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What if the Environment is a Person? Lineages of Epigenetic Science in a Toxic China

By Janelle Lamoreaux

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Cite As:
Lamoreaux, Janelle. 2016. “What If the Environment Is a Person? Lineages of Epigenetic Science in a Toxic China”. Cultural Anthropology 31 (2), 188-214. https://doi.org/10.14506/ca31.2.03.

Abstract

Through an ethnographic portrayal of the research on and treatment of congenital disorders in China, in this article I suggest that epigenetic research has the potential not only to exaggerate maternal blame but also to deindividualize ideas of maternal and parental responsibility. When a pregnant woman and the generations that produced her are understood through epigenetic studies as the environmental contexts of another person, responsibility has the potential to be reimagined as existing in relations and configurations that move beyond individualized understandings of personhood. Moreover, I argue that epigenetic models of development and inheritance at work in toxicological studies in China, and in the postgenomic embrace of complexity more generally, strongly resonate with existing social scientific models of Chinese life. Toxicologists conducting epigenetic research in China today reconfigure preexisting models of transgenerational, biosocial relationality to reassert a sense of social, environmental, and intergenerational connectivity in a moment of increasing individualization and chemical toxicity.

Keywords

epigenetics; toxicity; environment; reproduction; individualism; China