Identity Politics and the New Genetics: Re/Creating Categories of Difference and Belonging

Posted in Anthologies, Anthropology, Books, Caribbean/Latin America, Europe, Health/Medicine/Genetics, History, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science, United Kingdom on 2012-03-18 03:04Z by Steven

Identity Politics and the New Genetics: Re/Creating Categories of Difference and Belonging

Berghahn Books
January 2012
226 pages
tables & figs, bibliog., index
Hardback ISBN: 978-0-85745-253-5

Edited by:

Katharina Schramm, Senior Lecturer of Social Anthropology
Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg

David Skinner, Reader in Sociology
Anglia Ruskin University, United Kingdom

Richard Rottenburg, Professor Social Anthropology
Martin-Luther-University Halle-Wittenberg

Racial and ethnic categories have appeared in recent scientific work in novel ways and in relation to a variety of disciplines: medicine, forensics, population genetics and also developments in popular genealogy. Once again, biology is foregrounded in the discussion of human identity. Of particular importance is the preoccupation with origins and personal discovery and the increasing use of racial and ethnic categories in social policy. This new genetic knowledge, expressed in technology and practice, has the potential to disrupt how race and ethnicity are debated, managed and lived. As such, this volume investigates the ways in which existing social categories are both maintained and transformed at the intersection of the natural (sciences) and the cultural (politics). The contributors include medical researchers, anthropologists, historians of science and sociologists of race relations; together, they explore the new and challenging landscape where biology becomes the stuff of identity.


  • List of Illustrations and Tables
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction: Ideas in Motion: Making Sense of Identity After DNA; Katharina Schramm, David Skinner, Richard Rottenburg
  • Chapter 1. ‘Race’ as a Social Construction in Genetics; Andrew Smart, Richard Tutton, Paul Martin, George Ellison
  • Chapter 2. Mobile Identities and Fixed Categories: Forensic DNA and the Politics of Racialised Data; David Skinner
  • Chapter 3. Race, Kinship and the Ambivalence of Identity; Peter Wade
  • Chapter 4. Identity, DNA, and the State in Post-Dictatorship Argentina; Noa Vaisman
  • Chapter 5. ‘Do You Have Celtic, Jewish, Germanic Roots?’ – Applied Swiss History Before and After DNA; Marianne Sommer
  • Chapter 6. Irish DNA: Making Connections and Making Distinctions in Y-Chromosome Surname Studies; Catherine Nash
  • Chapter 7. Genomics en route: Ancestry, Heritage, and the Politics of Identity Across the Black Atlantic; Katharina Schramm
  • Chapter 8. Biotechnological Cults of Affliction? Race, Rationality, and Enchantment in Personal Genomic Histories; Stephan Palmié
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Bibliography
  • Index
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Race and Genomics. Old Wine in New Bottles? Documents from a Transdisciplinary Discussion

Posted in Anthropology, Articles, Health/Medicine/Genetics, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy on 2011-08-28 22:02Z by Steven

Race and Genomics. Old Wine in New Bottles? Documents from a Transdisciplinary Discussion

NTM Zeitschrift für Geschichte der Wissenschaften, Technik und Medizin
Volume 16, Number 3 (August 2008)
pages 363-386
DOI 10.1007/S00048-008-0301-6

Staffan Müller-Wille
ESRC Centre for Genomics in Society
University of Exeter

Hans-Jörg Rheinberger
Max-Planck-Institut für Wissenschaftsgeschichte
Berlin, Germany

From July 25 to 29, 2007, the biennial meeting of the International Society for the History, Philosophy, and Social Studies of Biology(ISHPSSB) was hosted by the University of Exeter. About 430 papers were submitted, and we had the pleasure to put together a programme as well as a plenary session of invited speakers on a topic of their choice. After some discussion within the programme committee, we decided to organize a session of four speakers who were asked to address, each from a different disciplinary perspective, the recent re-emphasis on racial categories in genomic studies of ancestry, public health, pharmacology, and forensics.

The topic was not only chosen because of its timeliness. It so happened that the ISHPSSB meeting also coincided with the tercentenary of both Georges Buffon and Carl Linnaeus. Both are arguably the founding fathers of modern biology, with the emphasis they put on the reproduction rather than the generation of living beings (Müller-Wille/Rheinberger 2007). But there is also another legacy of these naturalists, one which is more problematic. This is racial anthropology which both Buffon and Linnaeus, almost simultaneously, initiated by their proposals for a universal partitioning of mankind along lines of skin colour, temperament, and descent (Sloan 1995). This original classification of mankind into three or four major ”races”—a white, a black, and a yellow or red one—is still very much in place, even in the high-tech contexts of today’s genomics. According to its own rhetoric, for example, the International Haplotype Map Project studies human genomic variation through four sample populations” (see The choice of these sample populations, however, is revealing: the Yoruba in Ibadan, Nigeria; Japanese from Tokyo; the Han Chinese from Beijing; Utah residents with ancestry from northern and western Europe. This choice was undoubtedly guided by the colour scheme originally proposed by Linnaeus and Buffon. The history of race in biology and medicine exhibits a curious mixture of archaic and innovative elements.

Until very recently there existed a broad consensus among scientists, as well as students of science, that racial anthropology belonged to a past thoroughly outdated by the combined efforts of mathematical population genetics and molecular biology, a consensus that dates back to the so-called UNESCO Statement on Race from 1951. However, in the wake of the completion of the Human Genome Project, and with projects like the Human Diversity Project, the HapMap Project, various national ‘biobank’ projects, and a diversity of private and public initiatives of ‘ancestry’ research, racial categories appear to have regained significance in recent years again, inside and outside of the biomedical sciences. Human genomic diversity is mapped against grids of racial distinctions, drugs and life-style recommendations target racially defined groups, and genetic tests offer the opportunity to determine ancestry in racial terms. Increasingly, close historical scrutiny also reveals that race was not only put back on the agenda again occasionally by high-profile publications like Richard J. Herrnstein’s and Charles Murray’s The Bell Curve (1994), but that it has also formed a persistent thread in medical and population genetics research throughout the post-WWII era (Pogliano 2005, Wailoo/Pemberton 2006).

To set the stage for the plenary session, we included five questions in the letter of invitation that we sent to the four speakers. It may be useful to quote them here, as they were originally formulated: “What is it about racial categories—famously introduced in an ad hoc fashion by Buffon and Linnaeus, and again and again denounced as primitive and untenable by prominent life-scientists in the course of their long history—that lets them persist, even in the high-tech world of present day genomics and systems biology? Or is this resilience just an illusion? Has ‘race’, just like any other scientific concept, acquired very different meanings in different historical settings? In that case: How does ‘race’ in its present usage differ from ‘race’ in the past? And which recent social and political developments have triggered its renewed significance?”

The four statements that were given in front of the delegates of the ISHPSSB meeting on the morning of July 26, 2007, were very different in style and perspective. We will not endeavour to distil a common take-home message from them, but will let each speak for themselves. One common structural element to all of them, however, is probably worth pointing out, as it may reflect the specific historical moment in which the session took place. This is the acknowledgement that “race” is not per se an “irrational” concept, but a highly variable and diverse concept that was and continues to be shaped by the ways in which science and society are articulated.

…Is there a Biological Concept of Race?

Jean Gayon
Université Paris 1-Panthéon Sorbonne
Institut d’histoire et philosophie des sciences et des techniques

Most contemporary biologists have abandoned the use of the term “race” in scientific discourse. Other words are used to categorise intra-specific taxonomic diversity: sub-species, variety, strain, local population, deme, etc. These words are ideologically more neutral than “race.” Nevertheless, biologists find it difficult when they discuss with a public that continues to use the vocabulary of “race.” For example, when a biologist says “races do not exist”, the exact meaning is generally unclear. Does he or she mean that the notion of race is confused? Or that the term does have a precise meaning, but that what it refers to does not exist, either in nature in general, or among humans in particular? This is the question I want to examine in two steps. First I will consider what the category of race could mean for modern biologists as a whole; then I will examine those aspects that specifically relate to humans…

…To conclude, I would like to relativize the biological approaches to the notion of race in the case of humans, and say that in humans, the most important aspect of race is not the biological aspect, but rather race as a social signifier. In a remarkable book published around 30 years ago, the sociologist Colette Guillaumin argued that we should distinguish two levels of discussion in the question of human races: the “concrete” level which, she argues, is that of biological research, and the “symbolic” level, which relates to the function of the signifier “race” in modern societies. Guillaumin insisted that the question of race as a social signifier is separate from that of the result of scientific debates on races as natural objects. Race as a social operator is not so much a concept as a fetish-notion. What is important is not whether it exists or not, but what it produces in practice. “That [i.e., race] does not exist. That leads to death. It is a murder machine, a technical murder machine. Of proven efficacy. It is a way of rationalising and organising the murderous violence and the domination of some social groups over other social groups that have been rendered powerless.” (Guillaumin 1972: 65)…

…Race in History

Renato G. Mazzolini
Università degli studi di Trento
Dipartimento di Scienze Umane e Sociali

The only way I may contribute to the issue under discussion is by briefly talking about my own research and then by addressing four of the five questions that have been put on the floor by the organizers of this session (see introduction). Let me also state straight away that I feel more confident with literature published between 1600 and 1850 than in contemporary scientific literature on race and that my knowledge is limited to ideas and theories put forth in western Europe and North America.

It is generally assumed that the term race took on a taxonomic meaning at the very end of the eighteenth century. Many of the authors I studied worked before that date, before the notion of race was solidified, and they investigated skin colour (Mazzolini 1994). It should be noted that in the period running from the early seventeenth century to 1800 human pigmentation…

  • was the object of intense anatomical, microscopical, physiological and chemical investigations giving rise to a number of theories which attempted to explain how human differences in skin colour came about;
  • was used as the principal marker for classifying human varieties from a zoological point of view;
  • was viewed as the main trait indicating interracial crossing and thus provided an element of analysis for what is often called pre-Mendelian genetics;
  • stimulated scholars to think about the original colour of mankind by appearing in pathological conditions such as albinism;
  • was the cornerstone on which the notion of race was constructed;
  • was used to construct powerful models of somatic identities (e.g. white, black, yellow, brown and red) which still have far more devastating effects on human relations than the very notion of race.

Theories of skin colour cannot be understood without considering slavery and colonialism. At the end of the eighteenth century and in the early nineteenth century skin colour was linked to history, civilisation and social structure. And so was the notion of race, for which skin colour remained the main marker of racial differences (Mazzolini 2007). For this reason I stress that race is a biopolitical notion, that is, a notion that has been used in daily life as well as by the life sciences and the social sciences, with the result of reciprocal contaminations. At a historical level this is quite evident. Some scholars distinguish four distinct ideas of race: status-race, formal-race, historical-race, and culture-race. From my point of view, it is interesting to note that in all these four ideas of race, colour plays a significant role…

…Race and Biology. Beyond the Perpetual Return of Crisis

Jenny Reardon
University of California, Santa Cruz
Sociology Department

The use of racial categories in biology has once again arisen as a problem in political and scholarly arenas. As the editors of this issue note, “until recently there existed a broad consensus among scientists, as well as students of science, that racial anthropology belonged to a past thoroughly outdated by the combined efforts of mathematical population genetics and molecular biology.” Several other similar moments of consensus preceded this one. In each moment, natural scientists, social scientists and the popular press concurred that a new powerful science had emerged that could reveal the truth, and thus counter social ideologies, about “race”: the science of population genetics in the 1950s, molecular biology in the 1970s, the genome sciences and bioinformatics in the 1990s and today. In each case, a crisis reoccurred as social ideologies of race once again became associated with biological ideas and practices. In the brief space at my disposal here I would like to reflect on what produces this experience of the cyclical return of the problem of race in biology. I would like to then offer a diagnosis of what is unique about the current moment of return, and how we might respond to it…

…An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Impact of Genomics on the Meaning of “Race”, and the Future Role of Racial Categories in Biomedical Research

George T. H. Ellison
St. George’s-University of London

Richard Tutton

Simon M. Outram

Paul Martin

Richard Ashcroft

Andrew Smart

As an interdisciplinary team exploring the use of racial categories in biomedical research from the perspective of epidemiology (GTHE), anthropology (GTHE, SMO), sociology (RT, AS), bioethics (RA) and science and technology studies (RT, PM, AS), what we hope to offer to this trans-disciplinary dialogue on “race and genomics” in the NTM. Journal of the History of Science, Technology and Medicine draws on: our analysis of the longstanding debate within the biomedical literature concerning the meaning and aetiological utility of “race” as well as interviews with 22 geneticists working on the editorial boards of high-impact genetics and biomedical journals and 36 researchers working on UK-based biobanking and pharmacogenetic projects– interviews which examined variation in the conceptualisation and operationalisation of racial categories, and the perceived utility of these categories in the analytical design of research, the interpretation of research findings, and the translation thereof across different research and clinical contexts (see Outram/Ellison 2006a, Martin et al. 2007).

At the outset, however, we feel it is important to acknowledge that much of what we hope to contribute here has already been said, and said more eloquently, by a good many commentators and analysts before us. Not least amongst these is the Loyola University epidemiologist Richard S. Cooper, whose 2003 article in the International Journal of Epidemiology (bearing the uncannily similar title “Race, genes, and health—new wine in old bottles”) addressed many of the questions posed by the organisers of this trans-disciplinary dialogue. Cooper felt that advances in genetic technology should have been able to resolve the contentious and questionable use of racial categories as “surrogates for genetic effects at the population level” (i.e. as markers for potentially important differences in genetic variation amongst human populations) during the important period—what anthropologist Mike Fortun (2007) has called the “meantime”—between the conceptualisation and invention of genomic technologies and their widespread use in biomedical research. Richard Cooper also recognised that there was a “tension between reaffirmation of tradition and transformation of biological concepts” in which the new genomic technologies have, somewhat paradoxically, been used both to confirm that there are measurable differences in genetic variation between traditional “racial” groups and to demonstrate that these differences are far smaller than those found between individuals within such groups (cf. Reardon in this issue). And although Cooper has long questioned the value of using “racial” categories as markers for genetic variation in biomedical research (see also: Cooper 1993, Cooper/Kaufman 1998)—even for the modest “racial” differences in genetic variation that have been confirmed by advances in genomic technology—he accepts that the meaning of these differences in genetic variation remain open to interpretation, and that the claim that “race has little or no biological [i.e. genetic] meaning” has been an unhelpful “irritant to geneticists who see the importance of population variation [in genetics] in an array of conditions.”…

Read the entire article here.

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What’s the Use of Race? Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference

Posted in Anthologies, Anthropology, Books, Media Archive, Politics/Public Policy, Social Science on 2010-06-24 03:56Z by Steven

What’s the Use of Race? Modern Governance and the Biology of Difference

The MIT Press
May 2010
7 x 9, 296 pp., 7 illus.
ISBN-10: 0-262-51424-9
ISBN-13: 978-0-262-51424-8

Edited by

Ian Whitmarsh, Assistant Professor
Department of Anthropology, History, and Social Medicine
University of California, San Francisco

David S. Jones, Associate Professor of History and Culture of Science and Technology
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

The post–civil rights era perspective of many scientists and scholars was that race was nothing more than a social construction. Recently, however, the relevance of race as a social, legal, and medical category has been reinvigorated by science, especially by discoveries in genetics. Although in 2000 the Human Genome Project reported that humans shared 99.9 percent of their genetic code, scientists soon began to argue that the degree of variation was actually greater than this, and that this variation maps naturally onto conventional categories of race. In the context of this rejuvenated biology of race, the contributors to What’s the Use of Race? investigate whether race can be a category of analysis without reinforcing it as a basis for discrimination. Can policies that aim to alleviate inequality inadvertently increase it by reifying race differences?

The essays focus on contemporary questions at the cutting edge of genetics and governance, examining them from the perspectives of law, science, and medicine. The book follows the use of race in three domains of governance: ruling, knowing, and caring. Contributors first examine the use of race and genetics in the courtroom, law enforcement, and scientific oversight; then explore the ways that race becomes, implicitly or explicitly, part of the genomic science that attempts to address human diversity; and finally investigate how race is used to understand and act on inequities in health and disease. Answering these questions is essential for setting policies for biology and citizenship in the twenty-first century.

Contributors: Richard Ashcroft, Richard S. Cooper, Kjell A. Doksum, George T. H. Ellison, Steven Epstein, Joan H. Fujimura, Amy Hinterberger, Angela C. Jenks, David S. Jones, Jonathan Kahn, Jay S. Kaufman, Nancy Krieger, Paul Martin, Pilar N. Ossorio, Simon Outram, Ramya Rajagopalan, Dorothy Roberts, Pamela Sankar, Andrew Smart, Richard Tutton, Ian Whitmarsh

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