Mark A. Pachucki, PhD
Childhood obesity is one of the daunting population health challenges of our era. Yet despite the current emphasis on targeting health behaviors such as diet and physical activity patterns in youth, most research efforts don’t account for the fact that children interact with each other. Any parent or teacher of an early adolescent knows that both boys and girls increasingly become aware of social norms within their peer group, and that social hierarchies and cliques begin to be formed during the 10-14 year-old age range. Behaviors are learned, imitated, and take shape in a child’s social context.
Science teaches us that social interaction can also influence our health behaviors. Social scientists working across different stages of the life course – for example, with the Alameda County Study, the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, and the Framingham Heart Study – have shown in different ways that the presence of social support and the configuration of one’s social network can affect a person’s health. In more nuanced ways, scientists have shown that being socially connected to others can influence exercising, smoking, drinking, or seeking health advice.
I came to develop an interest in these issues during graduate training in the Harvard University Department of Sociology. In my Ph.D. thesis (Pachucki 2010), I show how social network properties can help to account for concordances in individuals’ tastes in food, and diffusion of these tastes through a large adult social network (the Framingham Heart Study network) over time. Applying these insights to childhood obesity, the questions I ask are: How do health behaviors cluster in pre-adolescents? Are there some behaviors that diffuse more easily than others through a child’s group of socially-connected peers? How can we leverage our knowledge of children’s social lives to ameliorate health disparities?
One of my formative training experiences was exposure to health inequalities and social influences on our health as a teaching assistant in my mentor and colleague Nicholas Christakis’ core college lecture class, “Life and Death in the U.S.: Medicine and Disease in Social Context.” Equally relevant interests in understanding how individuals interpret and construct their worldviews led to investigations of cultural and ethnic boundaries with Michèle Lamont (Pachucki, Pendergrass and Lamont 2007); of creativity among college students with Jennifer Lena and Steven Tepper at Vanderbilt University (Pachucki, Lena, Tepper 2010); and of the mutual influence of culture and social networks on our lives, with Ron Breiger at the University of Arizona (Pachucki & Breiger 2010).
My new research at UCSF and UC Berkeley School of Public Health with the RWJF Health & Society Scholars program builds upon these interests in health inequalities, social networks, and culture. The Eating and Exercise Network Study (preTEENs) is a major focus of my efforts. Together with Emily Ozer (UC Berkeley), the main goal of the study is to better understand the social dimensions of childhood obesity – to examine how pre-teens interact and make choices about health behaviors in the context of their peer groups. A novel aspect of this study is the use of social sensor technologies to unobtrusively observe children’s interaction networks. While this strategy has been employed to examine high school networks (Salathe 2010) and elementary school networks (Cattuto et al. 2010: p.4), The study is poised for launch during the 2011-12 schoolyear. We’re currently seeking partnerships with middle schools in Alameda, Contra Costa, and San Francisco counties interested in improving their students’ health. In separate projects, I’m investigating how social context and our relationships inform nutrition choices with Barbara Laraia (UCSF). With Bill Satariano (UC Berkeley), I’m investigating social concordance in spousal health behaviors. Projects in development include an examination of the impact of family food purchasing behaviors on child health, and another that looks at the roles played by social support in runners’ performances across training and competitive environments.
In an age when massive amounts of data are so easily obtained, social science and population health are at a crossroads. We’ve entered an era that some have called the age of “computational social science” (Lazer et al. 2009), when experts across clinical and research health fields, sociology, psychology, economics, computer science, engineering, and physics are increasingly working together to tackle the hardest questions of our generation. In doing so, our emerging knowledge is revealing the sometimes illusory nature of disciplinary boundaries and the benefits of collaboration.
Mark lives in Berkeley with his soon-to-be-wife Winslow, who is an experiential educator and administrative coordinator with The Edible Schoolyard at King Middle School.
Cattuto, Ciro, Wouter Van den Broeck, Alain Barrat, Vittoria Colizza, Jean-François Pinton, and Alessandro Vespignani. 2010. “Dynamics of Person-to-Person Interactions from Distributed RFID Sensor Networks.” PLoS ONE 5(7): e11596. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0011596.
David Lazer, Alex (Sandy) Pentland, Lada Adamic, Sinan Aral, Albert Laszlo Barabasi, Devon Brewer, Nicholas Christakis, Noshir Contractor, James Fowler, Myron Gutmann, Tony Jebara, Gary King, Michael Macy, Deb Roy, and Marshall Van Alstyne. 2009. “Life in the network: the coming age of computational social science.” Science. 323(5915): 721–723.
Pachucki MA. A ‘taste’ for tastes: Social influence, food choice, and health behaviors in a social network. Ph.D Thesis. Department of Sociology. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University, 2010:235 pp.
Pachucki, Mark A., Jennifer C. Lena and Steven J. Tepper. 2010. "Creativity narratives among college students: Sociability and everyday creativity." The Sociological Quarterly 51:122–149.
Pachucki, Mark A., Ronald L. Breiger. 2010. "Cultural holes: Beyond relationality in social networks and culture." Annual Review of Sociology, v.36: 205-224.
Pachucki, Mark A., Sabrina Pendergrass, and Michèle Lamont. 2007. "Boundary Processes: Recent Theoretical Developments and New Contributions." Poetics, Vol. 35., pp 331-351.
Salathé, Marcel, Maria Kazandjieva, Jung Woo Lee, Philip Levis, Marcus W. Feldman & James H. Jones. 2010. “A High-Resolution Human Contact Network for Infectious Disease Transmission.” PNAS, 107:51, 22020-22025 (2010).