The Potential of Epigenetics for Sociology

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3 Responses

  1. jeffdowd says:

    While the nature v. nurture debate has always been an oversimplification, since few phenomena fall clearly on either side, I’ve always found a distinction a useful starting point to explain sociological analysis to undergraduates. I use height as an example. Most of us consider height genetic, but if we think about it a moment we also know that nutrition plays a role – so that an individual’s height is a combination of nature and nurture. I then move on to explain that for a social group height is heavily dependent on social factors.
    That being said, I’m unsure how epigenetics fits in. In other words, would you say that the preceding example is problematic because it reinforces a split between nature and nurture – treating them as two separate independent factors when in reality, genes and environment are not as truly independent as my example makes them sound?

  2. Andrea Mueller says:

    I think your comment refers to a language and explanation issue that is often dealt with when trying to shift taken for granted lenses. In order to begin an explanation showing the connection between two once perceived as separate but actually quite entangled entities, it’s difficult not to start with the separation.

    For basic explanatory purposes, familiar “splits” between “factors” can be a helpful way to introduce the relationship between the two usually perceived as separate entities. However, next immediate steps should locate other referents for the terms we usually perceive as being attached to things like diet and height (how the social plays a role in the biological and vice versa). Epigenetic discussions about this relationship tend to be more nuanced in detailing both social and biological aspects of these feedback loops on multiple “levels.”

    Depending on the purpose of one’s explanation, enmeshment of causation between “biological” and “social” factors can seen as large and seemingly reified or indefinitely smaller and complex – for example explanatory factors could be as “mezzo” as diet and height, as “macro” as culture and bodies, or as “micro” as a particular cell function and parenting style in early childhood.

    That being said, the relationship between the factors you employ are used as explanatory devices in epigenetic explanations. In particular, the role that famine in earlier generations plays in transgenerational transmission of genetic expression related to height is an oft used example in epigenetics documentaries and articles poised towards the general public (usually the Dutch “Hunger Winter” example)- an embodiment of environment over time through to those who have not actually experienced it. Such epigenetic explanations of the relationship of these two factors you use in your discussion, diet and height, differ from your explanation in how they detail the mechanisms and complexity of feedback loops that are occurring as the social becomes embodied.

  1. 15th September 2014

    […] Economist are trying to revive the long dead nature vs. nurture debate as Sociology Lens addresses here and […]

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