In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Epigenetics for Social Workers

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Biological Mechanisms of Epigenetic Changes
  • Trans-Generational Epigenetics
  • Controversies and Challenges
  • Epigenetic Interventions and Proposed Interventions

Social Work Epigenetics for Social Workers
Terri Combs-Orme
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 June 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 June 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0227


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.

General Overviews

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.

    DOI: 10.1093/sw/sws052

    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.

    DOI: 10.1093/hsw/34.3.191

    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.

    DOI: 10.3389/fcell.2014.00049

    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.

    DOI: 10.1038/scientificamerican1211-76

    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.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-032013-182513

    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.

    DOI: 10.1007/s00018-013-1357-6

    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.

    DOI: 10.1177/0734016814530148

    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.

back to top

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.