Is ‘gene talk’ used to shift responsibility for ‘fat’ problems?

The role of genes in talking about overweight: An analysis of discourse on genetics, overweight and health risks in relation to nutrigenomics

From The Public Understanding of Science

This study looks at how it is evident from everyday talk that information about genetic susceptibility empowers people to live healthily and how people account for the relation between food, health and genes in everyday life. It uses discourse analysis to study accounts of overweight in six group interviews with people who are and who are not overweight. The  indirect focus on behavioral explanations as the norm and the related treatment of gene explanations as implying a denial of personal responsibility for one’s overweight shows the extent to which gene accounts are still connected with attributions of responsibility and blame and the need for self-discipline. The normative orientation to being relaxed about possible health risks and the allied resistance to health fanaticism has also been found in other studies. A nutrigenomics test that reveals genetic susceptibilities for overweight will possibly be treated as an invested account, that is, as an explanation of overweight that is informed by an interest in avoiding personal responsibility and/or blame. Unlike studies that look at how people cognitively understand science, this research shows how ‘gene talk’ can be deployed to shift responsibility for overweight problems, or how it can be drawn upon asymmetrically so as to allow thin children to eat fatty food. It is not the perception of genes per se, or health risks for that matter, but the way these notions are put to use in everyday talk. A gene-based ‘wellness’ focus on health may prove to be a helpful account for preventive behavior, that is, more in tune with the broader everyday notion of health. The article concludes by outlining that as long as the relation between genes and behavior is reproduced as a pure dichotomy, there is little chance of turning gene talk from a blaming device into an accountable and nuanced incentive for healthy behavior.

Abstract

This study examines whether the assumptions embedded in nutrigenomics, especially the alleged relation between information about personal health risks and healthy behaviour, match how people account for the relation between food, health and genes in everyday life. We draw on The results show potentially contradictory normative orientations towards behavioural explanations of (over)weight. Overt gene accounts are interactionally problematic (in contrast to more indirect accounts such as ‘build’), indicating that participants treat ‘behaviour’ as the normatively appropriate explanation for overweight. At the same time, however, healthy behaviour is an accountable matter, i.e. it is dealt with in interaction as behaviour that is not self-evidently right but requires an explanation. It is discussed how bringing these interactional concerns to the surface is essential for understanding future users’ response to nutrigenomics and emergent technologies more in general.

 

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Article details
Komduur, R., & te Molder, H. (2013). The role of genes in talking about overweight: An analysis of discourse on genetics, overweight and health risks in relation to nutrigenomics Public Understanding of Science DOI: 10.1177/0963662512472159

     
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