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! 😉

Flying While Black: Border Control, DNA and the Case of the Lips

After tracing his maternal ancestry in 2005 through genealogical DNA testing, or personal genomics, and finding his ancestral links to the Mende and Temne peoples of Sierra Leone, actor Isaiah Washington attested to his “rebirth” saying he believes that “DNA will finally become the tool to bridge the gap between our brothers and sisters who have been lost.” Earlier this year, now “DNA-branded” [see note at end on this term] as Sierra Leonean, Washington was sworn in as a citizen of that country. Citizenship by way of mitochondrial DNA.

But what about the role of DNA for our brothers and sisters who have been stranded or detained abroad? Enter “the lips case”.

On May 21st 2009, Somali-born Canadian citizen Suaad Hagi Mohamud attempted to board a flight out of Nairobi to return home to Toronto, after a three-week visit to Kenya. Upon inspecting her passport, Dutch KLM airline authorities claimed that her lips looked different than that observed in her four-year-old passport photo, branded her an “imposter” and not the rightful holder of the passport that she presented. Mohamud was detained overnight in the airport. Two Canadian High Commission officials met with her the following morning, told her “you are not Suaad” and confiscated her passport. Mohamud was held in the airport for four days until she was released on a bond, tasked with proving her identity within a two-week time frame.

Canadian High Commission officials did not accept Suaad’s ID cards and she was charged with using a false passport, impersonating a Canadian and with being in Kenya illegally. Subsequently she was jailed by Kenyan authorities from June 3rd to June 11th, facing possible deportation to Somalia. While Mohamud was in limbo in Kenya, Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Lawrence Cannon was quoted on July 24th as saying, “there is no tangible proof” that Mohamud is Canadian and that “all Canadians who hold passports generally have a picture that is identical in their passport to what they claim to be.”

It wasn’t until Mohamud requested DNA testing through a motion filed before the Canadian Federal Court by her attorney in Toronto, and then had that test conducted on August 10th 2009 that charges against her were dropped. Mohamud’s DNA was compared to that of her Canadian born son, confirming her identity with a probability of 99.99%. She was issued an emergency passport and she boarded a plane to Amsterdam to make her way home to Toronto arriving on August 15th. This DNA verification not only proved who she said she was, but, apparently, determined her citizenship status as well. This case raises the question of “who can be abandoned by the state and by what technological means? and “will this case be used to argue for even more surveillance by way of a genomic encoded passport?”

The Mohamud case reveals that although identification documents function as a key technology in the contemporary management of state sanctioned human mobility, the discretionary power exercised by the customs inspector, and increasingly by the airline official as proxy customs inspector, is a power that makes it plain that, as David Lyon puts it, “all technologies are human activities.” (Identifying Citizens: ID Cards as Surveillance) Meaning, that these technologies of border control (passports, biometrics, airport pre-boarding passenger screening zones) are developed within, put to use and often replicate existing socio-spatial inequalities. (See this deadly example too)

For Mohamud, DNA testing was a technology of hope that allowed her to challenge her abandonment or “racial purging” by the state. The answer to whether Mohamud’s abandonment was racially charged is found in an interview with the CBC where Mohamud contested that

The Canadian High Commission wouldn’t be treating me the way they treat me. If I’m a white person, I wouldn’t be there in one day. I wouldn’t have missed the flight.

Mohamud has since filed a 2.6 million dollar lawsuit against the Canadian government.

Note: Sociologist Patricia Hill Collins uses the term “DNA-branded” in discussing the “freak” show that is ‘Whose Your Daddy?’ episodes of The Maury Povich Show and The Montel Williams Show, where potential fathers are subject to paternity testing and if DNA-branded as father they are subject to the requisite lecture on responsibility by the hosts.

Simone is now tweeting surveillance stories and links at @wewatchwatchers

DNA and Scientific Racism

Yesterday, The New York Times ran a piece by Amy Harmon called “In DNA Era, New Worries about Prejudice,” that requires more discussion and analysis. To start, there is a factual error in the New York Times piece that I think it’s import to draw attention to, and that is, Harmon writes:

“The DNA of any two people, they emphasized, is at least 99 percent identical.”

When, in fact, Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) at the National Institutes of Health, has stated that the Human Genome Project:

“helped to inform us about how remarkably similar all human beings are—99.9% at the DNA level.Those who wish to draw precise racial boundaries around certain groups will not be able to use science as a legitimate justification” (Collins and Mansoura, 2001:221).

So, that the quest to “map the difference,” the mission of the misguided HapMap Project is actually the pursuit of variation of 0.1% not 1% as stated in the article.

In the “multimedia graphic” that accompanies that Times article, the headline reads “Minute Genetic Differences Can Mean A Lot,” and then the three examples Harmon charts are 1) pale skin among “Europeans” 2) tendency to sweat “less” (which begs the question, sweat less than whom?) among “Asians” and 3) “Africans” resistance to certain diseases. This kind of pseudo-science from the Times raises more questions than it answers. What do these differences “mean”? And, what is “a lot” in this context? While the focus of the article is on the “concern” (again, one wonders among whom?) about prejudice such research will inevitably promote (such as the post by the blogger Half Sigma mentioned in the article) what both the New York Times and the blogger Half Sigma miss here is a very common fallacy. As geneticists Collins and Mansoura point out in their article, quoted above, that those who wish to draw “precise boundaries” around certain racial groups will not be able to use science as a legitimate justification. Take for example, the category “Asian” which supposedl “sweats less” in the Times piece. Who exactly does this include? Chinese? Korean (North and South?) Japanese? Indian? Pakistani? These groups have long traditions and cultures that are quite distinct from one another. It is only from the armchair vantage point of the U.S. or Europe that “Asian” has any sort of coherent meaning, and even then it is contested. In the UK for example, “Asian” is category that includes those from India and Pakistan, though that is not the typical usage here in the U.S. And, if you read the genetic literature, those conducting researchers continues to use self-identification – how people identify themselves in terms of racial/ethnic identity – as the means to identify populations for genetic study, arguing that it is more economical to categorize people based on phenotypically based notions of “race” rather than to look exclusively at individual genetic composition for prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of disease (e.g., Risch and others, 2002). Geneticists such as Risch and colleagues argue that:

“population genetic studies have recapitulated the classical definition of races based on continental ancestry—namely African, Caucasian (Europe and Middle East), Asian, Pacific Islander (for example, Australian, New Guinean, and Melanesian), and Native American” (Risch, N., Burchard, E., Ziv, E., and Tang, H. (2002). “Categorization of Humans in Biomedical Research: Genes, Race, and Disease.” Genome Biology, 2002, 3(7):3).

And, Risch and colleagues also include a figure, a line drawing, to illustrate their conceptualization of racial difference (Figure 1 from Risch et al.). This illustration, a long line with discrete, pronged lines off to one side indicating unified, distinct, and mutually exclusive racial categories, is not only incorrect in terms of the available genetic research that we are 99.9% alike, but it also flies in the face of decades of anthropological and sociological and biological research attesting to the fact that there is more variation within one of these categories than between the categories. Basically, these geneticists are using race as a heuristic device, as a “convenient short hand” for lots of other social, cultural and ancestral factors.

In a recent co-authored chapter I wrote with my colleague  Amy Jo Schulz (Daniels, J., & Schulz, A.J. (2006). Constructing whiteness in health disparities research. In A. J. Schulz & L. Mullings (Eds.), Gender, Race, Class, and Health (pp. 89-127). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishing), we examined the way that whiteness and white racial privilege are being re-written into the DNA era. Here’s what we had to say about this in our chapter:

The continued use of “race” as a heuristic device for investigation at the genomic level is paradoxical, when on its face individualized genetic therapy would mean testing and categorization on the individual level. This return to the use of classical racial categories in population genetics studies despite empirical evidence documenting the clear limits of these categories as indicative of ancestry or heritage (such as the U.S. census and birth record examples described earlier in this chapter) highlights the power of these socially constructed categories within science, as well as the role of scientific research in continuing to reproduce these categories. …attributing racial variations in patterns of disease to the genetic composition of racial or ethnic groups is based on a series of imperfect assumptions. Specifically, “self-identified race is a surrogate for ancestral geographic origin, which is a surrogate for variation across the genome, which is a surrogate for variation in disease-relevant alleles, which is a surrogate for individual disease risk” (Bonham, Warshauer-Baker, and Collins, 2005:13, citing Collins, 2004). With each imperfect assumption, the link between socially constructed racial categories and genetic sources of disease gets less clear, like a copy of a copy of a copy that continues to blur with each reproduction; yet the genetic frame, and the supposedly biological basis for Whiteness, remains unchallenged. This reliance on race as a sorting mechanism of convenience in the face of genomic research that demonstrates this is a less than completely reliable proxy simultaneously naturalizes racial disparities while it holds out the promise of eliminating racial disparities in health. And it leaves the Whiteness within those disparities unexamined. (Daniels and Schulz, 2006).

The key is here is that “race” is used as a sorting mechanism of convenience. I know this from the literature, and I know this from first-hand experience. I sat on a grant review committee recently for a national-level competition for multi-million dollar grants of an agency I won’t name. The review committee was quite large, probably 25 or more scholars from around the U.S. One of the grant applications that the other reviewers (mostly from the biological sciences) rated the highest was one that proposed to look at the “genetic racial differences among Blacks and whites” to different kinds of treatment for HIV/AIDS. I rated this grant proposal among the lowest I had reviewed because of the methodology: all of the participants in the study would be sorted into the supposedly self-evident categories “Black” and “white” based on self-identification. When I raised this objection among my colleagues in the biological and health sciences, they all blinked hard, and looked at me as if I’d committed some sort of unpleasant faux pas. The chair of the committee finally acquiesced that this was a methodological flaw in the proposal, but the grant was nevertheless awarded millions of dollars. This research, like so much else being done in this field, takes an unclear category and reifies it as “scientifically real,” and then the general public (like the blogger mentioned above) picks it up and uses it to justify the already-in-place white racial frame.

Despite the fact that whiteness is often implicated in this type of genetic research, “whiteness” as a racial category remains largely unexamined and white privilege is propped up once again. Here’s more from our chapter:

Furthermore, scholars have also pointed out the impulse to attach genetic conditions to labeled racial or ethnic groups, while those attached to “Whites” remain invisible. For example, genetically linked conditions such as Tay-Sachs or sickle cell anemia have become labeled as “Jewish” and “Black” diseases respectively because they are associated with people who are descendants of Ashkenazi Jews and African Americans. However, a disease such as cystic fibrosis, which is genetically linked to subgroups of the White population, does not get labeled as difference (Katz Rothman, 1998). The link, then, between genetic condition and Whiteness is ephemeral, while the connection between genetic condition and members of (already) labeled racial and ethnic groups is intractable (Daniels and Schulz, 2006).

The last three paragraphs of the NYTimes piece come the closest to getting at this intractable quality that we point out in our chapter, and here the Times turns to Samuel Richards, at Penn State:

Race, many sociologists and anthropologists have argued for decades, is a social invention historically used to justify prejudice and persecution. But when Samuel M. Richards gave his students at Pennsylvania State University genetic ancestry tests to establish the imprecision of socially constructed racial categories, he found the exercise reinforced them instead.

One white-skinned student, told she was 9 percent West African, went to a Kwanzaa celebration, for instance, but would not dream of going to an Asian cultural event because her DNA did not match, Dr. Richards said. Preconceived notions of race seemed all the more authentic when quantified by DNA.

“Before, it was, ‘I’m white because I have white skin and grew up in white culture,’ ” Dr. Richards said. “Now it’s, ‘I really know I’m white, so white is this big neon sign hanging over my head.’ It’s like, oh, no, come on. That wasn’t the point.”

I think what Prof. Sam Richards has been doing around the issue of DNA and race is admirable, but it seems clear from his own evaluation above that students (and the broader public) miss the point about no one being of any “one race” genetically – and indeed, that this is impossible. Instead, they use that information to shore up the white racial frame already in place. We need to do more to get people thinking more critically about the race and racism “in the DNA era” and offer frameworks that counter notions of biologically-grounded racial superiority and inferiority.