A Critical Examination of the Impact of Social Stratification and the Environment on Brain Development and Mental Health


Unprecedented economic inequality has motivated scholarly work in disciplines as diverse as sociology, public health, psychology, and economics. In doing so, much of this research has converged on what may be considered “optimal” indicators of socioeconomic status (SES), such as educational attainment, income, and occupation. However, a much less considered aspect of this research and the use of these indicators has been the notion that although this research has the opportunity for widespread impact, without critically acknowledging its impact within a social and cultural context, this research may contribute to existing narratives that perpetuate and support the marginalization of historically underrepresented groups and further reinforce structural inequality. This dissertation will review a few frameworks that aim to address the multi-level factors related to social stratification that may impact health, behavior, and development beyond the traditional indicators of SES. Here I propose a new modified framework that includes considerations for scientific research as a ”values-laden and situated” endeavor that should avoid interpretations that foster ”biosocial determinism,” and examines the impact of the social, built, and natural environment. Guided by the interpretive frameworks of social epidemiology, environmental neuroscience, critical race theory, and critical neuroscience, this dissertation will outline my framework and apply it as an interpretative lens for psychology and neuroscience research (Chapter 2). I will then present two studies that illustrate the effects of social stratification: One in which social, built, and environmental factors explain variations in cognitive performance and cortical morphometry in a sample of 8-10 year olds from the first Annual Curated Release of the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development (ABCD) dataset (Chapter 3). In the next chapter I examine social, natural/built, and community factors, including health care utilization, and how they are related to variations in mental health outcomes using data from the Chicago Community Adult Health Study (CCAHS; Chapter 4). Together, these chapters illustrate a framework through which future interdisciplinary research endeavors can characterize elements of an individual’s social and physical environment while maintaining a critical perspective that minimizes the harm done to marginalized groups which should benefit from this research.