Early-Life Exposures and Social Stratification by Florenia Torche and Jenna Nobles (2024)

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Annual Review of Sociology


Adverse environmental exposures—war and violence, natural disasters, escalating heat, worsening air quality—experienced in pregnancy are consequential for multiple domains of well-being over the life course, including health, cognitive development, schooling, and earnings. Though these environmental exposures become embodied via biological processes, they are fundamentally sociological phenomena: Their emergence, allocation, and impact are structured by institutions and power. As a result, consequential early-life environmental exposures are a critical part of the sociological understanding of social stratification, intergenerational mobility, and individual and cohort life course trajectories. We review theory and evidence on prenatal exposures, describe enduring methodological issues and potential solutions for elucidating these effects, and discuss the importance of this evidence for the stratification of opportunity and outcomes in contemporary societies.