Meet the FAS faculty: Ramina Sotoudeh

May 30, 2024

By Abiba Biao 

To nominate an FAS faculty member to be featured in this series, please email fas.dean@yale.edu  

Trying to kick a bad habit or implement a healthy lifestyle change? You may be surprised to learn that these “bad” habits could be a result of genetically predisposed and socially conditioned behaviors, according to researcher Ramina Sotoudeh.  

Sotoudeh is Assistant Professor of Sociology in Yale’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences, with a secondary appointment in Statistics and Data Science.  

Sotoudeh’s fondness for sociology began during her undergraduate studies at NYU Abu Dhabi. Although she initially enrolled as a brain and cognitive science major, Sotoudeh encountered sociology in general education courses and fell in love with its theoretical depth, practical applications, and intellectual versatility. 

“I was drawn to sociological thinking. It is something that is directly relevant to the world we experience. I lived in many different cultural contexts and really felt the importance of social and cultural forces every time I would switch from one context to another” she said. “I think the things that contribute to how we make choices and behave can be summarized into three categories: our attributes, our relationships, and larger institutional structures. Understanding these different components is what inspired me to study sociology, and it is what drives my work today.” 

Sotoudeh aims to take a more complex approach to how and why people take up behaviors. She brings together multiple levels of the social reality – the individual, relational, and institutional – and integrates insights from genetics and social science into her research focusing on health behaviors such as smoking and drug use. While it is widely accepted that traits like height or eye color are hereditary, the genetics of traits that are both socially and biologically influenced are more complex.  

“We often think about nurture and nature as being two separate forces, and we often compare them. For example, ‘Which is more important for this behavior? Is it your genes or the environment?’ But my work looks at the interaction between them. It’s not one or the other, it’s both.” Sotoudeh said. 

“Other people’s genes are also part of your environment. Your environment is who you are friends with, who your parents are, and who your extended kin is. So, in some sense, their biologies are your social environment. This idea of biological forces being separate from your environment, and your environment being separate from biological forces, is just not true.”   

Sotoudeh has a variety of research projects at the intersection of social science and genomics. One of her ongoing projects looks at smoking in American high schools and how anti-smoking policies affect friendships and social groups. Certain polices can bring about “relational externalities,” a concept that she introduces to capture the unintended consequences of institutional policy. 

In Sotoudeh’s study, “relational externalities” refer to policies which inadvertently have impacts on how people relate to one another with regards to smoking. Policies that punish smoking can reinforce smoking as an identity, making smokers more clustered in social networks. After looking at the composition of social groups, Sotoudeh then examined the genetic predisposition of students to nicotine dependence and probability of addiction, to understand what is driving the clustering. 

“Because genes are assigned at birth, we can use them to understand what is happening in social networks. Is it that people are influencing each other to adopt a behavior, or they are becoming friends with each other because they are just more similar to begin with?” 

In this case, she finds that more vulnerable people – those more genetically predisposed to nicotine addiction – are the ones more likely to have other smoker friends, a case where those more prone to smoking are selecting each other as friends, or rather being shunned by others. “School smoking policies are disproportionately affecting people for whom it is harder to quit,” she said. 

“The transition to adulthood is complex: you finish school, you move out of your parents’ house, you get your first-time full job, and hopefully, you become independent of your parents for financial support,” she said. “Reliance on parents for support is even more important now given the cost-of-living crisis worldwide. Young people are struggling to transition to adulthood in the traditional sense.” 

Defining these social predictors can help measure the likelihood of one’s reliance on parental support into adulthood and how it may impact other life outcomes, such as marriage and childrearing. She and her collaborator will also look at these dynamics within family to study which child parents are likely to support, given a limited pool of family resources.  

Sotoudeh’s curiosity and breadth of research topics are embraced at Yale, and her students fill her classroom with ideas during her small seminar-style courses. She has also been welcomed by the Sociology department, where she has attended many intellectual and community-building events hosted on campus. 

“Not only are my colleagues brilliant, but they are also incredibly kind. They wrote to me during my first month here and every day I had lunch with a different person.” 

While Sotoudeh is still balancing teaching and research, she is excited for the future.  

“I really like academic work, particularly the intellectual liberty it affords.”