The Potential of Epigenetics for Sociology
A careful understanding of epigenetic mechanisms allows sociologists to include a new biological perspective into research designs – when it is incorporated carefully and not used casually or blindly as a deus ex machina explanatory device that is.
Epigenetics provides us with one of several “mechanisms by which social influences become embodied” (Kuzawa and Sweet 2008: 2). A promising place for sociologists to enter into this research or use it fruitfully is to examine how social environments and inequalities become embodied as epigenetic imprints, altering gene expression and consequently affecting a wide array of health outcomes. Additionally, while mapping the epigenome, epigeneticists are exploring differences in the plasticity of particular alleles at various points in the lifecourse. Could the inclusion of epigenetic biomarkers in sociological work allow for the separation of early life events from cumulative ones?
These mechanistic stories are bound to be messy, but such feedback loops and the enmeshment of social and biological processes are inescapable. With the knowledge and technology available today, we are far beyond oversimplified nature versus nurture debates. Many biologists who do epigenetic work realize that in order to get a complete, complex mapping of these mechanisms, the social needs to be included. These biologists view sociological and cultural variables as more of a signal rather than just contextual noise. Sociologists should not only collaborate with such researchers, but also help shape what these projects look like.
Further, sociologists should be aware of developing epigenetic discourse and how it is being received in the media. Over the past year or so, non-scientific magazines from Time to Newsweek have picked up on epigenetic findings, publishing articles for the general public on the topic. However, not all of this reporting clearly emphasizes epigenetics’ softening of geneticization’s hard line determinism. Further, some of it mistakenly over-emphasizes our agency in the changing of our own and our future generations’ genetic code. Sociologists should be aware of such reporting, lest it follow the route of the powerful, persuasive, and pervasive hold the narrative of geneticization has in everyday, non-scientific talk (Chaufan 2007) – especially since general understandings of genetic findings often easily allow genetics to take the stage as a deus ex machina of causal efficacy despite findings that clearly prove otherwise.