Accepted Paper:

Stressed bodies, epigenetics and the biology of social experience  


Paul Martin (University of Sheffield)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores: 1) different disciplinary constructions of social and biological stress in understanding inequalities in health; 2) the development of a molecular ontology of stress in the field of epigenetics and its role in the emergence of a new ‘biology of social experience’.

Paper long abstract:

Epidemiology has firmly established that high levels of deprivation, stress and inequality are strongly correlated with poor health. However, the precise mechanisms that mediate this relationship are poorly understood. The emerging field of epigenetics is increasingly highlighting how adverse environments and experiences are embodied through 'marks' on the genome that change patterns of gene expression across the life course and, possibly, between generations. Central to this emerging paradigm is the construction of different forms of social and environmental stress that are located in particular places and spaces , and which shape the bodies of both individuals and populations. This paper will present initial qualitative findings from a Leverhulme Trust funded project that explores this new field of research and how it is informing social policy. In particular, the analysis will focus on different disciplinary understandings of the concept of stress, how measures of social stress are being translated into biological metrics, and the emergence of a molecular ontology of stress. Central to this project is the creation of new disciplinary alignments between the biological and social sciences, emerging transdisciplinary research networks, and novel conceptual frameworks that emphasise bodily plasticity, the blurring of boundaries between internal and external milieu, and the local nature of biologies. In conclusion, it will be argued that epigenetics constitutes an important element of a new biology of social experience that reworks established notions of disease aetiology, personal and collective responsibility for health, and more fundamentally, what it means to be human in the contemporary age.

Panel T110
What does it mean to be Human in the 21st Century?