Universität Bielefeld

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Research Projects

Genetic and Social Causes of Life Chances
ZiF Research Group 2015/16

How do genetic and environmental factors influence the societal position and social mobility of individuals? Which mediating processes are relevant for the realization of such life chances? What are advantages and disadvantages of modern research strategies such as the examination of single alleles, genome-wide association studies or extended twin family designs? Can the advantages of these designs be combined? How could historical or cross-cultural comparisons contribute to our understanding of the interplay between nature and nurture? Do we have to reconsider our notion of social justice in the face of genetic influences on life chances? These and other questions can obviously only be answered by an interdisciplinary team and will be the focus of our research group.

Recent research strongly suggests that the genetic influences on social inequality, social mobility, and social integration are as substantial as those on personality and ability traits. The "blank slate" metaphor still guiding standard social scientific research in large parts should therefore be abandoned in favor of integrating genetic origin into the explanation of life chances. Omitting the genetic part of intergenerational transmission neglects an integral part of the explanation of life chances because genetic differences between individuals do not only add to environmental influences but also co-vary and interact with such social (environmental) influences in manifold ways. Consequently, the consideration of genetic influences by no means negates social influences on advantage or disadvantage.

Our research group brings together internationally leading experts from various disciplines (psychology, sociology, biology, genetics, medicine, economics, philosophy, and political sciences). Together, we study theoretical models and methodological approaches that can help understand influences and interactions of nature- and nurture-factors. A second focus of our group will be the psychological, biological, and societal processes mediating between genes and life chances. Finally, our group is concerned with ethical-normative and socio-political implications of research results in the area of genetic influences and their connection with societal conditions.

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

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Fortschrittskolleg Industrie 4.0
Gestaltung von flexiblen Arbeitswelten

Project T1: Flexible Arbeitsprozesse
Project T1.4: Gesellschaftliche Einbettung der Beschäftigungsbeziehung und ihre Folgen

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"Early Childhood Education and Care Quality and Child Development of Twins"
funded by the Jacobs Foundation

Principal investigators: Martin Diewald, Katharina Spieß, Pia Schober

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"Twinlife": Unique Study on Genetic and Social Causes of Social Inequalities

Aim of the study

Empirical research in behavioral genetics has convincingly shown that the vast majority of individual-level outcomes are genetically influenced to a substantial degree. This does not only apply to “proximal” phenotypic properties like health and personality, but also includes more “distal” ones such as education, demographic events, and social inequalities. Moreover, it is both logical and has been empirically demonstrated that whole genome effects do not necessarily become smaller as we move from psychological traits to actions and outcomes. There is growing agreement among the disciplines that this finding constitutes a major advance in social science research, calling into question widely used approaches that treat interindividual differences at birth as a black box and that assume—against all evidence—that human beings are “blank slates”.
These considerations apply not least to social inequalities. How do genes and environmental factors interact to produce them over the life span? The title of a new longitudinal study to answer these questions is "Genetic and Social Causes of Life Chances. Establishing a Genetically Informative, Longitudinal Study of the Life Course and Individual Development (TWINLIFE)". The aim of the study is to learn more about the development of social inequalities. Social inequalities are studied by explicitly taking into account not only social mechanisms but also genetic differences between individuals as well as the covariation and interaction of both types of influences. Social inequality is an inherently multidimensional phenomenon. Relating to a broader understanding of life course inequalities as age-graded capabilities, the study refers to several life domains to include correspondent indicators in our research design. Specifically, we study social inequalities in five areas of life:

  1. Education and success in the educational system, in addition the development of self-perceived abilities and of cognitive and noncognitive skills;
  2. career and success in the labor market: employment participation, earnings, status, occupations, and career trajectories;
  3. integration and participation in social, cultural and political life: partnership formation, parenthood, social support networks, association membership and participation, and political behavior;
  4. perceived quality of life, perceived autonomy, and realized opportunities for action with respect to heterogeneous preferences; and
  5. behavioral problems and deviant behavior, such as physical aggression, disobedience, lying, vandalism, theft, alcohol and substance abuse, as well as mental disorders.

Moreover, two important overarching but intertwined topics of life course inequality research can be addressed in a way that the supposed contributions of genetic and social causes can be disentangled: (1) interdependencies between the five domains of social inequalities in the form of spillover, conflict, or compensation; and (2) mechanisms leading to cumulative (dis)advantage. The interaction and covariance between genome and environment appear to play a role here as well. Aside from IQ, health is such a heavily genetically as well as socially influenced candidate characteristic, possibly playing another important role. Though it is not one of the life domains explicitly highlighted in the study as one out of five inequality domains, it is additionally included, though not based on medical examinations.


Theoretical background

The mechanisms contributing to social inequalities will be studied in an interdisciplinary way. Genetic variation is obviously a major source of individual differences in reaction to social conditions which – if unconsidered – lead not only to less complete but also to less correct explanations. The attempt to take genetic sources of variance into account in social scientific theories constitutes a significant advance because it brings into focus the dynamic interplay between genetic and social influences on social phenomena and combines the toolbox of sociological theory and methodology with genetic explanations. Genetic and social explanations are not mutually exclusive but highly intertwined. Gene-environment interaction and gene-environment covariance are important for many social phenomena. They can be taken into account, if measures of environmental characteristics are collected. Based on these insights, and equipped with a large number of representative households participating in the study, new avenues for explaining social phenomena are opened. The impact of social experiences, contexts, and structural as well as institutional properties of the society on behavior is heavily dependent on genetically influenced individual characteristics and their impact on individual self-selection into social contexts at a network, organizational, and societal level. If it is not taken into account that genes can influence the environments persons live in either directly through persons’ behaviors or indirectly via selection (referred to as genome-environment covariance), environmental impact is mistakenly interpreted as pure social cause, although this social cause is co-determined by genetic influences. Many putative indicators of the environment are highly heritable. In other words, assessing and controlling for these genetic influences makes it possible to produce more correct estimates of environmental effects that actually are exogenous. Acknowledging genetically influenced differences between individuals allows for shedding light on the fact that individuals develop differently in response to similar conditions, and why they do so. The genome affects human behavior in the first instance through internal processes. There is no direct link between the genome on the one hand and income, education, fertility, or divorce on the other, although all of these characteristics are genetically influenced to a substantial degree. Among the prominent mediating constructs are personality characteristics such as the Big Five and personality traits studied in behavioral economics such as self-direction, risk aversion, time preferences, and cognitive ability. These constructs are thought to be relevant because they guide individual action. However, this view should be supplemented by the perspective of the selection of individuals by collective actors, as in the case of recruitment into work organizations. These selections are not only oriented towards formal education and training plus ascriptive characteristics, but towards individual characteristics that are genetically influenced as well. The study is closely linked to life course research at the side of social inequalities as explanandum (see above). Over and above the mere fact that it is a longitudinal study, Twinlife refers to central life course ideas of mechanisms generating social inequalities but modifies them in a characteristic way by including genetic variation. First, the family of origin as the usual starting point of studying social inequalities over the life course is substituted by interindividual genetic variation. Second, it does not deny but decomposes the relevance of intergenerational transmission of advantage and disadvantage as a complex interplay of social and genetic transmission. Third, the concept of risk exposure and risk compensation, usually related to life course events and compensatory state interventions, is enlarged, not replaced, by looking also at genetic propensities for positive and negative characteristics and behaviors, and social influences to prevent or enhance the positive ones, and those furthering or preventing the negative ones.


Study Design

Disentangling genetic and social causes requires a longitudinal design informed by state-of-the-art life course research in the fields of sociology and psychology, because the interplay develops and changes over the lifespan, dependent on the accumulation of social experiences as well as biological development and change processes.
To achieve a sufficient number of cases and a sufficient window of observation, a representative sample of 4,000 twin pairs living in Germany will be drawn. In an extended twin-family study design, the twins’ parents, siblings, as well as the older twins’ partners will be interviewed as well. The study will use a mixed-method design, with face-to-face interviews within the household, and telephone interviews, alternating from year to year. Respondents are asked to complete psychological tests and questionnaires, and provide detailed reports about their life course trajectories and their environments.
The study covers the age range from early childhood (five years) to adulthood (31 years) and longitudinally examines four age cohorts over a period of eight years (cross-sequential study design, see the following table). Altogether, the cross-sequential, behavioral genetics study is set to last twelve years.


Table: Main measurement occasions in the cross-sequential study design


Measurement occasion


born in:





















School enrollment




Secondary school


Change school




Secondary school


Change school


Appren-ticeship /Change school


Appren-ticeship /Change school




Appren-ticeship /Change school


End School / Appren-ticeship / studies


End School / Appren-ticeship / studies


End School / Appren-ticeship / studies / entry labor market




End School / Appren-ticeship / studies


Entry labor market / Additional training on the job


entry labor market / Additional training on the job


Additional training on the job



In the longer run it is planned to additionally collect molecular genetic data. In contrast to quantitative genetics, molecular genetic research attempts to identify specific genetically determined biological processes influencing behavior. For two reasons, however, this is not scheduled for the first wave of the assessment: First, we want to minimize panel attrition in the critical early stages. We expect that the increased level of trust between interviewer and interviewee after having participated in the study for some time will increase our chances of achieving a higher participation rate. Second, to date, molecular genetic linkage, association, and even genome-wide association studies have yielded few substantive and replicable results for the traits under study.


The data as common good

The data collected by the study will be made available to the scientific community as a common good as soon as possible through an own Research Data Centre, providing the research community with a new set of high-quality data that do not exist elsewhere.



Prof. Dr. Martin Diewald, Bielefeld University Faculty of Sociology
Telephone: +49 521 106-4309; or through the Press Office: +49 521 106-4170
Email: martin.diewald@uni-bielefeld.de

Prof. Dr. Rainer Riemann, Bielefeld University Department of Psychology
Telephone: +49 521 106-4529; or through the Press Office: +49 521 106-4170
Email: Rainer.Riemann@uni-bielefeld.de

Prof. Dr. Frank M. Spinath, Saarland University Department of Psychology
Telephone: +49 681 302 64079; or through the Press Office: +49 681 302-2601
Email: f.spinath@mx.uni-saarland.de

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SFB 882 "From Heterogeneities to Inequalities"

Project A1: Social Closure and Hierarchization: Contextual Conditions of Unequal Developmental Opportunities in Early Phases of Life
Project B3: Interactions Between Capabilities in Work and Private Life: A Study of Employees in Different Work Organizations

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Conducting graduate surveys and improving alumni services for enhanced strategic management and quality improvement (finanziert durch die Europäische Union)

Conducting graduate surveys and improving alumni services for enhanced strategic management and quality improvement

CONGRAD (Conducting graduate surveys and improving alumni services for enhanced strategic management and quality improvement) is a Tempus IV Joint Project within the period from October 2011 until October 2014.

TEMPUS Joint Projects contribute to the cooperation and network-building in the field of higher education. They aim to increase the exchange of knowledge and know-how between EU universities and higher education institutions in the TEMPUS partner countries in order to promote the reform and modernisation of higher education systems.

CONGRAD will address the need of higher education institutions in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina to improve their institutional strategic management and self-evaluation capacities by the establishment of a Graduate Contacts Collection System and the implementation of regular Graduate Surveys.

The CONGRAD Project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This website reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.


Project Description

The CONGRAD project’s wider objective is to enable higher education institutions (HEIs) in Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina to continuously conduct graduate surveys for the purpose of enhancing study offerings and facilitating permanent modernisation processes. CONGRAD is expected to contribute to the improvement of institutional self-evaluation processes by collecting systematic and reliable information on the links between study offerings and subsequent employment of graduates, as well as enable the evidence-based evaluation of higher education reforms and curricular changes in the last decade. Taking into account previous study conditions and the occupational career of graduates, CONGRAD aims for a general insight in country specific conditions of the transition from higher education to labour market, and shall enable partner country HEIs to make evidence-based strategic decisions.

In more specific terms, CONGRAD is expected to result in the implementation of a systematic data collection system about alumni at partner countries’ HEIs. An initial graduate survey will be conducted: data collection, verification and analysis will be followed by the interpretation of findings and the production of reports. Strategic management workshops based on the reports will be held in each partner countries’ HEI. Additionally, a regional conference and an expert workshop will be organised. CONGRAD results will be exploited through the development of an action plan for future graduate surveys including other HEIs in the Western Balkans. Dissemination will be ensured by the project website, career guidance services and events for new alumni, as well as open media events organised at partner countries’ HEIs. A regional conference, a project closing seminar and a major publication on the results of the initial graduate survey will also provide for the dissemination of results. The CONGRAD project will be subject to systematic quality control and monitoring.



CONGRAD unites fourteen higher education institutions and one independent research institute from seven countries. The members of the CONGRAD Consortium are eight Serbian partners, one Montenegrin partner, two Bosnian partners and four EU partners from Germany, Czech Republic, Spain and Finland.


Bielefeld University, Germany
Faculty of Sociology

Project Coordinator: Prof. Dr. Martin Diewald
Project Manager: Jana Nöller, M.A. Soz., MA


Charles University in Prague, Czech Republic
Universidad Politécnica de Valencia, Spain
University of Jyväskylä, Finland
University of Belgrade, Serbia
University of Novi Sad, Serbia
University of Kragujevac, Serbia
Singidunum University, Serbia
Subotica Tech – College of Applied Sciences, Subotica, Serbia
School of Higher Technical Professional Education, Niš, Serbia
Higher Business Technical School, Užice, Serbia
Centre for Education Policy, Belgrade, Serbia
University of Montenegro, Montenegro
University of Banja Luka, Bosnia and Herzegovina
University of Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina


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Misconduct and swindle during academic studies. Individual and Organisational conditions (with Sebastian Sattler, funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research)

German title: „Fehlverhalten und Betrug bei der Erbringung von Studienleistungen: Individuelle und organisatorisch-strukturelle Bedingungen“

Aim: The FAIRUSE-project models strategies of students with regard to changing study conditions. Adverse learn and teaching environments can result in students trying to reach their study goals by means like plagiarism, copying in exams or other undesired aids. This can be regarded as an inference of the teaching and learning processes. Therefore it is essential to gather knowledge about the underlying mechanisms of decision making with respect to individual and organizational characteristics. Main research questions:

  • Which choices concerning learning strategies and gaining study achievements are made?
  • How do these choices affect the process of learning?
  • Under which individual and organisational structural factors of study management and teaching are students willing to make choices that may result in negative consequences on the long run?
  • Which recommendations can be derived for the individual and organisational structural conception of teaching and its professionalization?
  • How can students be supported in efficiently crafting their own learning processes?

To answer these questions three combined longitudinal studies, which are conducted in various subjects across different universities over two years:

  • Student panel
  • Academic staff panel
  • Analysis of the organisational structural context.

On the basis of the resulting insights support actions directed at the professionalization of the teaching staff are to be developed. FAIRUSE therefore fills out a theoretical and methodical blank spot in German research on higher education and offers space for practical development.

Leader: Sebastian Sattler and Prof. Dr. Martin Diewald

Institution: Faculty of Sociology of the Bielefeld University

Co-operation: Prof. Dr. Anja Göritz of the University of Wuerzburg - Psychology II

Methods: Online Panel Survey

Financing: Federal Ministry of Education and Research (FMER) (BMBF)

Duration: 2009 – 2012

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Since 2007
Students and alumni Survey of the Bielefeld University (funded by Bielefeld University)

Employment relationships as social exchange (with Hanns-Georg Brose and Anne Goedicke, University of Duisburg-Essen; funded by the German Science Foundation)

International conference on „Transformation of social inequalities and welfare development in Eastern and Middle Eastern Europe”
St. Petersburg, Russia, September 21-23, 2006 (Transformation sozialer Ungleichheiten und Wohlfahrtsentwicklung in Mittelost-und Osteuropa)

21.-23. September 2006

International conference: "Transformation of Social Inequalities and Welfare Development in Central and Eastern Europe"

Ort: St.-Petersburg

The international conference on postsocialist transitions analyzes changes in social inequalities and the welfare state in Eastern and Eastern Central Europe after about fifteen years of postsocialist transformation. Though the focus of the conference is on processes in these regions, it deals also with questions of how these processes relate to developments visible also in Western societies, such as globalization and Europeanization. Researchers from several countries present insights into patterns, causes and consequences, reflect lessons of comparative research for understanding commonalities of social change as well as opportunities for shaping diverging pathways, and discuss necessary joint efforts for future research on social structure and social inequality in postsocialist countries.

Interdependencies of social networks in family, kinship, and work (with Frieder Lang, Psychology, University of Halle-Wittenberg; funded by the German Science Foundation)

DFG-Projekt (1. Förderphase August 2004 - Juli 2006)

Diewald, Martin / Lang, Frieder R.: Interdependenzen zwischen beruflichen und verwandtschaftlichen Netzwerken im Kontext der Familiengründung und -entwicklung
Universität Bielefeld; Universität Halle

Das interdisziplinäre Projekt ist in das Schwerpunktprogramm "Beziehungs- und Familienentwicklung (SPP 1162)" eingebunden, das von der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG) finanziert wird und sich mit den sozialen Bedingungen der Partnerschaft und Familiengründung im frühen Erwachsenenalter beschäftigt (http://www.pairfam.uni-bremen.de/). Es beruht auf einer Kooperation zwischen der Martin-Luther Universität (Prof. Dr. Frieder Lang, Institut für Psychologie) und der Universität Bielefeld (Prof. Dr. Martin Diewald, Fakultät für Soziologie).

Das Projekt beschäftigt sich aus handlungstheoretischer Perspektive mit der Frage, in welcher Weise die individuelle Netzwerkgestaltung, insbesondere im Zusammen- und Wechselspiel von familialen und beruflichen Netzwerken zur Bewältigung wichtiger Entwicklungsaufgaben in der Partnerschaft, Familiengründung und Generationenverantwortung beiträgt. Wir nehmen an, dass verwandtschaftliche und berufliche Beziehungen durch Interdependenz gekennzeichnet sind. Die Interdependenz von Netzwerkbeziehungen beruht auf drei Arten der Netzwerkgestaltung: Konkurrenz, Kompensation bzw. Substitution und Generalisierung. Diese Interdependenzen sind ein Ergebnis der in sozialstrukturelle Bedingungen und normative Bezugsrahmen eingebetteten motivationalen Handlungssteuerung des Individuums. Zentrale Fragestellung des Projektes ist, in welcher Weise sich Netzwerkinterdependenzen in frühen Lebensphasen auf Partnerschaft, Familiengründung und Generationenverantwortung auswirken. Unter anderem gehen wir von der Annahme aus, dass Konkurrenz- und negative Generalisierungsprozesse frühe Phasen der Familienentwicklung inhibieren, während sich Kompensations- und Substitutionsprozesse in familialen Netzwerken förderlich auswirken.

Diewald, Martin Prof. Dr.
Lang, Frieder R. Prof. Dr.
Wendt, Verena Dipl.-Psych.

The destandardization of employment and its consequences for social integration and social inequalities
(funded by the Fritz-Thyssen-Foundation)

Die Erwerbsarbeit und mit ihr die gesamte bisherige Arbeitsgesellschaft sind nach allgemeiner Einschätzung im Wandel begriffen. Die Zeichen stehen auf weniger Beschäftigungssicherheit und weniger Kontinuität im Berufsleben, dafür mehr Tempo, höhere Komplexitäts- und Flexibilitätsanforderungen und mehr Eigenverantwortung. Es ist allerdings immer noch sehr umstritten, wie weitreichend diese Tendenzen tatsächlich sind, welche Beschäftigtengruppen davon betroffen sind, ob dadurch alte Arbeitsmarktungleichheiten akzentuiert oder neue geschaffen werden. Zur Klärung dieser Fragen beizutragen ist das eine Ziel des laufenden Projekts.

Zum anderen geht es um die Frage, inwiefern die Destandardisierung von Erwerbsformen und Erwerbsverläufen mit der Pluralisierung von Lebensformen und Lebensstilen zusammenhängt. Insbesondere geht es um die Frage, inwiefern die von manchen Autoren geäußerten Befürchtungen zutreffen, dass sich zunehmende Leistungs- und Flexibilitätsanforderungen sowie Unsicherheiten im Erwerbsleben negativ auf das Eingehen, die Qualität und die Stabilität persönlicher Beziehungen auswirken. Empirische Untersuchungen hierzu lagen hierzu bisher jedoch fast gar nicht vor.

Bisher konnten die Untersuchungen im Rahmen des Projekts bereits folgende Klärungen zu diesen Fragen beitragen. Sie fußen auf Analysen bereits vorhandener Längsschnittdatendatensätze, und zwar des Sozio-oekonomischen Panels (SOEP) sowie des Familiensurvey 2000:

  1. Die Ausbreitung von Unsicherheit und Unstetigkeit in der Arbeitswelt vollzieht sich wesentlich langsamer und selektiver als in der Öffentlichkeit vielfach dargestellt, und sie setzen später ein als behauptet, nämlich erst in den (späten) 1990er Jahren.
  2. Neue Unsicherheiten betreffen vor allem die unteren Beschäftigtengruppen und tangieren auch verstärkt die bereits länger Beschäftigten, die im Kontext von innerbetrieblichen Karriereleitern und Senioritätsregeln bisher eher auf der sicheren Seite standen. Vorhandene Unterschiede zwischen Männer und Frauen gleichen sich weder an, noch driften sie weiter auseinander. Wichtige Ausnahme ist die leicht zunehmende Teilzeitbeschäftigung von Männern bzw. die zunehmende Vollzeitbeschäftigung von Frauen.
  3. Unsichere Erwerbskarrieren beeinträchtigen die Integration in Familie und Freundschaft nicht generell. Starke Arbeitsplatzunsicherheit und (Dauer-) Arbeitslosigkeit verzögern jedoch zumindest die Familiengründung von Männern in erheblichem Ausmaß und machen sie insgesamt weniger wahrscheinlich.
  4. Bei einem geringen oder mittleren Ausmaß an Unsicherheit in Kombination mit persönlichen Ressourcen und Kompetenzen sind sogar kompensatorische Reaktionen zu beobachten, d.h.: Die Integration in stabile primäre Beziehungen in Familie und Verwandtschaft ist in diesem Fall sogar stärker als bei den sicher Beschäftigten.

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-> Staff and previous doctoral thesis and diploma thesis