Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ZiF Research Group Workshop

Opening Conference: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Genetic and Social Causes of Life Chances

Convenors: Martin Diewald (Bielefeld, GER), Rainer Riemann (Bielefeld, GER)

Date: 19 - 22 October 2015

The aim of our opening conference was to collect the various disciplinary perspectives on the research group's overarching topic of social inequalities and to form these perspectives into one coherent research programme for the next months. In the first keynote presentation, Tom DiPrete set the stage by sharing some observations from a sociological perspective and concluding, for example, that the literature on gene-environment interplay in producing life chances "is exciting and perplexing at the same time". While sociology contributes many theories and instruments to assess environmental and societal influences, genetic influences on life chances are often neglected in these lines of research. We therefore also focused on the heritability of personality traits and other characteristics that co-determine social inequalities: In the second keynote presentation, Moshe Szyf discussed the influence of nature and nurture as one of the "big questions" in many research areas. According to behavioral epigenetics, he argued, the human DNA is "a movie, not just a snapshot" and that we need to understand how processes unfold rather than focus on only one specific moment in time. Depending on the exact definition researchers in the field of epigenetics work with, genetical information may vary within months (seasonal time scale), change over the years (life long time scale) or even be passed on across generations (evolutionary or trans-generational time scale). Studies on genetic and epigenetic mechanisms are therefore needed to complement research on the social and societal mechanisms in order to fully understand the complex processes producing social inequalities. Whereas, for ethical reasons, studies with human participants often cannot introduce experimental manipulations to further test causal mechanisms, studies using animals as test subjects can. Fritz Trillmich, in the third keynote presentation, therefore offered insights from studies on animal behaviour. Behavioural plasticity, according to this research, may decrease because of experiences in early life – or even be affected by the mother's experiences. The egg size of certain fish species, for example, seems to be influenced by food abundance the mother experiences early in her life: Females raised in environment with little food supply produce larger eggs than females raised without food limitations.

The keynote presentations were representative of the disciplinary variety of perspectives that we delved into further in the thematic sessions: Twelve individual talks, collected in six such thematic sessions covered topics such as social and genetic influences on behaviour and personality, theoretical models and approaches to understanding the genome-environment interplay, new directions in molecular genetics and the modeling of genetic influences across the lifespan and the development of the human species as well as moral philosophical aspects of social inequality. While social and societal factors on the one hand, and genetic factors on the other hand certainly contribute to social inequalities, their complex interplay through gene-environment interactions and epigenetic processes emerged as a key topic to investigate further during the next months. In bringing together perspectives from sociology, psychology, economics, biology, philosophy, and other disciplines, our group is excited to get to work and we look forward to meeting again for workshops and at the ZiF during the next months.


Tina Baier (Berlin, GER), Meike Bartels (Amsterdam, NED), Rüdiger Bittner (Bielefeld, GER), Wiebke Bleidorn (Davis, USA), Chuansheng Chen (Irvine, USA), Dalton C. Conley (New York, USA), Christopher T. Dawes (New York, USA), Thomas A. DiPrete (New York, USA), Juliana Gottschling (Saarbrücken, GER), Guang Guo (Chapel Hill, USA), Elisabeth Hahn (Saarbrücken, GER), Henry C. Harpending (Salt Lake City, USA), John Hawks (Wisconsin, USA), Jutta Heckhausen (Irvine, USA), Johannes Huinink (Bremen, GER), Wendy Johnson (Edinburgh, GBR), Markus Jokela (Helsinki, FIN), Christian Kandler (Bielefeld, GER), Philipp Koellinger (Amsterdam, NED), Anna Kornadt (Bielefeld, GER), Kristina Krell (Berlin, GER), Robert Krueger (Minneapolis, USA), Volker Lang (Berlin, GER), Paul Lichtenstein (Stockholm, SWE), Carol A. Manning (Charlottesville, USA), Melinda Mills (Oxford, GBR), Jenaer Neiderhiser (University Park, USA), Nancy Pedersen (Stockholm, SWE), Lars Penke (Göttingen, GER), Anna-Lena Peters (Bielefeld, GER), Michael Pluess (London, GER), Wolfgang Prinz (Leipzig, GER), Jonas Rees (Bielefeld, GER), Wiebke Schulz (Berlin, GER), Reinhard Schunck (Bielefeld, GER), Rebecca Sear (London, GBR), Paul Shiels (Glasgow, GBR), Noah Snyder-Mackler (Durham, USA), Frank Spinath (Saarbrücken, GER), Moshe Szyf (Montreal, CAN), Fritz Trillmich (Bielefeld, GER), Eric Turkheimer (Charlottesville, USA), Roland Weierstall (Reichenau, GER), Joachim Wündisch (Düsseldorf, GER), Alexandra Zapko (Bielefeld, GER)

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