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Epigenetics in the Neoliberal ‘Regime of Truth’: A Biopolitical Perspective on Knowledge Translation

Recent findings in epigenetics have been attracting much attention from social scientists and bioethicists because they reveal the molecular mechanisms by which exposure to socioenvironmental factors, such as pollutants and social adversity, can influence the expression of genes throughout life. Most surprisingly, some epigenetic modifications may also be heritable via germ cells across generations. Epigenetics may be the missing molecular evidence of the importance of using preventive strategies at the policy level to reduce the incidence and prevalence of common diseases. But while this “policy translation” of epigenetics introduces new arguments in favor of public health strategies and policy-making, a more “clinical translation” of epigenetics is also emerging. It focuses on the biochemical mechanisms and epigenetic variants at the origin of disease, leading to novel biomedical means of assessing epigenetic susceptibility and reversing detrimental epigenetic variants.

In this paper, we argue that the impetus to create new biomedical interventions to manipulate and reverse epigenetic variants is likely to garner more attention than effective social and public health interventions and therefore also to garner a greater share of limited public resources. This is likely to happen because of the current biopolitical context in which scientific findings are translated. This contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Building on sociologist Thomas Lemke’s Foucauldian “analytics of biopolitics” and on literature from the field of science and technology studies, we present two sociological trends that may impede the policy translation of epigenetics: molecularization and biomedicalization. These trends, we argue, are likely to favor the clinical translation of epigenetics—in other words, the development of new clinical tools fostering what has been called “personalized” or “precision” medicine. In addition, we argue that an overemphasized clinical translation of epigenetics may further reinforce this biopolitical landscape through four processes closely related to neoliberal pathways of thinking: the internalization and isolation (aspects of liberal individualism) of socioenvironmental determinants of health and increased opportunities for commodification and technologicalization (aspects of economic liberalism) of health care interventions. 

Recent findings in epigenetics have been attracting much attention from social scientists and bioethicists because they reveal the molecular mechanisms by which exposure to socioenvironmental factors, such as pollutants and social adversity, can influence the expression of genes throughout life. Most surprisingly, some epigenetic modifications may also be heritable via germ cells across generations. Epigenetics may be the missing molecular evidence of the importance of using preventive strategies at the policy level to reduce the incidence and prevalence of common diseases. But while this “policy translation” of epigenetics introduces new arguments in favor of public health strategies and policy-making, a more “clinical translation” of epigenetics is also emerging. It focuses on the biochemical mechanisms and epigenetic variants at the origin of disease, leading to novel biomedical means of assessing epigenetic susceptibility and reversing detrimental epigenetic variants.

In this paper, we argue that the impetus to create new biomedical interventions to manipulate and reverse epigenetic variants is likely to garner more attention than effective social and public health interventions and therefore also to garner a greater share of limited public resources. This is likely to happen because of the current biopolitical context in which scientific findings are translated. This contemporary neoliberal “regime of truth,” to use a term from Michel Foucault, greatly influences the ways in which knowledge is being interpreted and implemented. Building on sociologist Thomas Lemke’s Foucauldian “analytics of biopolitics” and on literature from the field of science and technology studies, we present two sociological trends that may impede the policy translation of epigenetics: molecularization and biomedicalization. These trends, we argue, are likely to favor the clinical translation of epigenetics—in other words, the development of new clinical tools fostering what has been called “personalized” or “precision” medicine. In addition, we argue that an overemphasized clinical translation of epigenetics may further reinforce this biopolitical landscape through four processes closely related to neoliberal pathways of thinking: the internalization and isolation (aspects of liberal individualism) of socioenvironmental determinants of health and increased opportunities for commodification and technologicalization (aspects of economic liberalism) of health care interventions. 

Charles Dupras and Vardit Ravitsky,“Epigenetics in the Neoliberal ‘Regime of Truth’: A Biopolitical Perspective on Knowledge Translation,” Hastings Center Report 46, no. 1 (2016): 26-35.