Social work has long advocated a biopsychosocial perspective in understanding and treating individual and social problems. The bioecological model, which provides a framework that accounts for biological and ecological factors to understand complex processes and contexts that affect behavior, is one of the most prevalent models used in social work. Despite social work’s longstanding advocacy for using a biopsychosocial model, the psychosocial domains have traditionally received the most attention while the biological domain is largely neglected.
The evolution of new fields of scientific study (e.g., social neuroscience) aimed at integrating biological and social research to improve our understanding of human behavior has advanced dramatically in recent years. Traditional social science disciplines, however, have moved at different paces to incorporate biosocial concepts into their research. It seems that while the discipline of social work uses biosocial research to inform theory and practice, social work researchers seem slow to employ biosocial research designs. Some social work scholars have called for increased integration of biological and social research and proposed using more complex interactional and multifactorial approaches that integrate knowledge and methods across disciplines to propose, test, and refine the bioecological and person-in-environment models used by social workers. We argue that to make significant advances to realizing the Grand Challenges, social work should employ a biosocial research approach to not only advance the person-in-environment perspective but to also better isolate the environmental mechanisms that can be effectively targeted for change.
The purpose of this symposium is to bring greater awareness of the need and value of biosocial research in social work and present examples of biosocial research conducted by social work scholars. The first paper in this symposium is a systematic review examining the prevalence and impact of biosocial research in social work journals to gauge the extent to which biosocial research is entering into the discourse and knowledge base of the social work discipline. Our findings indicate that there is sparse biosocial research being published in social work journals. We will discuss potential barriers, opportunities, and strategies to engaging in biosocial research to more fully inform social work theory and practice.
Two additional papers in this symposium report findings of biosocial research conducted by social work scholars to illuminate the relationships between inescapable physiological needs (sleep and hunger) and how the lack of meeting these needs are associated with violence. Both studies, to our knowledge, are among the largest investigations of the relationships between these basic physiological processes and violence. The first study identifies a positive association between poor sleep and reactive violence among African-Americans. Our results suggest that reducing discrimination may be one pathway toward not only reducing stress but improving sleep and thus reducing forms of reactive aggression. The second investigation reveals that childhood reports of food deprivation are associated with violence in adulthood even after controlling for several confounding variables. Similar to the aforementioned study, these results suggest another important biosocial pathway that can be targeted to reduce violence.