ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Genealogical hybridities

Contact Convenor: Sarah Franklin

Department of Sociology, Lancaster University
Lancaster, LA1 4YL

Tel: 01524 594 187 

Co-Convenor: Catherine Nash 

Panel abstract

Genealogy is one of anthropology's central areas of study, and remains a core concept within the discipline. Like kinship and gender, genealogy has been the subject of ongoing debate, particularly in relation to the idea of biological, or natural, facts. In its naturalised idiom, genealogy remains a hugely popular object of cultural fascination, and building family trees has, ironically, promoted the growth of what might be described as the (virtual) worldwide genealogical web. The human genome project, also an informatic and computational site of emergent hybrid genealogies, situates the human genome in the context of those of dogs, mice, orchids, worms, and yeast. Meanwhile, the reprogramming of mammalian genealogy enabled through new methods of cellular reconstruction, such as the dolly technique, have produced higher vertebrates that look 'perfectly natural', but have genealogically 'impossible' ancestry.

Genealogies have always mixed plant, animal and human models of blood connection, or bloodlines, as they have also been composed out of a mixture of literal and figurative resources, such as bibles, trees, insignia, brands, and diagrams. The idea of the line, at once self-evident and not as a figure of descent, figures an imagined genealogical connection, but is inevitably exceeded by genealogical complexity – as is the tree. Pedigrees, now increasingly intertwined with notions of provenance, as in the context of stem cells, have long united diverse genealogical contexts, from medical record-keeping, to aristocratic lineages, to stud books. As genealogy becomes increasingly visibly ambiguous in the context of contemporary bioscience, these hybridities of the genealogical become even more interesting to think with, including within the history of anthropology, where genealogy has always played something of a trickster role.

Using these complexities to investigate specific case studies is the aim of this panel, which is both ethnographic and comparative. Emergent hybrid genealogies are the source of new biological literalisms which invite ethnographic interpretation, both in relation to the history of anthropology, and the future of the idea of biological connection.

Biological relations and exchange

Linda F. Hogle, Stanford University

The search for origins leads individuals to seek the donor whose egg or semen contributed to their existence and transplant recipients to research the identity of the donor of their new body part. Whether the links are genetic or not, such socially-created biological connections exist within institutional frameworks intended to manage anonymity and govern the rules of exchange. Genealogical quests are often stimulated by unintended consequences or disorders that may arise, as much as curiosity about the person who was the source of the biological material. With even more complex hybrid crossings, such as the ability to partially rebuild bodies using biological materials (such as adult or embryonic stem cells) that can be modified, proliferated to create multiple forms and potentially distributed in mass markets, emergent forms of relatedness and exchange relations are being formed. Processes of authentication are central, as are systems for valuation, management of biological and taxonomic information, and definition-making.  This paper will discuss exchange and biological relatedness, with particular focus on therapeutic products and research tools made from stem cells.

Genetic kinship

Catherine Nash, University of London

The recent marketing of genetic tests for popular genealogy is one significant interface between genetic science and public culture in the West. These new commodities offer to situate individuals within global patterns of human genetic diversity, locate genetic origins and sort out biological relatedness from practised kinship. Addressing recent attempts to popularise genetic tests in genealogy, I consider how ideas of gender, reproduction, nation, ‘race’ and relatedness are being shaped by and deployed within their discourses of genetic kinship. In these efforts to geneticise genealogy, the idiom of kinship and the gendering of narratives of reproduction and descent are used to make these tests meaningful and to distance them from ideas of ‘race’ and ethnicity. Discourses of family relatedness provide a grammar for translating the complexities of population genetics into public culture. At the same time geneticised genealogy produces new versions of genetic kinship in the form of Y-chromosome genetic brotherhood, mitochondrial DNA clan membership and global genetic kinship. This paper attends to the nature and implications of this coalition of new and familiar forms of kinship in geneticised genealogy.

‘Blood relatives’; the hybridities of kinship and knowledge in BRCA genetics

Sahra Gibbon, UCL

The way that kinship is used as a context for knowledge has been extensively illustrated in anthropological work in relation to new reproductive and genetic technologies.  This paper, drawing from such studies, explores how notions of ‘substance’ and ‘code’ are put to work at the interface between patients and practitioners in a breast cancer genetic clinic.  On the one hand the explicitness of biological connection and genealogical descent, engendered by the discovery of inherited susceptibly genes,  indexes the naturalising power and potential of predictive genetics.  But the application of genetic knowledge  is also fundamentally predicated on the exchange of rights or fulfilment of responsibilities between kin; a sociality that is presumed to underlie enduring and affective kin ties.   In this sense BRCA knowledge and technologies rely and make use of the ‘combinatory power’ at the heart of a notion of ‘blood relative’(Carsten 2001).  Such hybrid entailments and requirements are however not always necessarily readily accepted or easily fulfilled (by patients or practitioners) revealing the scope and danger of making them literal in the context of health care practice.

Recording relatedness:  ‘Nonbiological birth mothers’ and other new possibilities

Jacquelyne Luce, Lancaster University

In this paper I explore the intersection of desires to trace genealogies, and make genealogies traceable, with the everyday stakes of achieving recognition of relatedness. In particular I am interested in the ways in which movements for legal recognition of lesbian parents have questioned the meanings and legal implications of genealogical records.  How do queer women position themselves within these interrelated discourses of genealogy, history and recognition?  What are the implications of tracing queer genealogies along particular lines?  Is it possible to conceptualise multi-lateral genealogies?  This paper is based on fieldwork conducted in British Columbia, Canada; a location that witnessed significant shifts in legislation supporting the possibility of queer parenting during the late-1990s.  Since 1996, queer women in British Columbia have been permitted to adopt children and apply for a new birth certificate recording both women’s names.  In 2001, a human rights tribunal decision established the possibility for a ‘nonbiological birth mother’ to register herself, along with the woman who gave birth to the child, as a child’s parent without going through an adoption.  By drawing on queer women’s narratives about their experiences of completing birth registration forms and filing for adoption I aim to explore the complex negotiations of genealogies in the context of donor assisted conception. 

Family trees and the making of time

Mette Nordahl Svendsen, Institute of Anthropology, University of Copenhagen

This paper discusses the relationship between the drawing of family trees in cancer genetic counselling and the making of time.

In cancer genetic counselling in Denmark, an individual risk assessment is based on a family’s medical history, making the family tree the primary tool to assess a genetic risk of cancer of specific individuals. To the clinical geneticist the family tree appears as a kind of map, which may reveal, what is often called 'the journey of the gene'. Genes are depicted as subjects that irreversibly travel from one generation to the next and become responsible for illness.

Taking my point of departure in the idea that practice does not take place in time but makes time (Bourdieu 2000), I discuss the ways in which the drawing of family trees in genetic counselling makes specific links between past, present and future which reconfigures counselee’s experience of being-in-time. In particular, I explore how the notion of genes and 'the time of genealogy ' (Franklin, Lury and Stacey 2000) bring events of the past into the present in a way that comes to have significance for the lived experience of kinship. 

My analysis is based on an ethnographic fieldwork among people who have gone through a process of cancer genetic counselling and testing in Denmark.

Dissolving the solid body: solidity, fluidity and kinship theory

Debbie Long, University of Melbourne

Based on ethnographic fieldwork carried out in the maternity unit of an Australian public hospital, exploring beliefs and practices surrounding the body fluids blood, milk and semen, this paper examines the idea of fluidity/solidity as an ordering principle in Western understandings of the world. I suggest that within Western cultural styles of understanding and coming to know the world, physical solids and fluids provide symbols and metaphors for an abstract logic of fluidity and solidity. I argue that epistemologies of solidity and fluidity inform lay, scientific and academic understandings of the world, and explore ways in which epistemologies of fluidity and solidity have been and are central to anthropological kinship theorizing.

Genealogies of the future: law, science, and the making of potential persons

Stefan Sperling, Princeton University

In 2002 Germany passed a controversial Stem Cell Law that prohibits the production of human embryonic stem cells in Germany, but approves the import of such cells for research under 'exceptional' circumstances. A Central Ethics Commission was instituted to test for the presence of these circumstances, among which are the 'high priority' of, and the 'absence of alternatives' to the research proposed. This paper argues that scientific practices on, and legal conceptualizations of people who never will exist have collaborated in rewriting future genealogies, and thereby altered the meaning of genealogy, by bringing into existence human beings endowed with potentiality but lacking actuality. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and expert interviews in scientific and legal arenas, this paper will explore how the discourses of potential patienthood and potential personhood in Germany have intertwined to create new entities credited with partial human rights and dignity.

"They want to know where they came from": population genetics and family genealogy 

Richard Tutton, York University

This paper takes as its starting point the relatively uncontroversial nature of research on genetic diversity in Europe. It argues that the characterisation of population genetics as 'historical sleuthing' indicates how this research appealed to the strong popular interest amongst European societies in heritage, history and especially genealogy. This paper presents empirical research with participants in a genetic study who donated blood samples in anticipation that personal feedback on the analysis of these samples would elucidate aspects of their own family genealogies. It also documents how geneticists, building on the practices of offering personal feedback to research participants, have gone further to market genetic tests direct to people wishing to trace their family genealogies. The paper considers some of the social and ethical issues that this development in the use of genetic testing raises.

Assisted origins

Sarah Franklin, Lancaster University and Celia Roberts, Lancaster University

What is the genealogy of the 'designer baby'? It is nothing if not contested. A limit point to the idea of reproductive and genetic choice, the designer baby is also an expression of professional and parental attempts to prevent the suffering of offspring at risk of severe genetic disease -- or indeed to enable siblings to be tissue matched to help an ailing child.  Looking inside the term 'designer baby', and drawing on recent ethnographic work in the context of preimplantation genetic technologies, we explore the multiple and hybrid contents of designer baby genealogies.

"A different mix":  kinship and ova traffic in an Israeli context

Michal Nahman, Lancaster University

In a place where IVF was referred to as nothing more, and nothing less, than "the sanctification of the [husband's] gene", ova donation is seen as the 'last resort'. Yet, despite the fact that Israel's pronatalism supports the highest number of fertility clinics per capita in the world (Kahn 2000) and in the face of Israel's 'demographic war' against Palestinians (Kanaaneh 2002; Yuval-Davis 1997), Israelis experience great difficulty accessing ova within their country.

The combined efforts of start up capital, medical expertise, judicial battles and patient outrage about 'rights' to egg donation have led to the development of several networks of transborder egg traffic between Israel, Cyprus and Eastern Europe. This costly measure, which Israelis take on in order to 'build families', has led to contradictory allusions to Jewish kinship, Israeli nationalism and blood relations that often echo European racial taxonomies and notions of genetic inheritance. This paper explores the ways in which Israeli narratives of kinship and relationality are infused with fears of HIV transmission; pollution of the national character; hopes for beautiful children, and the prayer for a happy nuclear family.

Discussants: Hannah Landecker (Rice)