Situating Environmental Epigenetics. A Comparative, Actor-Centered Study of Environmental Epigenetics as an Emergent Research Approach in Three Research Fields (DFG)
Project team: Prof. Dr. Ruth Müller (PI), Dr. Michael Penkler, Sophia Rossmann, M.A., Georgia Samaras, M.A.
Epigenetics explores changes in gene expression that do not result from gene mutation, but from chemical modifications on the DNA. In recent years, such epigenetic modifications have been found to respond to numerous stimuli from the environment – such as toxins, nutrition, trauma or stress – giving rise to the field of ‘environmental epigenetics’. By proposing mechanisms for how such factors can alter gene expression, environmental epigenetics offers important novel perspectives for understanding body, health and illness as ‘biosocial’. However, it is yet unclear what the specific impact of such perspectives might be in different research areas within the life sciences and how approaches from environmental epigenetics might affect understandings of body, health and illness differently in different fields.
This project thus takes a comparative approach and studies how approaches from environmental epigenetics are adopted and adapted in three research fields of great relevance for public health: nutritional epidemiology, environmental toxicology, and the pathophysiology of mood & anxiety. To this end, the project team uses qualitative social science research methods such as interviews, ethnographic observation and document analysis. By taking this comparative approach the project design gives room to the possibility that environmental epigenetics might constitute different “epistemic things” (Rheinberger, 1997) in different research contexts with different social and political implications. This approach builds on insights from Science & Technology Studies that emphasize the situated character of knowledge production (Haraway, 1988; Knorr-Cetina, 1999) and the need for context-sensitive research approaches (Jasanoff, 2004). Beyond contributing to social science debates the project will actively promote constructive interdisciplinary dialogue between social and life sciences.
Prof. Dr. Ruth Müller
10.2018 – 09.2021
["Drittmittelprojekt \/ Third-party funded Project"]