Research Brief: Ancestry, Race and Genealogy

  • Bolnick, Deborah A., Duana Fullwiley, Troy Duster, Richard S. Cooper, Joan H. Fujimura, Jonathan Kahn, Jay S. Kaufman et al. “The science and business of genetic ancestry testing.” SCIENCE-NEW YORK THEN WASHINGTON- 318, no. 5849 (2007): 399. Abstract: Commercially available tests of genetic ancestry have significant scientific limitations, but are serious matters for many test-takers. (OA)
  • Kramer, Anne-Marie. “Mediatizing memory: History, affect and identity in Who Do You Think You Are?.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 14, no. 4 (2011): 428-445. Abstract: Along with Australia, Canada and the USA, contemporary British society is immersed in a seemingly unprecedented boom in the family heritage industry. Drawing on recent work in memory studies which attends to the relationship between individual and collective historical experiences, this article analyses the celebrity genealogy BBC TV programme Who Do You Think You Are?, as well as viewers’ and critics’ reception of it, to problematize genealogy as a form of mediated or mediatized memory practice which mobilizes traces of the past through the idiom of family. It asks: what is the role of genealogy in facilitating the relationship between identity and memory, both for celebrity participants and viewers? How does television make memories remotely accessible, and how do viewers engage with such modes of accessing the past? (locked)
  • Nelson, Alondra. “Bio Science Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry.” Social Studies of Science 38, no. 5 (2008): 759-783. Abstract: This paper considers the extent to which the geneticization of `race’ and ethnicity is the prevailing outcome of genetic testing for genealogical purposes. The decoding of the human genome precipitated a change of paradigms in genetics research, from an emphasis on genetic similarity to a focus on molecular-level differences among individuals and groups. This shift from lumping to splitting spurred ongoing disagreements among scholars about the significance of `race’ and ethnicity in the genetics era. I characterize these divergent perspectives as `pragmatism’ and `naturalism’. Drawing upon ethnographic fieldwork and interviews, I argue that neither position fully accounts for how understandings of `race’ and ethnicity are being transformed with genetic genealogy testing. While there is some acquiescence to genetic thinking about ancestry, and by implication, `race’, among African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, test-takers also adjudicate between sources of genealogical information and from these construct meaningful biographical narratives. Consumers engage in highly situated `objective’ and `affiliative’ self-fashioning, interpreting genetic test results in the context of their `genealogical aspirations’. I conclude that issues of site, scale, and subjectification must be attended to if scholars are to understand whether and to what extent social identities are being transformed by recent developments in genetic science. (locked)
  • Tyler, Katharine. “The genealogical imagination: the inheritance of interracial identities.” The Sociological Review 53, no. 3 (2005): 476-494. Abstract: The aim of this article is to examine ethnographically how ideas of descent, biology and culture mediate ideas about the inheritance of racial identities. To do this, the article draws upon interviews with the members of interracial families from Leicester, a city situated in the East Midlands region of England. The article focuses upon the genealogical narratives of the female members of interracial families who live in an ethnically diverse inner-city area of Leicester. Attention is paid to the ways in which the women mobilise and intersect ideas about kinship, ancestry, descent, belonging, place, biology and culture when they think about the inheritance of their own and/or their children’s interracial identities. The article’s emphasis upon the constitution of interracial identities contributes to the sociological study of race and genealogy by exploring the racialised fragmentation of ideas of inheritance and descent across racial categories and generations. (locked)
  • TallBear, Kim. “Narratives of race and indigeneity in the Genographic Project.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35, no. 3 (2007): 412-424. Abstract: In its quest to sample 100,000 “indigenous and traditional peoples,” the Genographic Project deploys five problematic narratives: (1) that “we are all African”; (2) that “genetic science can end racism”; (3) that “indigenous peoples are vanishing”; (4) that “we are all related”; and (5) that Genographic “collaborates” with indigenous peoples. In so doing, Genographic perpetuates much critiqued, yet longstanding notions of race and colonial scientific practice. (OA)
  • Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. “Your DNA is our history.” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S233-S245. Abstract: During the nineteenth century, the American School of Anthropology enfolded Native peoples into their histories, claiming knowledge about and artifacts of these cultures as their rightful inheritance and property. Drawing both on the Genographic Project and the recent struggles between Arizona State University and the Havasupai Tribe over the use of Havasupai DNA, in this essay we describe how similar enfoldments continue today—despite most contemporary human scientists’ explicit rejection of hierarchical ideas of race. We seek to bring greater clarity and visibility to these constitutive links between whiteness, property, and the human sciences in order that the fields of biological anthropology and population genetics might work to move toward their stated commitments to antiracism (a goal, we argue, that the fields’ antiracialism impedes). Specifically, we reflect on how these links can inform extralegal strategies to address tensions between U.S. and other indigenous peoples and genome scientists and their facilitators (ethicists, lawyers, and policy makers). We conclude by suggesting changes to scientific education and professional standards that might improve relations between indigenous peoples and those who study them, and we introduce mechanisms for networking between indigenous peoples, scholars, and policy makers concerned with expanding indigenous governance of science and technology. (OA)
  • Wagner, Jennifer K., and Kenneth M. Weiss. “Attitudes on DNA ancestry tests.”Human genetics 131, no. 1 (2012): 41-56. Abstract: The DNA ancestry testing industry is more than a decade old, yet details about it remain a mystery: there remain no reliable, empirical data on the number, motivations, and attitudes of customers to date, the number of products available and their characteristics, or the industry customs and standard practices that have emerged in the absence of specific governmental regulations. Here, we provide preliminary data collected in 2009 through indirect and direct participant observation, namely blog post analysis, generalized survey analysis, and targeted survey analysis. The attitudes include the first available data on attitudes of those of individuals who have and have not had their own DNA ancestry tested as well as individuals who are members of DNA ancestry-related social networking groups. In a new and fluid landscape, the results highlight the need for empirical data to guide policy discussions and should be interpreted collectively as an invitation for additional investigation of (1) the opinions of individuals purchasing these tests, individuals obtaining these tests through research participation, and individuals not obtaining these tests; (2) the psychosocial and behavioral reactions of individuals obtaining their DNA ancestry information with attention given both to expectations prior to testing and the sociotechnical architecture of the test used; and (3) the applications of DNA ancestry information in varying contexts. (locked)
  • Wailoo, Keith, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds. Genetics and the unsettled past: The collision of DNA, race, and history. Rutgers University Press, 2012.GeneticsUnsettledPast


    Abstract: Genetics and the Unsettled Past considers the alignment of genetic science with commercial genealogy, with legal and forensic developments, and with pharmaceutical innovation to examine how these trends lend renewed authority to biological understandings of race and history. This unique collection brings together scholars from a wide range of disciplines—biology, history, cultural studies, law, medicine, anthropology, ethnic studies, sociology—to explore the emerging and often contested connections among race, DNA, and history. Written for a general audience, the book’s essays touch upon a variety of topics, including the rise and implications of DNA in genealogy, law, and other fields; the cultural and political uses and misuses of genetic information; the way in which DNA testing is reshaping understandings of group identity for French Canadians, Native Americans, South Africans, and many others within and across cultural and national boundaries; and the sweeping implications of genetics for society today. (locked)

This brief review just barely scratches the surface of this area of research but gives you some key names in the field to continue reading. Would you like to see your research featured in an upcoming research brief? Drop a note using the contact form.

Happy reading! 😉

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