, Volume 13, Issue 4, pp 698–714 | Cite as

The paradox of care in behavioral epigenetics: Constructing early-life adversity in the lab

  • Martine LappéEmail author
Original Article


Many epigenetic studies focus on how stress, trauma, and care become molecularly embodied, affect gene expression without changing DNA sequence, and produce changes that influence the health and behavior of individuals, their offspring, and future generations. This article describes how care has become central in research on the epigenetic effects of early-life adversity. My analysis draws on ethnographic research in a behavioral epigenetics laboratory in the United States. Building on traditions in feminist science studies, I document how care is enacted with research samples, experimental protocols, and behavioral endpoints in experiments with model organisms. My findings point to tensions between researchers’ care for the data and their measurement of adversity as a discrete variable in the form of maternal interaction, neglect, and abuse in mice. I argue that these tensions suggest a ‘paradox of care’ that is actively shaping how epigenetic knowledge is produced and its impacts both within and beyond the lab, including for understandings of how early-life experiences shape human health, and our social expectations of mothers. This study suggests that more complex explanations of health and development promised by epigenetics are simultaneously constructed and constrained by caring practices in the laboratory.


Behavioral epigenetics Care Early-life adversity Knowledge production Feminist science studies Laboratory ethnography 



Research for this article was supported by National Human Genome Research Institute Grants P50HG007257 and K99HG009154.


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Copyright information

© Macmillan Publishers Ltd., part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Center for Research on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications of Psychiatric, Neurologic and Behavioral GeneticsNew York State Psychiatric InstituteNew YorkUSA

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