The contribution of social factors to the development of schizophrenia: A review of recent findings

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article


Objective: To investigate recent evidence suggesting that social factors are causally related to the development of schizophrenia. Method: I conducted a sytematic review of MEDLINE to identify possibly relevant studies. The search was limited to peer-reviewed studies and review articles appearing in English-language journals since 1996. Studies were included if they used standardized diagnostic criteria for schizophrenia or standardized assessment instruments for psychotic symptoms. Results: Studies of migrants to western Europe provide compelling support for the notion that social factors contribute to the development of schizophrenia. Findings such as excessively high risk for schizophrenia in second-generation immigrants are difficult to explain solely in terms of biological or genetic factors. A growing number of studies implicate childhood exposure to social adversity as a risk factor for schizophrenia, although few studies have used prospective designs. The increased incidence of schizophrenia risk associated with urban birth and (or) urban upbringing suggests possible social causation, but these findings are more ambiguous. Thus far, no studies have explored actual mechanisms by which exposure to social factors might generate psychotic symptoms, although animal experiments suggest that social defeat or social exclusion may cause dopamine dysregulation or sensitization. Conclusions: The accumulating evidence suggesting a role for social factors in the development of schizophrenia arises primarily from studies of migrants conducted in Europe. The mechanisms by which social factors exert their influence remain unknown. Future investigations of social causation should clarify the temporal relation between exposure to social defeat and (or) social adversity and the development of psychotic symptoms.


  • Elizabeth Cantor-Graae
Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Environmental Health and Occupational Health


  • migrants, schizophrenia, social factors, urbanization, etiology
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)277-286
JournalCanadian Journal of Psychiatry
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 2007
Publication categoryResearch