The Epigenetics of Early Life Adversity: Perspectives from Education, Restorative Justice, and Trauma-Informed Care
“The Epigenetics of Early Life Adversity: Perspectives from Education, Trauma-Informed Care, and Restorative Justice” seeks to understand how actors in education, restorative justice, and juvenile justice adopt, adapt and repurpose narratives about the biological impact of early life trauma in their work practices. We ask: How is research from epigenetics and neurobiology articulated with approaches from trauma-informed care and restorative justice? How do these actors understand trauma and resilience in ways that differ from those of life scientists? How are biological frameworks enrolled in the efforts to address the biological effects of adverse childhood experiences in institutions such as schools and juvenile corrections facilities? How can the experiences and needs of professionals working with children and youth contribute important perspectives to research in the life sciences?
Through qualitative semi-structured interviews and participant observation at three field sites in the U.S. over three years (2017-2020), we aim to account for the multiple ways that biological narratives from environmental epigenetics and neuroscience are used to support broad institutional changes—for example schools moving away from punitive approaches to disruptive behavior and adopting approaches from restorative justice. By understanding how narratives about early life adversity are taken up and adapted by those who work with young people, we aim to contribute a situated empirical perspective to recent debates on biosocial accounts of trauma and adversity.
We will use our time at the Brocher Foundation to bring together the data from our three field sites into two articles—one aimed at an STS audience, one aimed at a life science audience. By sharing our findings with multiple audiences, we hope to foster dialogue between the actors at our field sites, STS scholars, and life scientists. Biosocial accounts of early life adversity, we argue, will only contribute to positive social change if life scientists, social scientists, and educators all contribute to this important emergent research paradigm at the intersection of biology and social life.