Mapping the new molecular landscape: social dimensions of epigenetics

New Genet Soc. 2013 Dec;32(4):429-447. doi: 10.1080/14636778.2013.861739. Epub 2013 Dec 9.


Epigenetics is the study of changes in gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in the DNA itself. The field is rapidly growing and being widely promoted, attracting attention in diverse arenas. These include those of the social sciences, where some researchers have been encouraged by the resonance between imaginaries of development within epigenetics and social theory. Yet, sustained attention from science and technology studies (STS) scholars to epigenetics and the praxis it propels has been lacking. In this article, we reflexively consider some of the ways in which epigenetics is being constructed as an area of biomedical novelty and discuss the content and logics underlying the ambivalent promises being made by scientists working in this area. We then reflect on the scope, limits and future of engagements between epigenetics and the social sciences. Our discussion is situated within wider literatures on biomedicine and society, the politics of "interventionist STS," and on the problems of "caseness" within empirical social science.

Keywords: cancer; epigenetics; methylation; novelty; promise; social science.