We are biosocial


I am a Professor of Sociology of Education and I’ve spent the last 20 years trying to figure out why education is so unequal.

I’ve looked for answers in the relationships between teachers and pupils; in the ways schools organize themselves and are required to act; and in the judgments that teachers make about the children they teach. I’ve always argued that these social aspects of schooling are important because, being social, we can change them and make a difference.

When students, colleagues, and friends have suggested to me that surely at least some of it is natural, instinct, or genetic – girls being good at arts, boys liking non-fiction books, poor kids and black kids doing less well than white and well off kids – I have dodged the question. I have reminded them of our history of colonization and slavery, of women with no property and no vote, of children experiencing trauma or with disabilities being deemed unfit to educate. I have gone back to the social aspects of schooling, and the ethics that we can use to guide what education is and does.

And then along came epigenetics.

Epigenetics is where work in genetics has got to since the human genome was mapped. It asks how genes are made to work, how they get switched on and switched off, and importantly, how our environment influences how genes work during our own lifetimes.

This means that genes are not the fixed components of what and who we are, while the social is a separate set of influences that works on just those bits of us that are changeable. Epigenetics means that, at the level of how genes are expressed, genes are changeable. The biological and the social are not separate after all. We are biosocial.

This year I have been awarded a British Academy Fellowship to look into what this idea of being biosocial might mean for education. I am talking to experts across genetics, epigenetics and molecular biology, as well as sociology and education. I am engaging with the latest research coming out of these fields. And I am trying to put this collection of research and ideas together in a way that lets us get over the long-running ‘nature versus nurture’ debate in education.

This is an academic project, but my goal is to offer the work I am doing to educators and others who work with children and young people so that it can be useful. I aim to post weekly updates on my research as well as share useful resources and links.

The first resources I am sharing are four summaries of research papers and a set of slides that I used last week with a group of educators and researchers at a workshop that was part of the Economic and Social Research Council’s Festival of Social Science. The researchers were from the University of Birmingham and other universities in the region. The educators were from a range of Birmingham schools and had come to the workshop through their membership of Birmingham Education Partnership. I am hope that workshop was just the beginning of the work I will be doing with teachers.