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Under the Influence of Genetics: How Transdisciplinarity Leads Us to Rethink Social Pathways to Illness1

Indiana University, BloomingtonIndiana University–Purdue University IndianapolisUniversity of Connecticut

This article describes both sociological and genetic theories of illness causation and derives propositions expected under each and under a transdisciplinary theoretical frame. The authors draw propositions from three theories—fundamental causes, social stress processes, and social safety net theories—and tailor hypotheses to the case of alcohol dependence. Analyses of a later wave of the Collaborative Study on the Genetics of Alcoholism reveal a complex interplay of the GABRA2 gene with social structural factors to produce cases meeting DSM/ICD diagnoses. Only modest evidence suggests that genetic influence works through social conditions and experiences. Further, women are largely unaffected in their risk for alcohol dependence by allele status at this candidate gene; family support attenuates genetic influence; and childhood deprivation exacerbates genetic predispositions. These findings highlight the essential intradisciplinary tension in the role of proximal and distal influences in social processes and point to the promise of focusing directly on dynamic, networked sequences that produce different pathways to health and illness.