Society for Medical Anthropology
Invited - Oral Presentation Session
In recent years, the idea of bodies as permeable and shaped by the environment has gained increasing attention in the life sciences. In particular, the science of environmental epigenetics is now charting connections between lived experiences and gene expression, pointing to molecular mechanisms that link stress, diet, and chemical exposures to health outcomes for individuals and their kin. This research challenges longstanding views about genes, the environment, and inheritance, suggesting a new temporal politics of embodiment that extends across life times. This raises important questions about health equity, environmental justice, and distributed reproduction that ethnographers are uniquely positioned to address. This paper addresses these questions in relationship to epigenetic research on pregnancy and child health. I ask: what modes of life and time are embodied in epigenetic claims about pregnancy, women’s experiences, and children’s health? How are bodily relations and kin remade through molecular forms of knowledge that emphasize the effects of exposures and experiences across lifespans? Drawing on interviews with epigenetic scientists and laboratory observations, I argue that the placenta has emerged as central in answering these questions. Long ignored in the biosciences and often labeled as waste and discarded following birth in medical settings, I describe how placenta samples have become key resources in biological attempts to connect women’s experiences to children’s futures. This paper draws on feminist anthropology and science and technology studies to examine the temporal politics that emerge when placenta tissue is imagined and enacted as a connection across lives and time in epigenetic research.