Conferences and Presentations

Comparative perspectives on social inequalities in life and death: An interdisciplinary conference

Comparative perspectives on social inequalities in life and death: An interdisciplinary conference

This conference took place on Friday 1st June 2018 – 10am-5pm in the Main Lecture Theatre, Old Divinity School, St John’s College, followed by a public lecture in honour of Robert Hinde from 5-6pm.

View the write-up from the conference here.

visual programme

 Since 2014, the St John’s College Reading Group on Health Inequalities has been bringing together scholars from a range of disciplines to consider the wider mechanisms by which disparities in human health arise and are sustained across time and generations.  The focus is the interrelationships between social, biological, behavioural and historical processes and the patterning of mortality and morbidity in human populations.

The purpose of the conference is to widen our interdisciplinary approach to understanding inequalities in human health, through dialogue with ethologists. Ethology is the scientific and objective study of animal behaviour, usually with a focus on behaviour under natural conditions, and viewing behaviour as an evolutionarily adaptive trait.

There is strong evidence that position in the social hierarchy in humans is closely related to health and disease risk. The result is a social gradient in health—worse health the lower the social position.  Yet social hierarchies, sustained across generations, are widespread among mammals and in evolutionary terms can be understood as offering advantage to the group as a whole, if not equally to all its members. Within the group, behaviour of individuals can vary between co-operative or competitive, and can affect reproductive success. A central form of cooperative behaviour is caregiving, the nature of which is a powerful predictor of later social and health outcomes in humans and other primates.

We present an interdisciplinary programme informing understandings of inequalities in health by drawing on new data from other social mammals, particularly non-human primates. The programme addresses the ways in which human and animal studies seem to proceed in parallel, with each side knowing little about the work of the other, and brings them together.

The programme moves from the consideration of the persistence of inequalities in human health, the relevance of social context, and mechanisms that sustain social position across both time and generations, to a consideration of fitness in other social mammals and aspects of resilience in unstable environments.  In the afternoon, we take examples of free-living baboons in Botswana, and captive colonies of macaques in Bethesda, to consider social and epigenetic mechanisms maintaining social hierarchy and relationship across generations.

In a presentation in honour of Robert Hinde, we end with a Public Lecture drawing on the exceptional body of work of our keynote speakers in understanding a particular interest of  Robert’s; the extent to which human differences in behaviour and relationship represent adaptations to the worlds in which children grow up.

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Public Lecture: Development of social behaviour in children from infancy

Public Lecture: Development of social behaviour in children from infancy: neurobiological, relational and situational interactions

Marinus H. van IJzendoorn & Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg

Erasmus University Rotterdam, Leiden University,University of Cambridge

Friday 1st June 2018 – 5-6pm

Main Lecture Theatre, Old Divinity School, St John’s College

This public lecture follows a daylong event titled “Comparative perspectives on social inequalities in life and death:  An interdisciplinary conference”.

Robert Hinde wrote several books and papers on prosocial behaviour and on morality in general, titled ‘Why good is good: the sources of morality’, ‘Cooperation and prosocial behaviour’, ‘Why gods persist: a scientific approach to religion’ or ‘War, no more: eliminating conflict in the nuclear age’. In honour of his work on morality in the human species, with firm roots in evolutionary theory, we present our empirical work on prosocial behaviour, inspired by the evolutionary theory of attachment.

Following The Oxford Handbook of Prosocial Behavior we provisionally define prosocial behavior here as any action that serves to benefit another person with or without costs for the agent. Prosociality may include comforting a distressed conspecific, sharing resources such as food or information, or helping others in other ways to reach their goals. Prosocial behaviour might be inspired by moral reasons such as striving for equal distribution of primary goods unless an unequal distribution is to the benefit of the least favoured (Rawls, 1980). Our emphasis is however on behaviour instead of attitudes, intentions, reasons or motives, as only actual behaviour is relevant for those situations in which moral choices really matter, e.g. helping victims of repressive or genocidal regimes to flee or to hide or discontinuing abusive treatment of isolated individuals in a setting stressing conformity to authority or majority.

In this presentation we discuss neurobiological, parental and situational factors that shape children’s prosocial behaviour. Prosocial as well as antisocial behaviours emerge in infancy, which lead to the question whether prosociality is inborn or socialized by parents. Twin studies suggest a genetic component in prosociality, but molecular genetic studies so far fail in the identification of these genetic factors. Studies on gene-by-environment interaction, in particular on differential susceptibility, seem to be promising, and the role of parents appears undeniable. Using intranasal oxytocin administration we studied hormonal influences on prosocial behaviour moderated by adverse childhood experiences and we examined how prosociality is embedded in neural  (re-)activity and brain morphology. 

With Robert Hinde we conclude that how the situation is perceived and impinges on the individual, and the ‘nudges’ incorporated in the situation, might play a more important role than is currently acknowledged in human development research and theories of moral development.

References

Hinde, R.A. (2005). Why Good is Good: The Sources of Morality. London: Routledge.

Hinde, R. A., & Groebel, J. (Eds.). (1991). Cooperation and Prosocial Behaviour. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Hinde, R.A. (2009). Why Gods Persist: A Scientific Approach to Religion. London: Routledge.

Hinde, R.A., & Rotblat, J. (2003). War No More: Eliminating Conflict in The Nuclear Age. London: Pluto Press.

 

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British Sociological Association Annual Conference, April 2017

British Sociological Association Annual Conference

4-6 April 2017, University of Manchester, UK

Kelly, M. P., Kriznik, N. M., Kinmonth, A., and Ling, T.

While mortality and morbidity in the UK mostly show improvements over time, inequalities in health persist driven by the patterning of the prevalence of preventable non-communicable disease. We argue that policies designed to reduce health inequalities and prevent non-communicable disease are limited by an individualistic epistemology, evidenced by the analysis of policy statements since the mid-1970s.

We found substantial evidence of supra-individualistic and relational mechanisms relevant to health inequalities, not only in sociology but in history, biology, neuroscience, philosophy, and psychology. These mechanisms were sometimes expressed in the rhetoric of policy papers but rarely in policy recommendations or action.

Policy documents continue to major on individual behaviour change foregrounding individual choice and responsibility despite these well-established understandings of wider dynamic influences on health. Mechanisms underlying inequalities in health are complex. While human behaviour is a major determinant of health, the assumption that it should therefore be tackled only by education and respect of individual choices has not led to reductions in health inequalities. We argue that a stronger relational approach to health inequalities will better inform policy, driving forward programmes of action which emphasise the importance of interdisciplinary work and consider broader ways of enabling the healthy behavioural choices most people would prefer by reducing the toxicity of the environments in which we must live.

British Sociological Association Medical Sociology Conference, September 2016

British Sociological Association Medical Sociology Conference

7th-9th September 2016, Aston University, Birmingham

The embodiment of disadvantage: Developmental programming and the lifecourse

Kriznik, N., Kelly, M.P., Kinmonth, A. L. and Burton, G.J

This paper discusses how insights from developmental programming can illuminate sociological analysis of the inter-generational transmission of health disadvantage and reproduction of health inequalities. Developmental programming is the biological process whereby environmental factors (such as poor maternal nutrition or elevated maternal stress hormones) influence gene expression during in utero growth and beyond. Acting during vulnerable periods of development, these factors can alter the structure and function of major organ systems for the rest of the lifecourse of the fetus, infant and adult, explaining important aspects of adult morbidity and mortality.

We argue that developmental programming offers novel ways to understand how social disadvantage is embodied within our biology, how this impacts health over the lifecourse, and how these effects can be transmitted to future generations.  There is clear evidence of inter-generational transmission as biological capital from grandmother through her daughter’s ova to the adult health of the grandchild, which is highly significant. Subsequent social exposures can reinforce effects over generations leading to the accumulation of biologically and socially inherited disadvantage.

An integrated understanding of the reciprocal impact of the social and the biological may offer a powerful framework for guiding policies and interventions to “tackle” health inequalities. This line of inquiry opens up the possibility of understanding biological mechanisms demonstrating the pernicious health effects of social disadvantage and the recursive nature of their manifestations across time and place.  It reinforces too the importance of public health efforts directed to the health of women of child-bearing age and of young children.

View the PowerPoint presentation of the British Sociological Association Medical Sociology Conference

British Sociological Association Human Reproduction Study Group Annual Conference, June 2016

British Sociological Association Human Reproduction Study Group Annual Conference

10th June 2016, De Montfort University, Leicester

Integrated mechanisms describing the relationship between the social and the biological: the sociological contribution to developmental programming.

Kriznik, N. and Kelly, M. P.

Developmental programming is the biological process whereby environmental factors (such as poor maternal nutrition or elevated maternal stress hormones) influence gene expression during in utero growth and beyond. Acting during vulnerable periods of development, these factors can alter the structure and function of major organ systems for the rest of the lifecourse of the fetus, infant and adult, explaining important aspects of adult morbidity and mortality.

It is interesting to note that while developmental programming is premised on the understanding that social factors and situations can influence development and gene functioning, sociology has little direct engagement with these areas.  This paper will highlight some of the potential contributions that sociology can make to the field of developmental programming, which could ultimately lead to the emergence of an integrated explanatory framework.

First, the discussion will briefly outline existing perspectives from the sociological literature on the influence of social exposures on disease and development. It will be argued that these perspectives do not go far enough in terms of developing an integrated explanation which successfully takes account of both the social and the biological.

Second, three sociological concepts which offer potential contributions to the field of developmental programming will be discussed: lifeworld; structuration; and social practices.  These concepts will be linked to the need to use a life course approach in order to understand the impact of the social on development, thereby demonstrating their importance in the field of developmental programming.

The paper will conclude by emphasising the need for an integrated framework for understanding developmental programming which goes beyond purely biological explanations, and involves existing concepts from sociology.

View the PowerPoint presentation of the British Sociological Association Human Reproduction Study Group Annual Conference.

Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative event – Understanding Inequalities: new thinking for public policy, May 2016

Public Policy Strategic Research Initiative event – Understanding Inequalities: new thinking for public policy

25th May 2016, Trinity Hall, Cambridge

A sociological and historical perspective on health inequalities: implications for current policy debates.

Kelly, M. P and Szreter, S. 

Epidemiological and public health accounts of health inequalities share three characteristics: they are based on individual measures of health and illness (however measured) aggregated up to population or group level; they use gross measures of social difference such as socio economic status, income or education to differentiate social groups; and, they rely for the most part on cross sectional data to depict differences or gradients in the population.  While this approach has been very important in raising the political profile of health inequalities it has not provided much by way of sharp edged tools with which to change the stubborn pattern of health inequalities observed in all societies.  In the UK this is despite much effort to tackle health inequalities and even more political rhetoric about dealing with the problem.  We present a sociological-historical account using data from a variety of sources from the last two hundred years to illustrate the ways in which non-reductionist accounts of the relations and intersections between social groups - classes, genders and ethnicities – drives the evolving class structure nationally and locally which in turn shapes the patterning of health differences and the health inequalities gradients in societies.  We emphasise the importance of the analyses being conducted at relatively local levels and across time in order to grasp the significance of the micro structures and to illustrate the role of local industries for example, in generating particular patterns of health differences. We suggest that the approach we advocate allows not only for new conceptions of health inequities to emerge to inform the policy debate, but also it points to significant places were interventions may be deployed.  So for example policies about the location or closure of industries, of technical education, of labour mobility are critical in the patterning of health inequalities.  These policy possibilities are along way distant from the preoccupations of for example Public Health England and its exhortations, especially to the poor and disadvantaged to Change4life and to stop smoking, eat less fat salt and sugar and take more exercise!

View the PowerPoint presentation of the Understanding Inequalities event.

British Sociological Association Annual Conference, April 2016

British Sociological Association Annual Conference

6th-8th April 2016, Aston University, Birmingham

Social capital, biological capital and health inequalities: Bourdieu meets developmental programming

Kriznik, N. and Kelly, M. P.

In the context of health inequalities this paper examines the linkages between social capital and the well-established biological and emerging evidence from epigenetics and developmental programming about the impact of social disadvantage on health.  The idea of biological capital considers the potential biological mechanisms of intergenerational transmission of poor health and the linkages of those mechanisms to exposure to social disadvantage.  We consider the ways in which social capital helps elucidate the ways that the social may play a role interactively with the biological mechanisms.  The implications of this in terms of the reproduction historically of patterns of inequality in health are potentially profound. The integrated understanding of mechanisms may offer a more focussed way of developing policies and interventions to “tackle” health inequalities than current approaches which are grounded in highly individualistic and non-social accounts of the actions of the so called social determinants of health.  While the role and importance of social capital in improving and maintaining health are well documented both in the academic and policy literature, there seems to be little attempt to fully understand the links between the social and the biological; in particular the impact that the social has on foetal and early life biological development.  We suggest that the transmission of biological capital is intimately tied to the transmission of social capital

View the PowerPoint presentation of the BSA Annual Conference.

The Rank Prize Funds Mini-Symposium on Developmental Programming for Human Disease: Preconception Nutrition and Lifelong Health, February 2016

The Rank Prize Funds Mini-Symposium on Developmental Programming for Human Disease: Preconception Nutrition and Lifelong Health

22nd-25th February 2016, The Wordsworth Hotel, Grasmere

Natasha was awarded a prize at the end of the event for the best contributed paper.

Integrated mechanisms describing the relationship between the social and the biological: the sociological contribution to developmental programming.

Kriznik, N.

There have been enormous advances in developmental programming since Barker’s early work.  Both the fields of developmental programming and epigenetics involve research programmes which are continuing to establish more complex explanatory models, particularly in terms of the use of animal models to demonstrate the impact of external influences on development and gene functioning.  It is interesting to note, therefore, that while these fields are premised on the understanding that social factors and situations can influence development and gene functioning, there has been little direct engagement from sociology with these areas.  This paper, therefore, will focus on some of the potential contributions that sociology can make to the field of developmental programming, which could ultimately lead to the emergence of an integrated explanatory framework.

First, the discussion will briefly outline and examine existing perspectives from the sociological literature on the role and influence of social exposures on disease and development.  As important as these perspectives have been in highlighting social and behavioural factors in disease, it will be argued that they do not go far enough in terms of developing an integrated explanation which successfully takes account of both the social and the biological.

Second, three sociological concepts which offer potential contributions to the field of developmental programming will be introduced.  These concepts are the lifeworld, structuration theory, and social practice theory.  These concepts will then be linked to the need to use a life course approach in order to understand the impact of the social on development, thereby demonstrating their importance in the field of developmental programming.

Finally the paper will conclude by highlighting the need for an integrated framework for understanding developmental programming which goes beyond purely biological explanations, and involves existing perspectives and concepts from sociology.

View the PowerPoint Presentation of the Rank Prize Funds Mini-Symposium.

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