Serious problems with using race/ethnicity as a variable in genetics research…

A number of serious problems with using race/ethnicity as a variable in genetics research have emerged in our analysis of our interviews with this group of genetic scientists. At the most basic level, the common racial/ethnic classifications they routinely use are of questionable value for delineating genetically related groups. The ubiquitous OMB categories in fact were designed for political and administrative purposes; they were not designed for use as scientific variables (Kertzer & Arel, 2002; Shields et al., 2005). These are notably ambiguous and arbitrary categories, based on strikingly diverse criteria such as skin color, language, or geographic location. They do not compose clear classifications, but instead are overlapping and not mutually exclusive. In the absence of clear principles for applying the labels, in practice, different aspects of an individual’s identity are arbitrarily prioritized, in order to fit individual cases into the schema.

A serious conceptual problem that reinforces the use of these questionable categories is that many of the researchers presume racial admixture is relatively rare and recent, and that specific geographically defined groups, such as Finnish or Japanese, can unproblematically be equated with broad socially designated racial/ethnic groups, such as white or Asian. However, this logic relies on several unsubstantiated assumptions: that historically there were pure racial types associated with particular geographic locations; that migrations were sporadic and relatively rare; and that racial/ethnic groups are primarily endogamous. (A recent study of the views of genetics journals editors reports similar findings: Outram & Ellison, 2006.) These assumptions are contrary to much of what is known about human population history. Genetic isolation among humans is in fact quite rare: human populations have always exchanged mates across broad geographic areas throughout time, producing clinal variation (gradual variation between places), rather than clearly distinct genetic stocks. Furthermore, racial admixture is not an exceptional event; indeed, there has been significant intermarriage between socially designated groups throughout history (Weiss, 1998; Harry & Marks, 1999; Race Ethnicity and Genetics Working Group, 2005). Compounding these conceptual problems is the practical fact that assigning these labels to individuals is often done in the absence of any specific knowledge of their actual familial migration histories.

Linda M. Hunt and Mary S. Megyesi, “The Ambiguous Meanings of the Racial/Ethnic Categories Routinely used in Human Genetics Research,” Social Science & Medicine, Volume 66, Number 2 (2008): 349-361.

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