ASA Decennial Conference - Anthropology and Science

Panel information

Race, ethnicity, biotechnology and science

Contact Convenor: Peter Wade

Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester
Roscoe Building
Oxford Road
Manchester M13 9PL

Tel: 0161 275 3991 

Panel abstract

Recently Paul Gilroy contended that “the meaning of racial difference is being reconstructed by the impact of the DNA revolution and of the technological developments that have energized it”. This panel seeks to explore this contention and enquire into how – if indeed at all – new genetic technologies and different kinds of knowledge about them are influencing ideas about race and related ideas about ethnicity and nationhood. Do the mapping of the human genome and the advent of techniques for manipulating genes and processes of human reproduction destabilise existing meanings around racialised difference? Or are these phenomena subject to strategic redeployment to reinstate existing racial differences, perhaps in more insidious and deterministic ways? Might both processes be occurring at the same time, but in different social contexts, or in the same social contexts, but at different moments? Does the so-called geneticisation of social life lead to a greater naturalisation of racialised difference, relocating it from the realm of essentialised culture to that of geneticised nature? Or perhaps idioms of genes as information code and cybernetic process lead to a more flexible notion of nature, so that even if racial meanings become geneticised they can also escape determinist interpretations.

This panel aims to bring together researchers interested in these themes, who may be working directly on issues related to race, but also on a variety of different themes: assisted conception, transnational adoption, sport, national identity, immigration, forensic anthropology, genomics and so on.

The meaning of race in the new genetics: the politics of identifying “difference”

Sandra Soo-Jin Lee, Stanford University

The rapid production of genetic information through state and industry collaborations such as the recently completed Human Genome Project in the United States demands a reexamination of current models of biology, “race” and human identity.  Despite the much heralded conclusion of the HGP that humans are overwhelmingly similar in their genetic makeup, the current focus of human genomic research is on identifying the less than .01% that varies between individuals.  Focus on human genetic variation has led to a search for single nucleotide polymorphisms, or SNPs, that are anticipated to be the basis for phenotypic differences.  The paper discusses the sociopolitical stakes in discovering genetic differences between groups identified as racial. Utilizing critical race theory, this paper examines the ‘narrative of race’ in the production of knowledge in genomics research.  Of particular interest is how recent developments in genomics has interrogated current notions of citizenship and national identity.  This paper emerges from an ongoing ethnographic study of the meaning of race in the classification and distribution of DNA samples by publicly funded cell repositories in the United States. 

‘Boundaries of blood’: genealogies of ‘war-babies’ and the Bangladeshi nation

Nayanika Mookherjee, University of Sussex

This paper explores constructions of ‘blood’, ‘genes’ and ‘kinship’ in Bangladesh through the lens of the ‘war-babies’ (children born as a result of sexual violence by Pakistani soldiers on Bangladeshi women during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971) and how that impacts/is made to impact on the racial identity of the Bangladeshi nation. The formation of Bangladesh in 1971 coincided with the death of 3 million people and rape of 200,000 women (according to official figures) in a span of nine months. As a result of the rapes a large number of war-babies were born. After the war, in 1972, the Bangladeshi Government’s Rehabilitation Programme for the women raped ensured that a large number of these war-babies were put up for international adoption. In the 1990s various such children (now adults) visited Bangladesh.

The paper attempts to examine how lay perceptions of the ‘mixed’ blood, genetic and kinship genealogy of the war-babies are transformed into narratives of national identity in Bangladesh. It will also identify the characteristics through which ‘differences’ in the war-baby are indicated which are primarily identified as ‘genetic’. The paper interrogates the processes of purification of the Bengali/Bangladeshi nation juxtaposed to the perceived hybrid phenomenon of the war-baby. The paper proposes that the historical trajectory of Bangladesh contributes to a deterministic understanding of the ‘genetic’ constitution of the war-baby and this is juxtaposed with the notion of blood which is semantically charged with ideas of race and nationhood within Bangladesh. Nonetheless this operates within the double helix of purification and hybridisation.

Science and citizenship: the role of blood in the construction of the Icelandic nation

Kristín E. Harðardóttir, University of Iceland & Gísli Pálsson, University of Iceland/University of Oslo

When an individual donates blood, the gift is often explicitly donated primarily for the purpose of research on the genetics of a particular disease or for the benefits of healing and health care. We argue, however, that the extraction of DNA from blood has potential implications for the construction of nationhood and the demarcation of citizenship. In this paper we focus on developments taking place in Icelandic society in connection with the sampling of blood and information derived from blood in the wake of the DNA revolution. Various institutes in Iceland collect and record DNA derived from blood samples, combining information based on blood with family histories. Much of this effort, we suggest, implicitly underlines notions of ethnic purity and national belonging.

Beyond ‘the social construction of race’: the socionatural construction of race and its politics in reproductive technologies

Charis Thompson, Harvard University

No sooner had a kind of consensus been reached among the educated  public that race is "socially constructed" than reproductive and  genetic technologies began to make clear that the natural and the  social are intertwined in this on-going construction.  This paper will explain the consensus, and discuss some examples of socionatural construction from reproductive technology clinics.  The paper will then consider the politics of these findings and those who write about them.  In particular, what happens to our understandings of eugenics, race-based stratification, and race itself?

The inheritance of mixed-race identities

Katharine Tyler, University of Manchester

In this paper I explore how the members of mixed-race families talk about ‘genes’, ‘blood’, and ‘culture’ when they think of the inheritance of their racialised identities. What do the members of mixed-race families mean when they talk about certain attributes, such as rhythm, and physical characteristics, for example skin tone, being passed on ‘in the genes’, ‘in the blood’, ‘in the seed’ and/or through ‘upbringing’ in a particular cultural environment? My emphasis upon ideas of social and biological inheritance reveals the fixed and malleable nature of those characteristics that are thought to be passed on ‘in the genes’ and the ways in which these attributes can become fused with those characteristics inherited through example.