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Family Instability and Genetic Sensitivity - Improving Our Understanding of Social Environments


New working paper in progress


Social inequality is at the heart of sociology. With genetic and biological data being made increasingly available to sociologists and ways to integrate these data into empirical sociological models being mainstreamed, the question remains how this new knowledge can

improve our understanding of social environment factors.


Whereas the main driving mechanism of inequality in sociology is unequal environments, genetic research has focused on heritability. Heritability understood as intergenerational transfer or transmission is not new to sociologists, but to factor in biologically based heritability is.


"A promising venue for integrating the new perspectives offered when integrating genetic heritability into sociology, is to improve the way we understand social environments. Not only when defining what a social environment is (and is not), but also in terms of what it is social environments ’do’ and how they ’do’ it."

To answer these questions, I propose to further integrate the concept of differential suscepti- bility into sociological thinking and link it to durability in treatment effects. I use the example of family instability research to show how the inclusion of genetic sensitivity can move forward the debate on social inequality.


In this paper I bring together sociological, demographic, and biological arguments about the role of social environment and genetic sensitivity. I introduce the conceptual properties of differential susceptibility, and discuss it as a productive concept for operationalizing and interpreting social outcomes with high internal variation.


To further expand the sociological usefulness of differential susceptibility and to review how it can improve our understanding of social environments, I link it to durability in treatment effects. Specifically, I show how it can be beneficial to assess treatment effects at the in- tersection of differential susceptibility and durability by examples from the study of family instability and the scholarship on children mental, cognitive, and behavioural outcomes.


In line with previous literature, indeed biological and genetic information can be socially meaningful for the study of unequal environments. However, with this study, I add an important component by highlighting the innovation in types of questions such research can answer.


In order to take full advantage of the new biological and genetic information available to social scientists, future research involving evaluation of treatments targeting environmetally produced social inequality is likely to benefit greatly from sifting attention from 'what works' to 'what works for whom'.

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