Epigenetics: research agenda for social sciences

The social sciences pay particular attention to research in epigenetics as it raises three types of epistemic issues. Besides, social scientists critically examine how social and political actors could make use of this research for substantiating claims or advocating for policies.

Epistemic issues

The embodiment of social experiences

A growing amount of evidence from epigenetic research suggests that social practices and experiences as highly diverse as diet, socialization, social prejudice (McGuinness et al., 2012), childhood trauma (McGowan et al., 2009), literally get “into the skin”. Epigenetics then seems to blur well-established boundaries between “nature” and “culture” (Lock & Palsson, 2016) and, consequently, between the natural and social sciences (Landecker & Panofsky, 2013; Meloni, Williams, & Martin, 2016). Therefore there is an increasing interest among social scientists for studying how research in epigenetics demonstrates that various social experiences get embodied.  

 
The formation of an historical memory and its transmission between generations

Research in epigenetics shows the existence of biological mechanisms through which the memory of past experiences can be transmitted between generations. This may be a direct intergenerational transmission – as exemplified by the persistent effects of prenatal exposure to malnutrition (Heijmans et al., 2008). But there could also be transgenerational epigenetic inheritance i.e. the persistence of epigenetic marks in unexposed generations. This line of research is of particular interest to social scientists who usually think of the transmission of historical memory in social and cultural terms. Whether biological and sociocultural explanations can be articulated –or whether they will remain separate ways of analyzing a complex phenomenon– is a debated question.


Explanations to social inequalities in health

Lastly, research in epigenetics establishes that social inequalities in health have a biological component – in that social environments get embodied through epigenetic mechanisms. This may explain the perpetuation of social health inequalities across generations. For instance, Kusawa and Sweet see the intergenerational transmission of epigenetic marks as the most plausible biological explanation to the longstanding health inequalities between Americans from African and European descent (Kuzawa & Sweet, 2009). They argue that the structural racism bore by African-Americans leaves epigenetic marks on expecting mothers, which they transmit to their unborn children. To them, this intergenerational transmission –combined with life-course exposure to racism– explains why the Afro-American population is more susceptible to cardiovascular diseases. Again, social scientists still have to address whether this kind of biological explanation to social health inequalities opens up new research avenues in the social sciences, possibly in collaboration with natural scientists.   

A critical reflection on the social and political issues raised by epigenetics

The empowerment of social actors

Social scientists have noticed that social actors could take up diverse streams of research in epigenetics so as to gain a different type of knowledge on their health condition and also to use that knowledge to act upon it. For instance, nutritional epigenetics could bring them knowledge on which diet to follow in order to prevent or to cure chronic diseases. In this respect, it could contribute to patients’ empowerment – their relative emancipation from the authority of health professionals (Chiapperino & Testa, 2016). This has the potential to change how patients and doctors define their respective roles and expectations as well as the care relationship.

 
Risks of individualization and stigmatisation

Research in epigenetics aims at identifying biochemical markers of various types of environmental exposures (nutrition, pollution, psychosocial stress, etc.). Social actors and policy makers can take up its outcomes in two different ways. First, they may highlight the social, economic and environmental factors which produce these exposures and which constraint individual behaviors. In this respect, epigenetics can sustain claims for more environmental justice with new biological evidence. Epigenetics can also impulse public policies aimed at limiting the exposures of the whole community, for instance regulatory change. However, social actors and policy makers may encourage individuals or designated groups to limit their own exposures by changing their lifestyle habits. The propensity of using epigenetics to attribute responsibility for health to individuals –rather than to society– is already visible in the multiplication of prevention policies towards expecting mothers. They advise them on healthy diet, but never address the structural causes of bad eating habits (Richardson, 2015).


References

  • Chiapperino, L., & Testa, G. (2016). The epigenomic self in personalized medicine: between responsibility and empowerment. The Sociological Review Monographs, 64(1), 203-220.
  • Heijmans, B. T., Tobi, E. W., Stein, A. D., Putter, H., Blauw, G. J., Susser, E. S., . . . Lumey, L. H. (2008). Persistent epigenetic differences associated with prenatal exposure to famine in humans. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 105(44), 17046-17049.
  • Kuzawa, C. W., & Sweet, E. (2009). Epigenetics and the embodiment of race: developmental origins of US racial disparities in cardiovascular health. American Journal of Human Biology, 21(1), 2-15.
  • Landecker, H., & Panofsky, A. (2013). From social structure to gene regulation, and back: a critical introduction to environmental epigenetics for sociology. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 333-357.
  • Lock, M., & Palsson, G. (2016). Can science resolve the nature/nurture debate? : John Wiley & Sons.
  • McGowan, P. O., Sasaki, A., D'Alessio, A. C., Dymov, S., Labonté, B., Szyf, M., . . . Meaney, M. J. (2009). Epigenetic regulation of the glucocorticoid receptor in human brain associates with childhood abuse. Nature neuroscience, 12(3), 342-348.
  • McGuinness, D., McGlynn, L. M., Johnson, P. C. D., MacIntyre, A., Batty, G. D., Burns, H., . . . McConnachie, A. (2012). Socio-economic status is associated with epigenetic differences in the pSoBid cohort. International journal of epidemiology, 41(1), 151-160.
  • Meloni, M., Williams, S., & Martin, P. (Eds.). (2016). Biosocial Matters: Rethinking the Sociology-Biology Relations in the Twenty-First Century: Wiley-Blackwell.
  • Richardson, S., S. (2015). Maternal Bodies in the Postgenomic Order. In S. S. Richardson & H. Stevens (Eds.), Postgenomics Perspective on Biology after the Genome (pp. 210-231): Duke University Press Durham, NC.