Accepted Paper:

Restorative justice and the epigenetics of early life adversity: new approaches to the biosocial effects of trauma  


Martha Kenney (San Francisco State University)
Ruth Müller (Technical University of Munich)

Paper short abstract:

Epigenetic studies of early life adversity often focus on harm and lasting damage with few suggestions for how to live well with trauma. We explore initiatives in restorative justice and trauma-informed care that draw on the epigenetics of early life adversity, but emphasize recovery and resiliency.

Paper long abstract:

Environmental epigenetics explores how material exposures and social experiences affect gene expression. A key tenant of the field is that exposures in early life have particularly strong effects on later life health. Numerous labs today study the epigenetic effects of "early life adversity," prominently featuring research on the role of trauma and stress for physical and mental health. In our previous work we argued that this research tends to focus on harm and lasting damage with little discussion of reversibility and resilience (Kenney and Mueller 2017). While researchers often emphasize prevention, they offer few suggestions for how communities and individuals can find ways to live well with trauma. For this reason, we have become interested in initiatives in the fields of trauma-informed care and restorative justice that draw insights from the epigenetics of early life adversity, but apply a framework that emphasizes recovery and resiliency. In our ongoing fieldwork in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, we explore the role that bio-based accounts of trauma play in the work of organizations that implement restorative justice and trauma-informed care practices in schools, juvenile corrections, and communities. We investigate how these organizations make sense of biological knowledge and creatively adapt it to restorative justice work, resulting in alternative narratives about trauma and stress that center social justice and health equity. We propose that these narratives are not only important for responding to trauma in institutions and communities, but that they can also be resources for reorienting epigenetic research in the lab.

Panel A01
Biosocial forms of living: imbricating technologies, social and medical knowledge