Columbia University

Faculty of Arts and Sciences

ADD Health: Sociologist Peter Bearman on his Landmark Adolescent Health Study

An interview with Peter Bearman

Dr. Peter Bearman, along with Drs. Barbara Entwisle, Kathleen Mullan Harris, Ronald Rindfuss, and Richard Udry, were recently awarded the 2016 Golden Goose Award for their work in developing the Add Health study. The award aims to "recognize the tremendous human and economic benefits of federally funded research by highlighting examples of seemingly obscure studies that have led to major breakthroughs and resulted in significant societal impact."

In 1987, Dr. Bearman and a team of researchers at UNC Chapel Hill designed the “American Teenage Study.” The aim of the study, which would be funded by the NIH, was to answer important questions about adolescent behaviors with specific emphasis on sexual/risky behaviors, but it was met with substantial political opposition. The team’s proposal sparked arguments among Congress and conservative communities, as it seemed controversial to focus on the sexual behaviors of teenagers. Only months after the grant was awarded, the Secretary of Health and Human Services took unprecedented action and rescinded the project’s funding.

In 1994, a new team led by Bearman and Udry began developing a new project based on the study formerly known as the “American Teenage Study.” Their new study, the “National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health” (or Add Health), was selected by the NIH as the best proposal for meeting the goals of the congressionally mandated study on adolescent health.

It is impossible to talk about the societal and scientific impacts of Add Health without first acknowledging the obstacles your team faced while initially developing the American Teenage Study. Could you speak about how the challenges of the American Teenage Study gave way to the development of Add Health, which has had such an incredible influence on the conversation around adolescent health?

After the American teenage Study was defunded our team split up; Rindfuss and Entwisle went on to commit their energies to an amazing study of migration in Thailand, while Udry and I decided to use an opportunity provided by Congress’ mandating that there be a study of adolescent health to expand and reconceptualize ATS and transform it into what became Add Health. The experience of being defunded, plus our own fearlessness and the sense that we had nothing to lose led us to change the design in critical ways, doubling the sample, focusing on capturing data from schools where everyone could be interviewed, developing whole new areas of investigation, especially tied to romantic partnerships, and of course -- health.  In addition, fear that our questionnaires would once again be read on the Senate floor and used as a vehicle for subsequent defunding led us to develop the first national computer assisted survey, which meant that the quality of sensitive data we collected was much higher than before. Ironically, In the long run we benefited from being defunded because many of the unique features of Add Health were developed after ATS and would not have happened without the freedom Udry and I felt to design the most radically innovative study we could imagine.

Today, Add Health has been recognized as “the most important adolescent health research study ever conducted.” It is hard to imagine that this study—which provided a revolutionary step forward for scientific studies on human health—almost didn’t happen. Its impact is a testament to the importance of federal funding for research in the social sciences.  How do you think the social sciences would be different today without Add Health’s contributions to the field? What would be lost in terms of our understanding of adolescent health?

Add Health really did revolutionize social science and it did so in three major ways. First, by insisting that if we were to understand behavior and the consequences of individual behaviors for health we had to radically redesign our studies so as to deeply embed individuals into the contexts in which they lived and to collect data describing those contexts (partnerships, peers, families, schools, neighborhoods) not from self-report but from others’ reports. Second, by collecting amazingly detailed social network data for multiple kinds of relationships, from sexual to platonic, we were able to show how social connections of all sorts influence health. Add Health showed that one could capture the networks in which we are embedded and that they matter enormously, for our health, for our attitudes, and for our actions and their consequences. It is fair to say that Add Health induced the network revolution in social and demographic studies. And third, by collecting genomic data so as to enable new understandings of how genetic expression is driven by environmental context. Putting all of those elements together has made new kinds of social science that was simply unimaginable at the time possible. So now our social science is just much more penetrative than it was previously.

The Add Health study was comprised of over twenty years of longitudinal social, behavioral, environmental, biological, and genetic data. Could you describe your own role in Add Health, and how it may have changed over the course of the study? Did you find that your motivations for conducting the study changed during those twenty years?

Dick Udry did all the heavy lifting on Add Health with respect to contact with the Federal government, securing funding and building the giant consortium of supporters at the NIH. Without these efforts we simply never would have had a study.  I wrote many of the questions for the Wave 1 survey, designed the network elements, and the special modules, with the exception of the genomics and gender role modules, which were Udry’s special focus. I wrote the first drafts of the early Add Health papers that described how connections mattered for adolescent health and led the network core. Over time my role expanded and by the time the third wave came around I led most of the design efforts and writing.  After that I moved to Columbia and Kathy Harris led Add Health into the 4th and 5th waves, which is really a remarkable achievement and will solidify Add Health as a national resource because it takes our subjects into adulthood. The children of Add Health are now having children!

In your opinion, what was the most significant discovery you and your team made as a result of the study?

Add Health is associated with thousands of peer review articles, books, talks, and presentations and many of them have been foundational. Now twenty years after we released the first data sets more than one Add Health paper gets published a day! So it is impossible to identify the single most important paper. The primary messages of Add Health are, first, that connections count for health. Peers matter, but in ways we tend not to recognize. Peer influence is important and more often than not that influence is positive, not negative.  Parents can make a difference for adolescent health by being connected with their children, having dinner with them, knowing their friends, spending time doing things with them.  The second important message of Add Health is that the massive structural inequality in our society is bad for health; that the fundamental causes of poor health and poor decisions arise from, and are sustained by, inequality. If we want to make a difference in health outcomes we have to address inequality. The third message of Add Health is that genetics matters for health less than we think it does. The fourth message of Add Health, and perhaps the most important message of all, is that kids and young adults more often than not make decisions that are good for their health.

How important is it that Add Health was awarded the Golden Goose Prize?

I think it's hugely important because it happens at the same moment that the National Science Foundation is under attack by the Republican controlled Congress that is seeking to block research in the social and environmental sciences. The irony here is that a similar anti-intellectual Republican led assault on science led to the defunding of the American Teenage Study, even though the main results of Add Health turned out to show how important family and community -- values that were purportedly central to those same legislators -- are for young people. That a social science project once widely feared by Congressmen and Congresswomen of a previous generation whose commitment to intolerant political ideologies led them to fear science is awarded the Golden Goose Prize should provide an opportunity for all of our current legislators to rethink the wisdom of all politically motivated challenges to science. One only needs to think of the distortion of science in the former Soviet Union to recognize just how damaging political intervention is for the health of a country. Hopefully the prize will motivate renewed Congressional commitment to all science. We certainly need that in order to achieve the just-society goals we aspire to.

You were recently awarded a 2016 Guggenheim Fellowship to support your current project, Rocky Road Day. It is remarkable that you’ve described it as your longest-running project since Add Health spanned over two decades. Could you describe what you’re working on now, and perhaps talk about your experience working on specific projects for extended periods of time?

I have been working very slowly on Rocky Road Day since June 2, 2005 behind deep engagement with all sorts of other projects from understanding the increased prevalence of autism, lynching in the deep South, violence in Northern Ireland, and most recently identifying the neural signatures of social relations among many others. Rocky Road Day is a history of the United States over the 20th century. The title comes from the fact that June 2nd is National Rocky Road Day. January 19 is National Popcorn day; July 15th is Tapioca Pudding Day (incidentally, Tapioca Pudding was Lyndon Johnson’s favorite desert). In America, every day is some kind of special day.  The selection of the date is random.  It has no meaning, but it gives me an opportunity to explore what more than 50 years ago, Wright Mills called the sociological imagination – understanding how to connect our society to our biography -- to see how the macro-structures in which we live shape us, and to see how our choices shape the macro-structure. Rocky Road Day is about the lives of those who lived in the United States during the 20th century, and as such it is a history of the 20th century, built up from those lives, not from an arbitrary standpoint in this present, but from their standpoint, from their lives looking backwards.

Biography

Peter Bearman is Director of INCITE, Cole Professor of the Social Sciences, and Co-Director of the Health & Society Scholars Program, OHMA, and the Mellon Interdisciplinary Graduate Training Program at Columbia University. A specialist in network analysis, he co-designed the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (Add Health). A recipient of the NIH Director's Pioneer Award in 2007, Bearman investigated the social determinants of the autism epidemic. He has also conducted research in historical sociology, including Relations into Rhetorics: Local Elite Social Structure in Norfolk, England, 1540-1640 (Rutgers, 1993). He is the author of Doormen (University of Chicago Press, 2005). His current work focuses on the neural signatures of social relations among other projects; a study of the technical government in Tunisia following the Arab Spring, labor migration to the Gulf region, and Rocky Road Day, a novel history of America. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences and a 2015 winner of the Columbia University Presidential Teaching Award.

Interview compiled by Kristi DiLallo