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EGENIS seminar series: "Epigenetic Variables and Postgenomic Influences", Dr Lara Choksey (University of Exeter)

Egenis seminar series

This paper looks at what counts as a variable in human epigenetics, and at how a combinatorial approach in postgenomic research is producing novel accounts of experience, embodiment, and inheritance, while also throwing up problems of interdisciplinary methods. When it comes to epigenetics, the question, “what matters, and how?” passes through a network of distinct disciplinary conventions of identification, assembled - sometimes speculatively - into cause and effect. Moreover, the process of identifying life experiences as biologically significant often follows established narrative conventions of understanding human life within different disciplines – commonly, psychological and sociological approaches – while also urging reconceptualisations of their significance and processes.

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My suggestion here is that while combinatorial approaches to human biology are transforming understandings of health across the life-course, local and situated approaches can hold off the biomedicalisation of ontology, keeping the door open for unidentified influences, and other forms of evidence.

Reading some recent case studies in human epigenetics based on data from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children, I’ll look at methods of identifying socio-economic and psychological variables as biologically significant; in particular, analyses of the effects of pre-natal depression and socio-economic deprivation on DNA methylation. First, how do these variables become biomedical objects, and how do they compare – conceptually – to genetic variables? Second, how do difficulties around agreeing on the constitution of these objects within disciplines bear on their use in epigenetic research? Third, while studies like these can give a broader picture of interrelations between health, heredity, and environment, they also invite us to consider other kinds of influences, not necessarily pathological or long-term, or already identified. I’ll end by considering how speculative methods borrowed from literary and digital praxis can help cultivate interdisciplinary approaches to postgenomic influences, via complex, processual and uncertain formulations of embodiment and environment


Byrne House