Behavioral and social sciences: Multiple disciplines that explain how humans influence health and wellbeing

Behavioral and social sciences: Multiple disciplines that explain how humans influence health and wellbeing

We are the Office of Behavioral and Social Sciences Research (OBSSR), but I suspect that there as many nuanced differences in the definition of what behavioral and social sciences research (BSSR) is as there are people invested in it.

Twenty years ago, when OBSSR was created by Congress, one of its mandates was to define behavioral and social sciences research to assess and monitor NIH funding in this area. This resulted in a high level taxonomy of BSSR and delineates basic versus applied behavioral and social sciences research with a range of examples for each. The taxonomy goes on to describe what is meant by “behavioral” – overt actions, psychological processes, and bio-behavioral interactions – and “social” – sociocultural, socioeconomic, biosocial interactions, and various levels of social context.

An OBSSR mandate: define behavioral and social sciences research to assess and monitor NIH funding

As part of our strategic planning process, we have been reconsidering the definition of BSSR. To do so, we must first acknowledge that there is no single discipline of “Behavioral and Social Sciences Research;” instead, the field is a multidisciplinary set of sciences including psychology, sociology, demography, anthropology, economics and other social sciences. Let us just examine how four of those disciplines are defined:

  • The American Psychological Association defines psychology as the study of mind and behavior.
  • The Royal Anthropological Institute defines anthropology as the study of people throughout the world, their evolutionary history, how they behave, adapt to different environments, communicate and socialize with one another.
  • The American Economic Association defines economics as the study of how people choose to use resources.
  • The American Sociological Association defines sociology as: a) the study of society, b) a social science involving the study of the social lives of people, groups, and societies, c) the study of our behavior as social beings, covering everything from the analysis of short contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social processes, and d) the study of social aggregations, the entities through which humans move throughout their lives.

These definitions are evidence that the behavioral and social sciences cover a broad expanse of research interests from interpersonal mental processes, through large scale social and cultural constructs. Core to all of these definitions, however, is the study of the mechanisms that influence behavior (including mental processes inferred from behavior), focusing not only on the mechanisms within the organism (e.g., genetics, neurobiology) but also emphasizing and understanding the mechanisms outside of the organism (i.e, physical, familial, social, community, and social environments) that influence behavior.

Behavioral and social sciences cover research from interpersonal mental processes to social and cultural constructs

Indeed, this breadth of understanding behavior, from genetic through societal influences, provides the behavioral and social sciences with a unique perspective on the dynamic interactions of these multiple levels of influence on the behaviors that impact health.

Core to all of #BSSR definitions is the study of mechanisms influencing behavior

We will continue to develop a revised, contemporary definition of BSSR and seek input from various stakeholder groups as it is refined. This is more than a philosophical exercise.

Based on the current Research, Condition, and Disease Categorization (RCDC) coding of NIH grants, BSSR research is estimated to represent approximately 10 percent of NIH funding. Some in the field have suggested that this is an overestimate of the true quantity of behavioral and social sciences research that the NIH funds.

Last year, OBSSR contracted with the Science and Technology Policy Institute (STPI) to evaluate how behavioral and social sciences are defined and categorized for the purposes of monitoring and evaluating the behavioral and social sciences research that the NIH supports. The findings from this effort, expected later this year, along with increased portfolio capacity within our office, will allow us to better assess, monitor, and categorize the behavioral and social sciences research that the NIH funds and address the research gaps identified through this process.

As behavioral and social sciences research is integrated into NIH biomedical research it will be harder to identify

However, as behavioral and social sciences research becomes more integrated into the larger biomedical research efforts of the NIH (another core priority of our office), it will and should become increasingly difficult to identify what NIH-supported research is uniquely behavioral and social sciences research. This will be a good problem to have.


Photo Credit: tashatuvango/Fotolia

Close