to add specific examples that reflect developments in the behavioral and social sciences. Every effort has been made to retain the meaning and scope of the original definition.
Behavioral and Social Sciences Research Defined at NIH
Behavioral and social sciences research is a large, multifaceted field, encompassing a wide array of disciplines. The field employs a variety of methodological approaches including: surveys and questionnaires, interviews, randomized clinical trials, direct observation, physiological manipulations and recording, descriptive methods, laboratory and field experiments, standardized tests, economic analyses, statistical modeling, ethnography, and evaluation. Yet, behavioral and social sciences research is not restricted to a set of disciplines or methodological approaches. Instead, the field is defined by substantive areas of research that transcend disciplinary and methodological boundaries. In addition, several key cross-cutting themes characterize social and behavioral sciences research. These include: an emphasis on theory-driven research; the search for general principles of behavioral and social functioning; the importance ascribed to a developmental, lifespan perspective; an emphasis on individual variation, and variation across sociodemographic categories such as gender, age, and sociocultural status; and a focus on both the social and biological contexts of behavior.
The core areas of behavioral and social sciences research are divided into basic or fundamental research and applied research. The basic and applied research distinction serves more of an organizational function for purposes of this definition, rather than representing firm boundaries within the field. Indeed, many studies have both basic and applied components. Moreover, basic and applied research is often complementary. Basic research frequently provides the foundation for subsequent applied research, and applied research often influences the direction of basic research.
For purposes of this definition, the term "behavioral" refers to overt actions; to underlying psychological processes such as cognition, emotion, temperament, and motivation; and to biobehavioral interactions. The term "social" encompasses sociocultural, socioeconomic, and sociodemographic status; to biosocial interactions; and to the various levels of social context from small groups to complex cultural systems and societal influences.
The core areas of behavioral and social sciences research are those that have a major and explicit focus on the understanding of behavioral or social processes, or on the use of these processes to predict or influence health outcomes or health risk factors. These core areas of research are divided into basic (or fundamental) research and applied research.
I. Basic or Fundamental Research
Basic research in the behavioral and social sciences is designed to further our understanding of fundamental mechanisms and patterns of behavioral and social functioning relevant to the Nation’s health and well-being, and as they interact with each other, with biology and the environment.
As is the case with basic biomedical research, basic behavioral and social sciences research does not address disease outcomes per se. Rather, it is designed to elucidate knowledge about underlying mechanisms and processes, knowledge that is fundamental to improving the understanding, explanation, observation, prediction, prevention, and management of illnesses, as well as the promotion of optimal health and well being..
Basic behavioral and social research is divided into three categories: (A) research on behavioral and social processes; (B) biopsychosocial research; and (C) research on methodology and measurement in the behavioral and social sciences.
(A). Research on behavioral and social processes
Research on behavioral and social processes involves the study of human or animal functioning at the level of the individual, small group, institution, organization, community, or population. At the individual level, this research may involve the study of behavioral factors such as cognition, memory, language, perception, personality, emotion, motivation, and others. At higher levels of aggregation, it includes the study of social variables such as the structure and dynamics of small groups (e.g. couples, families, work groups, etc.); institutions and organizations (e.g. schools, religious organizations, etc.); communities (defined by geography or common interest); and larger demographic, political, economic, and cultural systems. Research on behavioral and social processes also includes the study of the interactions within and between these two levels of aggregation, such as the influence of sociocultural factors on cognitive processes or emotional responses. Finally, this research also includes the study of environmental factors (both natural and human created) such as climate, noise, environmental hazards, residential and other built environments and their effects on behavioral and social functioning.
Examples of research topics and their implications that are or could be funded by NIH Institutes and Centers include:
Sensation and perception
(Implications: neurological and mental disorders and disorders associated with abnormalities in vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell; pain)
Emotion and motivation
(Implications: depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, conduct disorders, normal psychological development, eating disorders, obesity, addictions, sleep disturbances, behavioral and cognitive treatments)
Vulnerability and resilience
(Implications: psychopathology, violence, effects of child abuse and neglect)
Attention, learning and memory
(Implications: mental disorders involving abnormalities in cognitive processes (e.g., schizophrenia, major depression), attention deficit disorders, learning disabilities, Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, cognitive rehabilitation, education)
Ingestive, sexual and aggressive behaviors
(Implications; obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, violence, psychopathology, HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases)
(Implications: communication disorders, autism, learning disabilities)
Social influences and social cognition
(Implications: health-related behaviors, psychopathology, behavioral and cognitive treatments)
Family processes and social networks
(Implications: child development, aging, domestic violence, stress and resiliency, divorce, child abuse, psychopathology)
Sociocultural and environmental processes, population dynamics
(Implications: health disparities, population health; diffusion of health-related information and practices, exposure to environmental stressors and buffers, gene-environment interactions)
(B). Biopsychosocial research
Biopsychosocial research (also known as biobehavioral or biosocial research) involves the study of the interactions of biological factors with behavioral or social variables and how they affect each other (i.e., the study of bi-directional multilevel relationships).
Examples of research topics and their implications that are or could be funded by the institutes include:
Gene by environment interactions, including epigenetic effects, over time and lifespan developmental phases
(Implications: better understanding of interactions among social, genetic and environmental factors affecting mental and physical illnesses, health and well-being, and health disparities, child development, in utero-exposures and later developmental trajectories)
(Implications: addictions, psychopathology, heart disease, gene expression, cancer risk, diabetes, oral health)
Behavioral, cognitive, social and economic neurosciences
(Implications: effects of brain injury, neurodegenerative diseases, learning disabilities, dementia, addictions, sleep disorders, schizophrenia, neurological development, and plasticity, stigma and stereotyping, chronic stress, obesity)
(Implications: stress effects on health, AIDS, dental problems, infections)
(Implications: addictions, tobacco control, psychopathology, brain disorders, drug treatments)
(Implications: cardiovascular diseases, stroke, hypertension, comorbidity)
Social Networks and the spread of vectors of disease
(Implications: Natural and human disasters, diffusion of viruses like AIDS or pandemic flu, social and cultural movements, adoption of fads and fashions that alter dietary habits or physical activity)
(C). Research on methodology and measurement in the behavioral and social sciences
Research on methodology and measurement encompasses the development of new approaches to research design, data collection, measurement, and data analysis. This research is designed to develop research tools that could be used in the behavioral and social sciences or in biomedical research or their interaction.
Examples of research topics that are or could be funded by the institutes include:
Research on methods for analyzing complex dynamic systems
Application of information technologies to data collection and measurement
Statistical modeling techniques
Development of innovative research designs (e.g., multi-method, multi-informant designs)
Methods to reduce sampling, survey, and item non-response bias in research studies
Behavioral observation procedures
Qualitative and ethnographic methods
Development of new measurement procedures for behavioral, neuropsychological, and social phenomena
II. Applied Research
Applied research in the behavioral and social sciences is designed to predict or influence health outcomes, risks, or protective factors. It is also concerned with the impact of illness or risk for illness on behavioral or social functioning.
Applied research is divided into five categories: (A) research on the identification and understanding of behavioral and social risk and protective factors associated with the onset and course of illness, and with health conditions; (B) research on the effects of illness or physical condition on behavioral and social functioning; (C) treatment outcomes research; (D) research on health promotion and disease prevention; and (E) research on institutional and organizational influences on health.
(A). Research on the identification and understanding of behavioral and social risk and protective factors associated with the onset and course of illness, and with health conditions examines the association of specific behavioral and social factors with mental and physical health outcomes, and the mechanisms that explain these associations. It is concerned with behavioral and social factors that may be health-damaging (risk factors) or health-promoting (protective factors).
Examples of research topics in area include the study of such risk and protective factors as: smoking, dietary practices, physical inactivity, stress, substance abuse, social support, cultural practices, and socioeconomic status.
(B). Research on the effects of illness or physical condition on behavioral and social functioning includes such areas as: Psychological and social consequences of genetic testing; behavioral correlates of head injury across developmental stages; emotional and social consequences of HIV infection or cancer; coping responses associated with chronic pain syndromes; effects of illness on economic status; and coping with loss of function due to disability.
(C). Treatment outcomes research involves the design and evaluation of behavioral and social interventions to treat mental and physical illnesses, or interventions designed to ameliorate the effects of illness on behavioral or social functioning. This area also includes research on behavioral and social rehabilitation procedures.
Examples of research topics in this area include: Cognitive or behavioral interventions for anxiety disorders and depression; strategies to reduce arthritis pain; interventions for restoring behavioral and brain functioning following head injury; lifestyle (dietary change, exercise, stress reduction) approaches to reversing coronary atherosclerosis; procedures to enhance adherence to medical interventions.
(D). Research on health promotion and disease prevention involves the design, implementation, and evaluation of behavioral and social interventions to prevent the occurrence, recurrence, or progression of illness, symptoms, risk factors, or health problems. Health promotion also consists of evaluating procedures that facilitate optimal health functioning.
Examples of research topics in this area include: the design and evaluation of programs to discourage adolescent smoking; approaches to increase physical activity in the elderly; interventions to alter dietary intake to promote health; family interventions to prevent injuries in children; mass media interventions to promote health knowledge; and promoting the use of condoms to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.
(E). Research on institutional and organizational influences on health includes studies of the organization of and access to health care, its effectiveness in real world settings (e.g. health services research), its cost efficiency, and its social and cultural acceptability. It also involves research on macro-economic phenomena (e.g. business cycles), community and neighborhood organization and the structure and functioning of families, and how these variables influence the consumption and choice of health care, and decision-making concerning health procedures. Finally, this category includes research on how successful approaches to the organization and delivery of health services can be translated into public policy.
Examples of research topics in this area include: the impact of providing inpatient smokers with information and brief counseling from nursing staff; the accessibility of rural dental health care facilities for migrant workers; the cost-effectiveness of occupational safety interventions; the use of schools as sites for the delivery of mental health services; the effects of capitation on health care utilization; the effects of ethnicity and gender on referral for mental health services; and the association of health provider behavior to patient adherence to medical treatments.