, Volume 12, Issue 1, pp 23–46 | Cite as

Of rats and women: Narratives of motherhood in environmental epigenetics

  • Martha Kenney
  • Ruth MüllerEmail author
Original Article


Environmental epigenetics is the study of how environmental signals affect gene expression. Within this growing field of molecular biology, experiments on the epigenetic effects of ‘maternal care’ on offspring health have received much scientific and public attention and are often called upon to showcase how environmental epigenetics will create a new understanding of life as inherently ‘biosocial.’ While, on the one hand, this research is exciting and offers possible opportunities for collaboration between molecular biology and the social sciences, it is also necessary to consider its political dimensions. In this paper, we show how commonsense assumptions about sex, gender, sexuality, and class are present in the design, interpretation, and dissemination of experiments on the epigenetic effects of maternal care. As these experiments come to support claims about human motherhood through a dense speculative cross-traffic between epigenetic studies in rodents and psychological and epidemiological studies in humans, current research trends work to illustrate rather than interrogate existing stereotypes about maternal agency and responsibility. With this analysis, we offer a cautionary perspective regarding the potentials and challenges for new forms of collaborative biosocial knowledge practices emerging out of environmental epigenetics.


epigenetics biosocial science collaboration feminist science & technology studies gender class 



A first version of this paper was  presented at the workshop “Epigenetics, Society & Gender” at the University of Vienna, June 22, 2012, organized by Sigrid Schmitz, Ruth Müller and Renee Schröder. We gratefully acknowledge the travel support for Martha Kenney that allowed us to start this project, and the inspiring discussions at the workshop. We would further like to thank the two anonymous reviewers and the editors for their constructive comments that helped improve the article, as well as Martyn Pickersgill and Cornelia Schadler for their valuable feedback during the writing process.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Women and Gender StudiesSan Francisco State UniversitySan FranciscoUSA
  2. 2.Munich Center for Technology in Society (MCTS)Technical University of MunichMunichGermany

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