An Inter-generational Perspective on Social Inequality in Health and Life Opportunities: The Maternal Capital Model

  • Jonathan C. K. Wells
  • Akanksha A. Marphatia


Both biological and social scientists have previously offered relatively ‘deterministic’ explanations for the persistence of social hierarchies across generations, emphasising genes and culture respectively. In this chapter we aim to go beyond this artificial dichotomy, focusing on how inequalities in health and capabilities emerge inter-generationally through biological plasticity, whereby the phenotype responds across the life-course to diverse environmental stimuli and stresses. Through plasticity, chronic exposure to adverse circumstances can induce a cumulative phenotypic condition that may take several generations fully to reverse, without being inevitable. We focus on growth, education and health outcomes to illustrate these concepts. Our approach goes beyond previous consideration of how social stresses lead to biological ‘embedding’ or ‘embodying’ by placing unique emphasis on the mediating role of maternal phenotype.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Jonathan C. K. Wells
    • 1
  • Akanksha A. Marphatia
    • 2
  1. 1.Childhood Nutrition Research CentreUCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child HealthLondonUK
  2. 2.Department of GeographyUniversity of CambridgeCambridgeUK

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