1. ESRC Genomics Network (archive)
  2. Gengage
  3. The Human Genre Project

Cesagen · Research

Genomics and Psychiatry

Andrew Bartlett

Start date


Affiliated staff

Michael Arribas-Ayllon (SOCSI), Katie Featherstone (Nursing and Midwifery), Adam Hedgecoe (Cesagen)


Research in psychiatric genetics has a troubled history, not all of which is attributable to the misuse of both psychiatric and hereditarian ideas in the 20th century. In the 1990s several ‘genes for’ psychiatric disorders were identified, but these results could not be replicated. The complexity of psychiatric genetics means that effect sizes are small, while environmental factors resist uniform definition. The proposed remedies for these obstacles are both methodological and organisational. The Human Genome Project produced the technological platforms for high-throughput genetic research. In addition, two forms of collaboration are employed. The first kind accumulates larger samples, granting studies greater statistical power. The second kind integrates scientific specialisms from outside genetics, bringing in psychiatrists, neuroscientists, scientists developing animal models of disease, etc. Thus, psychiatric genetics not only exemplifies the molecularisation of biomedical knowledge, but also the post-Human Genome Project expansion of big[ger] science.


The project is investigating genetic research into major psychiatric disorders. The researchers involved in Genomics and Psychiatry have established fieldwork links with key members of a leading Psychiatric Genetics laboratory. These scientists are conducting research to locate and develop functional analyses of susceptibility genes for several common, complex conditions. Researchers involved in the Genomics and Psychiatry project have been conducting qualitative sociological research, including in-depth semi-structured interviewing and laboratory visits, to trace the development of psychiatric genetics. The research will provide an analysis of the forms of collaboration, coordination, and control employed to accomplish contemporary psychiatric genetics, and trace the tensions present in such large-scale science.


This research uses qualitative methods to explore the post-HGP field of psychiatric genetics. A study of post-HGP review articles and editorials of the field was used to develop an introductory understanding of the history of the field. Interviews have been conducted with principal investigators, laboratory scientists, and psychiatric genetics fieldworkers, and ethnographic fieldwork has been conducted within laboratories, during training sessions, and at conferences.

Project update

Emerging themes:

Contemporary psychiatric genetics is conducted on a scale much larger than previous work in the field. However, the work involved is not concentrated at a single, or small number, of ‘industrialised’ research sites, as is the case in some other instances of ‘big science’. Nevertheless, familiar tensions recur as the scale of science grows, particularly that between the desire for autonomy and the necessity of collaboration and co-ordination.


Arribas-Ayllon, M., Bartlett, A., and Featherstone, K. (2010) Complexity and Accoutability: The Witches’ Brew of Psychiatric Genetics. Social Studies of Science, 40(4), 499-524.

Further information

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