Articulating Metabolic Disease in a Life Course Perspective

Are obesity and related metabolic disorders the result of a lack of self-discipline? This socially and medically widespread assumption is being challenged by medical research findings about the developmental origins of health and disease. For example, gestation and the first years of life are increasingly seen as formative for later-life disease risks. Experiences like over- or under-nutrition can condition the body in ways that increase or decrease one’s chances to develop obesity and metabolic disease in adulthood. In addition, some research findings even suggest that such ‘programming effects’ might not only influence one’s own health, but possibly also the health of one’s offspring. Disease risk might thus be inheritable across generations. Such findings have the potential to change how we think about and treat obesity and metabolic disease in health policy, medical practice, and everyday life. They highlight, for example, the significance of maternal nutrition for the future health of the unborn child – an assertion that can put parents under considerable pressure. The assumption that obesity and metabolic disease have developmental origins in early life can also lead to a closer examination of widespread stereotypes about obese people being ‘lazy’ or ‘unable to control themselves.’

In the social science research project “Articulating metabolic disease in a life course perspective,” I investigate how scientists study the developmental origins of metabolic health and disease in order to trace the social and political implications of this biomedical research field. I am observing the research practices of leading researchers in the field, conduct interviews and analyze current scientific publications in this area. I empirically investigate how different research approaches redefine obesity and its co-morbidities as life course diseases, and how this potentially changes notions of who is individually and collectively responsible for leading a healthy life. The research project thus aims to trace novel medical models of metabolic health and disease while they are still emerging in order to reflexively explore their wider implications and the possible challenges they might pose for society.

The project has been awarded an Erwin Schrödinger Fellowship of the FWF Austrian Research Fund.

Project leader(s):
Dr. Michael Penkler

09.2018 – 09.2021

Project type: