Epigenetics is the study of factors involved in gene expression in response to the environment, without changes in the DNA sequence itself. It is a relatively new field, and one that social work has yet to integrate into its field of knowledge for practice. Yet it provides knowledge that can assist us in understanding client behavior and change in ways that are completely compatible with our “person-in-environment” approach. As opposed to Mendelian genetics, wherein the traits of offspring are determined solely through recombination of parents’ DNA, epigenetics demonstrates that factors in the environment influence which genes are expressed and which are not, without changing the DNA sequence. Epigenetics thus makes the old “nature versus nurture” debate null and void, and provides a framework for understanding how, though our genes do not change in response to experience and environment, the expression of those genes does and plays a critical role in development, as well as responses to life experiences. Moreover, epigenetics clarifies the importance of social policy and programs for providing opportunities for all to maximize their genetic potential. Perhaps most important for the social work profession, epigenetic responses to the environment are often reversible and may provide the opportunity to influence not just our clients, but future generations.
These studies provide general introductions to the definitions, importance, and implications of epigenetics, as well as implications for social work practice. They were selected to be recent, as research is constantly being published, as well as accessible to those without extensive backgrounds in biology. These selections provide overviews from slightly different perspectives. Karr-Morse and Wiley 2012 and Nestler 2011 present research and examples for the educated layperson. Kanherkar, et al. 2014 provides an overview according to each stage of the lifespan. Garland and Howard 2009 and Combs-Orme 2013 present the material in a social work context, with references to social policy and interventions. Rozek, et al. 2014 addresses public health professionals and thus focuses on issues of population health, while Walsh and Yun 2014 discusses research related to epigenetics and criminal behavior. Tung and Gilad 2013 provides a more detailed scientific discussion of the mechanics of epigenesis from related animal research.
Combs-Orme, Terri. 2013. Epigenesis and the social work imperative. Social Work 58.1: 23–30.
Provides an introduction to how development is shaped through environment and genes from a perspective of social work practice. Discusses key factors of concern to social work, particularly poverty and racism, as they relate to practice with individual client systems and in the policy arena. Particularly useful as an introduction for students.
Garland, Eric L., and Matthew Owen Howard. 2009. Neuroplasticity, psychosocial genomics, and the biopsychosocial paradigm in the 21st century. Health & Social Work 34.3: 191–199.
Layperson’s introduction to neuroplasticity, the brain’s ability to change with experience, and epigenetics, with a focus on relationship to social work interventions. Review of relevant research is comprehensive (for its publication date), including many types of interventions. Discussion of implications for social work practice is of particular interest to clinicians.
Kanherkar, Riya R., Naina Bhatia-Dey, and Antonei B. Csoka. 2014. Epigenetics across the human lifespan. Frontiers in Cell and Developmental Biology 2:1–19.
Surveys research on the significant factors that influence gene expression as they occur across different stages of the lifespan from per-conception to death. Especially useful for students to provide broad understanding of the importance of the topic. Suggests ways this knowledge can be useful for personalized medicine.
Karr-Morse, Robin, with Meredith S. Wiley. 2012. Scared sick. The role of childhood trauma in adult disease. New York: Basic Books.
Although this book focuses on childhood trauma as the precipitating factor in epigenesis, it also discusses other issues, with a particular focus on chronic disease in adulthood. Presents a good, easily understood summary of much of the research and a lengthy reference section.
Nestler, Eric J. 2011. Hidden switches in the mind. Scientific American 305.6: 76–83.
Readable overview of epigenetics, with focus on epigenetic effects on mental illness and addictions. Written for an educated audience with little background in biology. Excellent illustrations enhance understanding for students.
Rozek, Laura S., Dana C. Dolinoy, Maureen A. Sartor, and Gilbert S. Omenn. 2014. Epigenetics: Relevance and implications for public health. Annual Review of Public Health 35:105–122.
This complicated overview for public health professionals includes information about epigenetic research methods not found in other overviews. Because it was written to an audience of public health professionals, it also contains information related to population health not included in other articles in this section.
Tung, Jenny, and Yoav Gilad. 2013. Social environmental effects on gene regulation. Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences 70.22: 4323–4339.
Critical review of human and (mostly) animal research on effects and mechanisms involved in influences of social environment on health and behavior. References to specific genes and proteins may limit some readers’ understanding of specifics, but overall presents cogent, recent review of research on effects of the social environment on gene regulation.
Walsh, Anthony, and Ilhong Yun. 2014. Epigenetics and allostasis: Implications for criminology. Criminal Justice Review. Published online.
Accessible summary of epigenetics and (See Karatoreos and McEwen 2013, cited under in Effects of Stress and Trauma; and Walsh and Yun 2014). Introduces the process and mechanisms of epigenesis and explains relationship to allostasis. Accessible introduction to several specific genes that are of interest to criminologists and social workers.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email firstname.lastname@example.org to express your interest.
- Adolescent Depression
- Adolescent Pregnancy
- Adoption Home Study Assessments
- Adult Protective Services in the United States
- African Americans
- Aging, Physical Health and
- Alcohol and Drug Abuse Problems
- Alcohol and Drug Problems, Prevention of Adolescent and Yo...
- Alcohol Problems: Practice Interventions
- Alcohol Use Disorder
- Alzheimer's Disease and Other Dementias
- Anti-Oppressive Practice
- Asian Americans
- Asian-American Youth
- Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Baccalaureate Social Workers
- Behavioral Health
- Behavioral Social Work Practice
- Bereavement Practice
- Brief Therapies in Social Work: Task-Centered Model and So...
- Bullying and Social Work Intervention
- Canadian Social Welfare, History of
- Case Management in Mental Health in the United States
- Child Poverty
- Child Welfare
- Child Welfare and Child Protection in Europe, History of
- Children of Incarcerated Parents
- Chronic Illness
- Clinical Social Work Practice with Adult Lesbians
- Cognitive Behavior Therapies with Diverse and Stressed Pop...
- Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy
- Community Development
- Community Policing
- Community-Based Participatory Research
- Community-Needs Assessment
- Comparative Social Work
- Conflict Resolution
- Council on Social Work Education
- Counseling Female Offenders
- Criminal Justice
- Crisis Interventions
- Cultural Competence and Ethnic Sensitive Practice
- Culture, Ethnicity, Substance Use, and Substance Use Disor...
- Dementia Care, Ethical Aspects of
- Depression and Cancer
- Development and Infancy (Birth to Age Three)
- Direct Practice in Social Work
- Domestic Violence Among Immigrants
- Eating Disorders
- Ecological Framework
- Economic Evaluation
- Elder Mistreatment
- End-of-Life Decisions
- Epigenetics for Social Workers
- Ethics and Values in Social Work
- Evidence-based Social Work Practice
- Evidence-based Social Work Practice: Finding Evidence
- Evidence-based Social Work Practice: Issues, Controversies...
- Experimental and Quasi-Experimental Designs
- Families with Gay, Lesbian, or Bisexual Parents
- Family Caregiving
- Family Group Conferencing
- Family Policy
- Family Services
- Family Therapy
- Family Violence
- Fathering Among Families Served By Child Welfare
- Field Education
- Financing Health-Care Delivery in the United States
- Forensic Social Work
- Foster Care
- Gay Men
- Generalist Practice and Advanced Generalist Practice
- Group Work
- Group Work across Populations, Challenges, and Settings
- Group Work, Research, Best Practices, and Evidence-based
- Harm Reduction
- Health Care Reform
- Health Disparities
- Health Social Work
- History of Social Work and Social Welfare, 1950-1980
- History of Social Work and Social Welfare, pre-1900
- History of Social Work from 1980-2014
- History of Social Work in China
- History of Social Work in Northern Ireland
- History of Social Work in the Republic of Ireland
- History of Social Work in the United Kingdom
- HIV/AIDS Prevention with Adolescents
- Homelessness Outside the United States
- Human Needs
- Human Trafficking, Victims of
- Immigrant Policy in the United States
- Immigrants and Refugees
- Immigrants and Refugees: Evidence-based Social Work Practi...
- Impaired Professionals
- Implementation Science and Practice
- Indigenous Peoples
- Individual Placement and Support (IPS) Supported Employmen...
- International Social Welfare
- International Social Work
- International Social Work and Education
- International Social Work and Social Welfare in Southern A...
- Internet and Video Game Addiction
- Interpersonal Psychotherapy
- Intervention with Traumatized Populations
- Intimate Partner Violence
- Juvenile Justice
- Korean Americans
- Latinos and Latinas
- Law, Social Work and the
- Life Span
- Major Depressive Disorder
- Management and Administration in Social Work
- Maternal Mental Health
- Measurement, Scales, and Indices
- Medical Illness
- Men: Health and Mental Health Care
- Mental Health
- Mental Health Diagnosis and the Addictive Substance Disord...
- Mental Health Needs of Older People, Assessing the
- Mental Illness: Children
- Mental Illness: Elders
- Middle East and North Africa, International Social Work an...
- Military Social Work
- Mixed Methods Research
- Motivational Interviewing
- Native Americans
- Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders
- Neighborhood Social Cohesion
- Neuroscience and Social Work
- Nicotine Dependence
- Occupational Social Work
- Organizational Development and Change
- Pain Management
- Palliative Care
- Palliative Care: Evolution and Scope of Practice
- Parent Training
- Philosophy of Science and Social Work
- Physical Disabilities
- Police Social Work
- Positive Youth Development
- Postmodernism and Social Work
- Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Practice Interventions and Aging
- Practice Interventions with Adolescents
- Practice Research
- Primary Prevention in the 21st Century
- Productive Engagement of Older Adults
- Profession, Social Work
- Psychiatric Rehabilitation
- Psychoanalysis and Psychodynamic Theory
- Psychopathology and Social Work Practice
- Psychopharmacology and Social Work Practice
- Psychosocial Framework
- Psychosocial Intervention with Women
- Qualitative Research
- Race and Racism
- Religiously Affiliated Agencies
- Reproductive Health
- Research Ethics
- Restorative Justice
- Risk Assessment in Child Protection Services
- Risk Management in Social Work
- Rural Social Work Practice
- School Social Work
- School Violence
- School-Based Delinquency Prevention
- Services and Programs for Pregnant and Parenting Youth
- Severe and Persistent Mental Illness: Adults
- Sexual Assault
- Single-System Research Designs
- Social Development
- Social Insurance and Social Justice
- Social Intervention Research
- Social Justice and Social Work
- Social Movements
- Social Planning
- Social Policy
- Social Security in the United States (OASDHI)
- Social Work Education and Research
- Social Work Regulation
- Social Work Research Methods
- Solution-Focused Therapy
- Strategic Planning
- Strengths Perspective
- Strengths-Based Models in Social Work
- Supplemental Security Income
- Survey Research
- Systematic Review Methods
- Task-Centered Practice
- Technology, Human Relationships, and Human Interaction
- Technology in Social Work
- Terminal Illness
- Transdisciplinary Science
- Translational Science and Social Work
- United States, History of Social Welfare in the
- Veteran Services
- Victim Services
- Welfare State Reform in France
- Welfare State Theory
- Women and Macro Social Work Practice
- Women's Health Care
- Work and Family in the German Welfare State
- Working with Non-Voluntary and Mandated Clients
- Young and Adolescent Lesbians
- Youth at Risk
- Youth Services