BioSocieties (2014) 9, 431–456.
doi:10.1057/biosoc.2014.22; published online 4 August 2014
Scrutinizing the epigenetics revolution
Maurizio Melonia,b,† and Giuseppe Testac,†
a School of Sociology and Social Policy, University of Nottingham, Law and Social Sciences Building, University Park, Nottingham NG7 2RD UK.
b Honorary, College of Social Sciences and International Studies, University of Exeter, EX4 4RJ, Exeter, UK.
c European Institute of Oncology, Via Adamello 16, Milan 20139, Italy.
Correspondence: Maurizio Meloni, E-mails: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com; Giuseppe Testa, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
†Both the authors contributed equally.
Epigenetics is one of the most rapidly expanding fields in the life sciences. Its rise is frequently framed as a revolutionary turn that heralds a new epoch both for gene-based epistemology and for the wider discourse on life that pervades knowledge-intensive societies of the molecular age. The fundamentals of this revolution remain however to be scrutinized, and indeed the very contours of what counts as ‘epigenetic’ are often blurred. This is reflected also in the mounting discourse on the societal implications of epigenetics, in which vast expectations coexist with significant uncertainty about what aspects of this science are most relevant for politics or policy alike. This is therefore a suitable time to reflect on the directions that social theory could most productively take in the scrutiny of this revolution. Here we take this opportunity in both its scholarly and normative dimension, that is, proposing a roadmap for social theorizing on epigenetics that does not shy away from, and indeed hopefully guides, the framing of its most socially relevant outputs. To this end, we start with an epistemological reappraisal of epigenetic discourse that valorizes the blurring of meanings as a critical asset for the field and privileged analytical entry point. We then propose three paths of investigation. The first looks at the structuring elements of controversies and visions around epigenetics. The second probes the mutual constitution between the epigenetic reordering of living phenomena and the normative settlements that orient individual and collective responsibilities. The third highlights the material import of epigenetics and the molecularization of culture that it mediates. We suggest that these complementary strands provide both an epistemically and socially self-reflective framework to advance the study of epigenetics as a molecular juncture between nature and nurture and thus as the new critical frontier in the social studies of the life sciences.
Keywords: epigenetics; imaginaries; molecularization; plasticity; responsibility; social policy
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