The Importance of Social Science Research to Improving Health

In recognition of the important contributions of social science research, this month’s blog is authored by Dr. Rosalind King. Dr. King recently joined OBSSR and brings additional perspectives on the role of social sciences in the National Institutes of Health’s mission.

OBSSR’s mission includes advancing both the behavioral and social sciences. Historically at NIH, the former has been more broadly supported and better- understood than the latter. To some extent, this is due to the proximity of behavior to health phenomena. In this month’s blog, we want to highlight the importance of better understanding social influences for improving health. We also provide some examples clarifying the distinctions between behavioral and social factors.

Individual behavior patterns have obvious links to health and are often themselves health outcomes. For example, physical activity is directly linked to body weight and muscle mass. In contrast, social phenomena are causal factors shaping health, but the mechanisms of action can be complex to define. For example, educational attainment influences health-related behavior patterns and health outcomes, such as adherence to prenatal care regimens and trajectories of cognitive aging. However, we are still working to better understand whether educational attainment operates through higher income, access to health care, brain development, or some other mechanism. The mechanisms of action of any given social phenomena also may vary by health domain or population. For example, one mechanism linking poverty to obesity is the lack of grocery stores in low-income neighborhoods while the link between poverty and poor sleep may operate through residential noise levels.

Interpersonal processes lie at the intersection of the behavioral and social sciences. One example is racism, which is associated with a range of health outcomes including stress and anxiety, cardiovascular disease, and overall increased mortality. Behavioral and social science research might examine the relationship between racism, education, and health with a focus on different levels of influence and outcome. A behavioral science study of experiences of racism among children in school settings would consider the (mis)match between the racial identification of the teacher and students, bias (explicit and implicit) on the part of the teacher and between students, the classroom dynamics of inclusion and exclusion, and the relationship of these to individual health outcomes. A social science study would move to the structural level to consider population-based influences on health outcomes. This might include the examination of patterns of neighborhood residential segregation that shape the racial composition of the school, educational policies that shape the racial composition of classrooms, and hiring practices at the district level that influence the racial composition and age (as a proxy for tenure) that relate to where teachers are assigned to which schools in a school district.

As NIH moves toward an emphasis on the social determinants of health (SDoH), the social science perspective — focusing on forces above the level of small groups — becomes essential. Healthy People 2030 links SDoH to health disparities including mental health, alcohol abuse, pain, child neglect, intimate partner violence, arthritis, and HIV infection. Social science contributes critical theory and methodologies to answering many of the complex and multifactorial health challenges of our day.

Successfully achieving NIH’s mission calls for research that studies the interaction between social, behavioral, and biomedical factors. It also calls for interdisciplinary team science that integrates various perspectives, research methods, and multiple levels of measurement.

Introduction by Wendy B. Smith, Ph.D., M.A., BCB, Acting Director
by Rosalind King, Ph.D., OBSSR