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Constructing the Biosocial: an engaged inquiry into epigenetics and post-genomic biosciences

Applicant Chiapperino Luca
Number 185822
Funding scheme Ambizione
Research institution Laboratoire d’étude des sciences et des techniques (STS Lab) University of Lausanne
Institution of higher education University of Lausanne - LA
Main discipline Sociology
Start/End 01.07.2020 - 30.06.2024
Approved amount 767'762.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Discipline
Sociology
Molecular Biology

Keywords (5)

Epigenetics; Biosocial; Science and Technology Studies; Co-laboration; Stress

Lay Summary (French)

Lead
L'épigénétique désigne à la fois un domaine de la biologie et le phénomène qu’il étudie : la modulation de l’expression des génomes par des facteurs au-dessus de (épi-) la séquence d’ADN, tels que ceux environnementaux et/ou contextuels. Notamment l’épigénétique souligne l’entremêlement des facteurs biologiques et socio-environnementaux de la santé. Prenant pour objet les études du "stress", le projet analyse le développement d’une conception "biosociale" de la santé et de la maladie au cœur des pratiques de recherche en épigénétique. Son but est de décrire les biais, les méthodes, les hypothèses et les représentations qui limitent ou au contraire favorisent la convergence des sciences biomédicales, des sciences sociales et de la recherche en santé publique vers une telle conception, par l’entremise de l’épigénétique.
Lay summary

L'épigénétique désigne à la fois un domaine de la biologie et le phénomène qu’il étudie : la modulation de l’expression des génomes par des facteurs au-dessus de (épi-) la séquence d’ADN, tels que ceux environnementaux et/ou contextuels. Notamment, l’épigénétique souligne l’entremêlement des facteurs biologiques et socio-environnementaux de la santé. L’étude de ces phénomènes "biosociaux" suscite à la fois intérêt et scepticisme du côté des sciences sociales. Marquent-ils un virage des sciences de la vie vers des conceptions écologiques et socialement imbriquées du vivant et du vécu ? Ou s'agit-il plutôt d’une nouvelle forme de réduction des conditions biosociales complexes de la condition humaine à la dynamique moléculaire des modifications chimiques de l'ADN ? Ce projet aborde précisément ces questions à la croisée des études des sciences et des techniques (STS) et des pratiques situées de la recherche en épigénétique.

Son premier volet est une ethnographie du travail quotidien des chercheurs/euses dans la production d’évidences épigénétiques des phénomènes de "stress" comme phénomène hybride : biologique, psychologique, comportemental et social. Il se concentre spécifiquement sur la manière dont les chercheurs/euses en épigénétique produisent des versions différentes de la biosocialité du "stress" dans des conditions mentales/psychologiques (par exemple, dépression, anxiété, schizophrénie) et somatiques/métaboliques (par exemple, obésité, hyperglycémie). Le second volet consiste dans la mise en place d’un groupe de recherche collaboratif (Co-LaboRG) sur les conceptions, les méthodes, les techniques et les objectifs qui pourraient faciliter la collaboration des sciences biomédicales, des sciences cliniques, de la santé publique et des sciences sociales pour le développement d’une approche intégrative de l'épigénétique. Son but est d’identifier, et si possible de pallier. les différences et les différends conceptuels et méthodologiques qui entravent les approches interdisciplinaires et transdisciplinaires des phénomènes épigénétiques.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 15.05.2020

Lay Summary (Italian)

Lead
L'epigenetica si riferisce sia ad un campo della biologia che al fenomeno che essa studia: la modulazione dell'espressione del genoma da parte di fattori al di là (epi-) della sequenza del DNA, come i fattori ambientali e/o contestuali. In questo modo, l'epigenetica sottolinea l'intreccio di fattori biologici e socio-ambientali nella determinazione della salute. Prendendo in analisi gli studi sullo "stress", il presente progetto analizza lo sviluppo di una concezione "biosociale" della salute e della malattia all’interno delle pratiche di ricerca in epigenetica. Il suo obiettivo è quello di descrivere i bias, i metodi, le ipotesi e le rappresentazioni che limitano o, al contrario, promuovono la convergenza delle scienze biomediche, delle scienze sociali, della ricerca e delle politiche di salute pubblica attraverso l'epigenetica.
Lay summary

L'epigenetica si riferisce sia ad un campo della biologia che al fenomeno che essa studia: la modulazione dell'espressione del genoma da parte di fattori al di là (epi-) della sequenza del DNA, come i fattori ambientali e/o contestuali. In questo modo, l'epigenetica sottolinea l'intreccio di fattori biologici e socio-ambientali nella determinazione della salute. Lo studio di questi fenomeni "biosociali" suscita sia interesse che scetticismo nel campo delle scienze sociali. Si tratta di un’apertura delle scienze della vita a concezioni ecologiche e socialmente complesse della salute? O si tratta, piuttosto, di una nuova forma di riduzionismo che trasforma le complessità biosociali della condizione umana nella dinamica molecolare delle modificazioni chimiche del DNA? Questo progetto affronta proprio queste domande all'incrocio tra gli studi della scienza e della tecnica (STS) e le pratiche di ricerca in epigenetica.

La sua prima parte è un'etnografia del lavoro quotidiano dei ricercatori diretto a produrre evidenze epigenetiche dello "stress" in quanto fenomeno ibrido: biologico, psicologico, comportamentale e sociale. Il progetto concentra in particolare su come i ricercatori epigenetici producono diverse versioni della biosocialità dello "stress" nel contesto di condizioni di salute mentali/psicologiche (ad esempio, depressione, ansia, schizofrenia) o somatiche/metaboliche (ad esempio, l'obesità, iperglicemia). La seconda parte del progetto consiste nell’organizzazione di un gruppo di ricerca collaborativo (Co-LaboRG) sui progetti, sui metodi, sulle tecniche e sugli obiettivi che potrebbero facilitare la collaborazione tra biomedicina, clinica, sanità pubblica e scienze sociali per lo sviluppo di un approccio biosocial integrativo attorno all'epigenetica. Il suo scopo è quello di individuare, e se possibile superare, le differenze e le controversie concettuali e metodologiche che ostacolano tali approcci interdisciplinari e transdisciplinari.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 15.05.2020

Lay Summary (English)

Lead
Epigenetics designates both a domain of biology and the phenomenon it studies: the modulation of gene expression by factors beyond (epi-) the genome, such as environmental and/or contextual ones. As such it points to the entanglement between biological and socio-environmental determinants of health. Taking the example of studies on "stress", the project analyses the development of a "biosocial" conception of health and disease in the situated practices of epigenetic researchers. Its aim is to describe the biases, methods, hypotheses and representations that limit or favour the convergence of biomedicine, social sciences, public health research and policies around epigenetics.
Lay summary

Epigenetics designates both a domain of biology and the phenomenon it studies: the modulation of gene expression by factors beyond (epi-) the genome, such as environmental and/or contextual ones. As such it points to the entanglement between biological and socio-environmental determinants of health. The study of these ‘biosocial’ phenomena raises a great deal of interest and scepticism on the side of the social sciences. Is this the life sciences’ turn towards ecological and socially embedded conceptions of biography and biology? Or is it, instead, a new way to reduce complex biosocial conceptions of the human condition to the dynamic of molecules and chemical modifications of DNA? This project addresses precisely these questions at the intersection of Science and Technology Studies (STS) and the situated practices of epigenetic sciences.

First, the project consists of an ethnography of the mundane labour scientists perform to produce alternative epigenetic accounts of ‘stress’ as hybrid biological, psychological, behavioural and social phenomenon. Specifically, the project focuses on how epigenetic researchers produce different accounts of the biosociality of ‘stress’ in mental/psychological (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia) and somatic/metabolic (e.g. obesity, hyperglycaemia) conditions. Second, the project sets up a collaborative research group (Co-LaboRG) on the designs, methods, techniques and objectives that could facilitate the collaboration between biomedicine, social sciences, public health research and policies around epigenetics. This collaborative experimentation aims at identifying – and possibly closing – the conceptual and methodological gaps that currently hinder inter- and trans-disciplinary approaches to epigenetics.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 15.05.2020

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
162873 PARED - Parental Responsibility, Epigenetics and DOHaD: Emerging sociotechnical imaginaries of reproduction in the age of epigenetics 01.01.2016 Project funding (Div. I-III)
153320 Understanding the relations between psychosis an urban milieus: an experience-based approach 01.10.2014 Interdisciplinary projects
180350 Development of Personalized Health in Switzerland: Social Sciences Perpectives 01.01.2019 Sinergia

Abstract

Epigenetics is a major driver of the shift towards post-genomic models of explanations in biomedicine. The relevance of environmental modulations of gene expression in epigenetics defines a break from gene-centrism in biology, and gives way to a renewed effort (within the life sciences) to investigate the entanglement of biological and socio-environmental factors contributing to health and disease. For this reason, epigenetics has raised a great deal of interest and scepticism on the side of Science and Technology Studies (STS). On the one hand, its turn towards an ecologically and socially embedded understanding of our biology offers an unprecedented opportunity to install a shared biosocial integrative science of the human condition, which could recognise how biographical and biological trajectories of health and disease are intensely individual, temporal, situated, and tangled. On the other hand, the turn towards these biosocial themes in epigenetics presents us with several gaps and problematic aspects that lie in the ways scientists negotiate the complex biosociality of health and disease at an ontological, epistemic and socio-political level. As argued by several STS commentators, the mutual social and biological shaping of health constructed in epigenetic research is in fact still permeated by reductionist and determinist thinking, which may flatten epigenetics’ treatment of the biosociality of health into a disembodied molecularisation of the complex processual biosocial ontology social scientists advocate for. While a variety of publications have debated these questions theoretically, little research exists that assesses empirically the practices central to epigenetic production of biosocial understandings of health and disease. This project addresses precisely this gap, by positioning itself at the intersection of STS debates around the biosocial and the situated practices of epigenetic scientists. First, the project consists of a series of qualitative and ethnographic studies of the mundane labour through which individual scientists, research groups, and interdisciplinary collaborations produce distinct epigenetic realities of the interrelatedness of biological, psychological, behavioural and social factors of health. These situated ways of producing the biosociality of health and disease are characterised in the project as distinct styles of biosocialisation to be investigated complementarily across two camps of biomedical research on the role of ‘stress’ in mental (e.g. depression, anxiety, schizophrenia) and somatic/metabolic (e.g. obesity, hyperglycaemia) conditions. Furthermore, and thanks to a Research Stay at Deakin University (Australia), the project deploys also a comparative study of the production of styles of biosocialisation in stress-related epigenetic research. This approach may provide unique insights over the geographies of the biosocial straddling global patterns of biomedical research, and the local, historical, political and institutional factors accounting for unique configurations of epigenetic research on the biosociality of health. Second, the project contributes also to the production of an integrative style of biosocialisation, emerging from the observations, collaborations and interactions with the group of biomedical actors enrolled in its activities. To this purpose, the project sets up a co-laborative research group (Co-LaboRG) on the designs, methods and objectives that pertain to biosocial approaches to health and disease, which moves socio-epistemological critique upstream towards the biases, constraints, assumptions and inherently reductionist explanations characterising life sciences’ approaches to the porous frontier between life as biological and social phenomenon. By doing so, the project aims at concretely shaping research, policy, organizational, and health promotion approaches to the biosocial entanglements at the basis of health trajectories, and harness the potential of molecular epigenetic knowledge in a synergistic tandem with a thick, sociological understanding of health and illness.
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