It is customary to think about fashions in things like clothes or music as spreading in a social network. But it turns out that all kinds of things, many of them quite unexpected, can flow through social networks, and this process obeys certain rules we are seeking to discover. We’ve been investigating the spread of obesity through a network, the spread of smoking cessation through a network, the spread of happiness through a network, the spread of loneliness through a network, the spread of altruism through a network. And we have been thinking about these kinds of things while also keeping an eye on the fact that networks do not just arise from nothing or for nothing. Very interesting rules determine their structure.
SOCIAL NETWORKS ARE LIKE THE EYE
A Talk with Nicholas A. Christakis
Nicholas A. Christakis, MD, PhD, MPH, is an internist and social scientist who conducts research on social factors that affect health, health care, and longevity. He is a professor of medical sociology in the Department of Health Care Policy at Harvard Medical School; professor of sociology in the Department of Sociology in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences; and an attending physician in the Department of Medicine at the Harvard-affiliated Mt. Auburn Hospital. He is on the executive committee of the Robert Wood Johnson Scholars in Health Policy program at Harvard.
Dr. Christakis’s past work has examined the accuracy and role of prognosis in medicine, ways of improving end-of-life care, and the determinants and outcomes of hospice use. His book on prognosis, Death Foretold: Prophecy and Prognosis in Medical Care, was published by the University of Chicago Press in 1999; it has been widely reviewed and was translated into Japanese in 2006.
Currently, he is principally concerned with health and social networks, and specifically with how ill health, disability, health behavior, health care, and death in one person can influence the same phenomena in others in a person’s social network. Some current work focuses on the health benefits of marriage and on how ill health in one spouse can have cascading effects on the other spouse. It seems likely that improving the health of one partner in a marriage can have meaningful effects on the health of the other, and that both parties would value this—in a way that influences health policy. Other work examines a very large social network (12,000 people, including family, friends, and neighbors) followed for over 30 years to look broadly at the role of networks in health and health care. This work involves the application of network science and mathematical models to understand the dynamics of health in longitudinally evolving networks. To the extent that health behaviors such as smoking, drinking, or unhealthy eating spread within networks in intelligible ways, there are substantial implications for our understanding of health behavior and health policy.
Further lines of research include exploring the conceptual foundations of the phenomenon of iatrogenesis and examining physicians’ responses to the problem of medical harm; evaluating effect of neighborhoods on health; and considering various topics in biodemography (such as the demographic determinants of human longevity).
Dr. Christakis’s research has implications for understanding why people become sick and how they use medical care to become well again. It also has implications for clinical and policy actions to enhance the quality of care given to seriously ill patients.
Dr. Christakis received his BS degree from Yale University, his MD from Harvard Medical School, his MPH from the Harvard School of Public Health, and his PhD from the University of Pennsylvania. He has served on several editorial boards (including the British Medical Journal, Journal of Palliative Medicine, Palliative Medicine [UK], and American Journal of Sociology) and review committees (including in the United States, Australia, and Korea). He was elected to the Institute of Medicine in 2006. Over the past several years, he has given invited talks in Australia, Canada, China, Germany, Greece, Italy, Portugal, South Korea, South Africa, and the United Kingdom. He teaches quantitative and qualitative research design, epidemiology, medical sociology (including Sociology 190 at Harvard College), health services research, and palliative medicine.
For more information about Dr. Christakis, his research group, and his research and teaching (including copies of papers), click here.
Article: New England Journal of Medicine