Recent innovations in neuroimaging, gene sequencing, and gene editing technologies are providing unprecedented insights into the biological foundations of human consciousness and social behavior, as well as providing a deeper understanding of how the physical, social, and cultural environment shape these foundations. Many claim these insights have the power to revolutionize the accuracy, precision, and explanatory power of the social sciences, while others profoundly disagree. While the growing body of empirical evidence increasingly supports these proponents’ claims, the critics and skeptics nonetheless make many valid points that proponents have yet to address adequately. My current research focuses on developing a novel solution to these theoretical and methodological debates.
One specific criticism that is often leveled against transdisciplinary research is claim that integrating the life and social sciences is impossible by definition because biologists, psychologist, and sociologists engage in ‘fundamentally different types of science.’ To address this claim, my forthcoming book with K. Ryan Proctor presents a definition of science broad enough to include genetics, neuroscience, psychology, and other social sciences under a single framework. Based on this definition, we outline a five-step heuristic for integrating biological and social science research. Specifically, the heuristic explains how to:
identify the basic parts of any scientific theory;
translate discursive theories into mechanistic models that are more amicable to theoretical integration and empirical testing;
define a theoretical model’s biological, psychological and social dimensions;
use mathematics to model the dynamics of each level of analysis; and
methodologically integrate the dynamics occurring within and between levels of analysis in a coherent way.
Critics also frequently claim that current biologically-informed social science theory fails to explain how genetic, neurological, psychological and sociological processes act in toto to generate a behavioral outcome. My book with K. Ryan Proctor addresses this criticism by explicitly detailing how these intra and inter-level processes unfold over time. Specific sections identify the basic parts and organized activities characterizing the genetic, neurological, psychological and social levels of analysis, as well as illustrate how each set of coordinated process feed-up and down to influence other processes.
Current Primary Research Program
I am currently using the above heuristic to integrate three major micro-level criminological theories of deviant behavior: general strain theory, social learning theory, and social control theory. I focus my attention on these three specific theories for two reasons. First, empirical evidence in support of each argument is decidedly mixed. I maintain that neuroscience and behavioral genetics are uniquely qualified to explain why this is, as well to identify how to eliminate this problem. Second, and in spite of a long-recognized need and numerous previous attempts, criminologists have yet to integrate these three theories into a cohesive framework. The main reason for this is due to what are widely perceived to be incompatible assumptions about human nature. My research shows how modern behavioral genetics, neuroscience, and psychology research eliminates this obstacle by creating a single standardized set of assumptions.
Current Secondary Research Program
My second area of research focuses on translating my neurosociological interpretation of general strain theory into a model that can explain how experiences of various social inequalities ‘get under the skin’ to affect people's health and behavior. Toward this end, I am using the model to identify and describe:
the biological processes by which the experience of social rejection, injustice, prejudice, and/or goal blockage generate negative emotion;
the neurocognitive mechanisms underlying the coping strategies individuals use to regulate the experience of negative emotion;
how and why an individual’s ability to engage in these processes is affected by variation in the underlying biological substrate’s physical properties; and
how chronic allostatic loads, obesity, mental illness, and age alter the biological substrate enabling healthy coping strategies (thus increasing the probability that an experience of negative emotion will lead to self-destructive coping strategies).