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Impressionable Bodies: Epigenetic models of plasticity in the Global South

Impressionable Bodies: Epigenetic models of plasticity in the Global South

This project aims to investigate how epigenetics, the science of how environmental factors switch genes on or off, is reshaping notions of the body, heredity and biological plasticity in the global South. Using case studies in Australia, India and South Africa this project comparatively analyses how epigenetics is mobilised in public debates on responsibility, risk and the amelioration of disadvantage. This project expects to ensure the policy translation of epigenetics maximises social benefits and reduces risks of social harm, particularly to vulnerable minority groups.

For most of the 20th century, the genetic code was seen as ‘the book of life’. Genes were considered the key biological factor that determined health, development and behaviour. The completion of the Human Genome Project in 2000 was the culmination of this approach. However, since the turn of the 21st century, this centrality of genes has been challenged by ‘postgenomic’ findings (Griffiths and Stotz 2013; Richardson and Stevens 2015; Meloni 2016) from disciplines such as environmental epigenetics and Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD). These fields have shown, respectively, that the environment (e.g. toxins, food, and socio-economic status) has direct effects on the genome, and that particularly the maternal environment (e.g. maternal malnutrition, stress, or smoking) has lasting consequences on present and future health trajectories (Perera and Herbstman 2011; Borghol et al. 2012; Gluckman and Hanson 2012). The powerful rise of epigenetics and DOHaD since 2000 signals a shift from notions of biological fixedness to ideas of plasticity and ‘impressionability’ of biological material – notions that seemed forgotten during most of the twentieth century at the peak of genetic explanations.

While the first social studies of epigenetics are consolidating in Euro-America, this project will be the first study to systematically focus on the social implications of epigenetics and DOHaD outside of Western contexts.

It is significant and timely because it is mostly in Africa and the Asia Pacific region that epigenetic models are gaining justificatory and explanatory power. Here, too, DOHaD studies are growing in number to address persistent social problems, from racial disparities in health to the obesity epidemic, from the unresolved legacies of historical trauma to urban violence. Using case studies in Australia, India and South Africa, this project offers a comparative analysis of how concepts of the body and heredity inform and are informed by new epigenetic science, with material and discursive effects for the moral landscape and emerging technologies of governing bodies and populations. Drawing on ethnographic, archival and conceptual work in and across these three cases, the proposal aims to:

  1.  Analyse how epigenetic knowledge is shaping and being shaped by local cultures of science outside the dominant Euro-American regions of knowledge production. Aim 1: Knowledge Production and Identity.

  2. Explore whether an epigenetic understanding of some bodies as uniquely impressionable (e.g. pregnant women or vulnerable minority groups) and therefore ‘at greater risk’ come to shape local policy and lead to new types of regulation, medical surveillance, and stigmatization. Aim 2: Body Intervention and Policy.

  3. Investigate if renewed notions of bodily plasticity, rather than fixedness, contribute to emerging sociotechnical imaginaries, new social norms, and forms of disciplinary authority. Aim 3: Sociotechnical Imaginaries and Norms.

Project Funding

This project is funded by an Australian Research Council Future Fellowship.


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