Mark Berg’s World-Class Research Rooted in Iowa

By Michael Lovaglia

Berg PictureProfessor Mark Berg’s research brings together ideas and techniques from two very different areas in sociology – criminology and the social aspects of health. The impact of his publications and the breadth of his research have earned him the title of Collegiate Scholar, awarded by the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Iowa. His article on the spread of the opioid crisis through the heartland of America, “The Opioid Hydra,” won the Fred Buttel Outstanding Scholarly Achievement Award from the Rural Sociological Society in 2021.

Michael Lovaglia interviewed Mark Berg for the Newsletter (condensed and lightly edited for clarity).

ML: Our readers would be interested in your Midwestern roots and how you came to be a professor at the University of Iowa.

MB: I stumbled into the social sciences. Growing up, I was encouraged to pursue a career in veterinary medicine. My father was a farmer and being a vet was a respectable career that he was familiar with from working with his swine herd. The hope was that my curiosity about the social side of life would eventually dwindle.

One event that shaped me was the farm crisis of the mid-1980s. I was 9 or 10 years old. It lasted about a decade and drastically changed small farming communities. Businesses were closing. People were leaving the farm and working in town. People in that culture had skills passed down for generations that only prepared them to work in agriculture. They became in some ways irrelevant to the changing society. Prominent musicians held benefits to raise money for people struggling in farming and small-town communities. I remember in churches, people would post crosses, each one symbolizing a farm that had been foreclosed and taken over by banks. That’s when I began to think about how social context shapes health and well-being and behavior, which eventually became a big part of my research.

I grew up in a community where most of my friends worked in the farming economy or in manufacturing. Few had white-collar jobs. Some were secretaries or worked for the church. I grew up in the Catholic church and went to Catholic schools. It was imposed on me. It also made me feel that I lived in a community that both collectively socialized its children and monitored its children. I was careful not to break the rules because I didn’t want to suffer the shame of people who played bridge with my grandma, who went to high school with my mom. That was a more powerful motivator than any worry about getting caught and juvenile sentencing.

Looking back, we tend to color things in favorable ways if we have had favorable outcomes. Some people I knew went to prison, but we all agree that it was a community that collectively banded together. People knew each other with ties going back generations.

I grew up about 70 miles from the Nebraska border north of I-80. Iowa City is a wonderful place but so different from small communities in western Iowa. In some ways, I will always be an outsider – especially in academia! Sociologists are observers and that distance helps. Talking with my brothers, for example, their working day is defined by pain, by how tired they are. They are the kind of people who go to work the next day with their arm in a sling after breaking it in a farming accident.

ML: You also study crime.

MB: I still don’t know how I ended up in criminology. It is interesting how, despite all the hardship that people went through, they still maintained a healthy lifestyle and worked to help other people. Criminology wrestles with inhibition. Why don’t more people commit crime might be a better question than, why do so many people commit crime? I’m fascinated with restraint and inhibition. Not why people engage in harmful acts but why they don’t.

We are selfish but we rarely do things that actively harm other people. A Viet Nam vet wrote that he learned we didn’t have to teach young men how to do atrocious things to people, the tendency was already in them. That energized my interest in restraint and change. When people have committed serious crimes, some adopted a new identity and started a new positive life. Others embraced their past and said, “these are the bad things I did, let me warn you how not to do it.” Most young men have fantasized about killing someone but very few act on that impulse. That’s enormous social control.

As a criminologist, I lean more toward social psychology. Recently I’ve drifted more into research on health outcomes. It shares some of the same concerns as criminology. Social integration affects both health and the likelihood of committing crime.

With a team from the University of Georgia, I’m working on early childhood trauma, such as child abuse and neglect, and how it impacts adult health. If you survey older people about current health and childhood trauma, those early events seem to have profound effects on later adult health. But recent research casts doubt. When you ask children, they will tell you one thing about the events in their life. But those don’t seem to affect their health later. It’s the memory of childhood trauma, not the event that seems to matter for adult health. Why would the memory of trauma matter but not actual traumatic events in childhood?

To solve the mystery, the team followed kids from age 10 through their 30s. As expected, the bad things kids reported at age 10 don’t match well with what they remembered at age 30. Memories change over time. Bad early events reported at age 10, however, did strongly predict a biomarker for heart disease risk at age 30. Childhood adversity does matter for adult health. And the memory of early life adversities matters as much for self-rated health as it does for physical indicators of health in adults. Childhood adversity matters for how healthy adults think they are, as well as for how healthy they actually are.

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