How Does Inequality get ‘Under the Skin’? Epigenetics, health disparities and the making of social policy

Health inequalities between different socioeconomic groups are a major public health challenge, yet the underlying causal mechanisms linking health status to social position remain poorly understood. The emerging science of epigenetics promises to shed new light on this link and the way in which social experience and environmental exposure alter the body at a molecular level. This new paradigm within biology potentially has major implications for health and social policy, and raises important questions about personal and collective responsibility for health and illness. This multidisciplinary social science project will describe this new field of research, analyse how this knowledge is being used to understand health inequalities, explore its influence on public and policy debates, and assess its broader impact on society.

Aims: This project will provide detailed empirical evidence to enable critical reflection on how, where and the extent to which epigenetics is: a) changing understandings of the cause of health inequalities; b) reframing moral and public reasoning on ideas of personal and social responsibility for health; c) influencing contemporary health and social policy agendas, and the development of different interventionist strategies; d) creating new ethical, social and policy challenges.

To achieve this, the project’s Objectives are to:

  1. Describe the historical and contemporary development of research linking social experience to molecular (epigenetic) changes in the body;
  2. Explore how epigenetic is being integrated into research studies aimed at understanding the social and biological basis of health inequalities;
  3. Analyse how epigenetics research is influencing the framing of agendas for public policy and approaches to individual health improvement;
  4. Assess the social, political, philosophical, and ethical implications this raises for different stakeholders.

The project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust and runs from 2014-18. It is undertaken by a highly multidisciplinary research team: Professor Paul Martin (PI, Sociology of science and technology). Dr Maurizio Meloni (Senior Research Fellow, Sociology & Philosophy of biology); Dr Andy Bartlett (Research Fellow, Sociology of science); Professor Sue White (CoI, Social Work), Professor Dave Wastells (CoI, Management and Organisational Studies) and Dr Vincent Cunliffe (CoI, Biomedical Sciences)