Keynote Deborah Youdell

Genetics, difference and solidarity in education: the case for critical bio-social studies in education

Professor Deborah Youdell, School of Education, University of Birmingham



What do the new biological sciences of genetics, epigenetics, and nutrigenetics mean for solidarity in education? Advances in these sciences frequently capture the headlines and are creating new knowledge about identity, development, health and learning. In education, sociological research has made significant contributions to understanding how intersecting ‘social’ and ‘student’ identities are created and how these processes connect to inequality. Yet governments are using new biological science, not sociology, to inform policy agendas. As these new sciences begin to deliver ever-greater knowledge about the differences between bodies at a cellular level and model uneven distributions of capacities that social justice orientated educators have sought to redistribute, the possibility of solidarity built on a politics of difference becomes an urgent question.

This paper engages with the challenges and possibilities offered by the ascendancy of these new biological knowledges. Focusing on the identities and capacities of students, it considers the interface between sociological, physiological and neurological accounts of the influence of social practice, environment and nutrition on children and young people’s subjectivities and the genetic and biological structures of their bodies and minds. My own previous work has examined student and learner subjectivities, in particular how processes of subjectivation, identification and recognition contribute to inequality (Youdell 2006, 2011). It suggests that subjectivity is made and constrained by social processes that are ongoing and open to change. In biology, developments in nutrigenetics suggest ongoing within-generation interaction between the environment and the body’s genetic code – the influence of diet, nutrition and exercise at a molecular level (Mickelborough & Lindley 2013). Epigenetics suggests enduing inter- and even intra-generational interactions between the environment and the body’s DNA (Belsey et al 2001). And in neuroscience the structures, activities and functions of the brain are being identified at the same time as brain ‘plasticity’ is asserted and debated (Rose 2011, Rose and Rose 2013). These sociological and biological strands all emphasize the complexity of the processes that ‘make’ human subjects, the interplay of body, environment and the social, and the mutability of the body, mind and self. They should have much to say to each other. Yet in education, sociological conceptual, methodological and empirical insights have made little contribution to applications of new biological sciences. This paper explores some of the diversity of questions methodological orientations, and insights found in this new biological work. In particular it shows how while some of this work promises new avenues to ameliorate challenges faced in learning that are potentially equalizing (even as they inscribe once again the ‘normal’), the variability identified by other lines of work simultaneously identifies genetic ‘lack’, moving us from the psychopathology critiqued by Allan and Harwood (2014) to ‘physiopathology’ or ‘pathophysiology’ of/in learning.

Nikolas Rose (2013) calls for social science to develop new ways of working across the social and biological. Similarly, Celia Roberts argues for attention to the ‘infoldings of the social and biological’ (Roberts 2014:300). But limited constructive engagement with the new biological sciences (e.g. Lindley and Youdell 2015) means that sociology of education is ill-placed to better inform policy. The paper concludes by arguing for the pressing need for constructive engagement between sociology of education and epi- and nutri- genetics in order to furnish these sciences with the rich and nuanced understandings of the social environment and its effects that are necessary to work meaningfully across and at the intra-action between the genetic and the social. The paper suggests that such an engagement might enable educators committed to social justice to respond to and work with these new bio-knowledges and the policies that deploy them. It identified potential ways in which such cross-disciplinary work might enhance understandings of children and young people’s subjectivities and capacities that advance, rather than arrest, social justice. And it makes a case for placing a politics of difference, albeit where difference is radically multiplied on planes not previously considered, at the centre of critical bio-social studies in education.


Deborah Youdell is Professor of Sociology of Education in the School of Education, University of Birmingham. A concern with inequalities and modes of politics that can intervene in these are at the heart of Deborah’s work. This question has been pursued through her research into the connections between subjectivities, everyday practices, pedagogy, institutional processes, policy and inequalities, spanning issues of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, social class, ability and disability.  Her work is underpinned by theories of power, the subject, politics and social formations drawn from Michel Foucault, Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Her research expertise is in ethnography and action research. Most recently Deborah has turned her attention to the take-up of new biological sciences, in particular genetics and neuroscience, in education. She is currently undertaking a British Academy Fellowship bringing together post-structural theories of the subject and new biological sciences to interrogate the potential to synthesis these insight for generating new critical understandings of the potentialities of learners, the ways in which these might be opened up or constrained, and what this might mean for educational practices.

Deborah is author of School Trouble: identity, power and politics in education and Impossible Bodies, Impossible Selves: exclusions and student subjectivities. She is co-author of the award-winning book Rationing Education: policy, practice, reform and equity. She is on the Executive Editorial Board of the British Journal of Sociology of Education; Regional Editor of the International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education; and is on the Editorial Boards of Race Ethnicity Education and Gender and Education.