Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry

Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry

Social Studies of Science
Volume 38, Number 5 (October 2008)
pages 759-783
DOI: 10.1177/0306312708091929

Alondra Nelson, Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies; Director, Institute for Research on Women, Gender, and Sexuality
Columbia University, New York, New York

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.

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