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Tempering the Ambition of Social Science Genomics: Causation, Explanation, and Evidence for Policy

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Bondarenko, Olesya 


This thesis offers a philosophical account of social science genomics (sociogenomics) – an integrative field of study which brings together behavioural genetics and the social sciences. Sociogenomic integration consists in the use of genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and related tools (particularly the so-called polygenic scores) within psychology, sociology, economics, and evidence-based social policy. I propose that the anticipated epistemic and non-epistemic payoffs from this type of integration can be understood in terms of two overarching promises or ambitions: credibility and trustworthiness. For the social sciences, sociogenomic integration is associated with the promise of greater credibility, as some hope that polygenic score-informed research designs will strengthen causal inference about psychological or environmental influences on individual outcomes such as educational attainment, socioeconomic status or well-being. In turn, the infusion of social science frameworks into genetic research on human behavioural differences is meant to increase the latter’s trustworthiness by lending it a more ethically responsible and socially attuned character.

Having characterised the ambitions of the integration in this way, I proceed to examine whether sociogenomic research has been able to realise them. I argue that the payoffs from this type of inquiry have been more modest than its proponents claim. In particular, applications of polygenic scores in the social sciences have suffered from methodological and theoretical shortcomings which cast doubt on their ability to revolutionise causal inference in the relevant domains. Moreover, social science genomics does not fully address the longstanding challenges associated with the causal interpretations of behavioural genetic findings, even though it seeks to turn these challenges into new lines of cross-disciplinary investigation. I also argue that significant progress is still needed to improve the ethical profile of behavioural genetics, and that the involvement of the social sciences should not be seen as a panacea against genetic determinism, reductionism, and fatalism. In fact, as the thesis demonstrates, these problematic views often persist in sociogenomic research in less overt or obvious forms. This suggests that conceptual and theoretical resources of the social sciences have a more limited ability to counteract such views than is typically recognised.





Lewens, Timothy
Alexandrova, Anna


Causation, Explanation, Genomics, Integration, Polygenic scores, Social sciences


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Cambridge Commonwealth, European and International Trust St John's College