Katharine Tyler at the Biological Interest Group – Monday, 13th November, 2-3pm, Byrne House

The third meeting of BIG was on the role of genetic ancestry testing in shaping and supporting the entrenchment of attitudes of nationalism and racism. In her paper, entitled ‘Blogging Descent: Genetic Ancestry Testing, Whiteness and the Limits of Anti-racism’, Dr. Katharine Tyler examined the expression of these attitudes, which were found to be published in an anonymous internet-based comments section and blog. This generated some fascinating discussion over a broad range of complex issues.

The author builds on the work of M’Charek, who examined how potential differences, based on race, begin to materialise and actualise only when certain social relations serve to enact them (M’Charek, 2010). The author sought, amongst the published web-based content, to categorise the attitudes found, into one of two narrative discourses: one discourse uses scientific findings to support an image of British identity, which is entwined with images of white Nordic European origins; the second discourse, advocating an apparently opposing image, uses scientific findings to support a discourse on the common descent of humanity from African origin. The author showed how those adhering to the first discourse evoked scripts, icons and images, which conform to some aspects of the media’s dissemination of Walter Bodmer’s work – Bodmer is a population geneticist who has had a leading role in the public dissemination of both the science and the technology of genetic ancestry testing (e.g. see Fortier (2012) and Nash (2015) on Face of Britain [Channel 4, 2007]). The author also explores how those adhering to the second discourse, reflect some of the guiding beliefs underpinning The Genographic Project, which succeeded the Human Genome Diversity Project. For example, Reardon and Tallbear write that such a project is motivated by the “common belief among human population geneticists and biological anthropologists [that] if you undercut race as a biological category, you also undercut racism” (Reardon & Tallbear, 2012, p. 243). However, the author contends that both discourses shape and support attitudes of nationalism and racism. Despite the explicitly anti-racist ethos embedded in the second discourse, it nonetheless reproduces (albeit unintentionally) hierarchies of racial, ethnic and national differences, which reflect asymmetrical relations of values and inequalities (e.g., see: Cross, 2001; Reardon & Tallbear, 2012).

Since it was apparent that some agencies had used some scientific findings to suit agendas other than the dissemination of information, a few participants raised a question of responsibility concerning some agencies (e.g. the marketing and advertising of genetic ancestry testing and some media broadcasts and productions), which were responsible for enacting the narrative discourses that the paper discusses. In addition, since science does not, all at once, speak with one voice or as one agency, the group discussed the divergent research cultures that comprise it. Moreover, it was felt that some criticism could be levied at the service industry for their role in promoting genetic ancestry. This is especially acute, since a change in industries (i.e. from the science to service) could mean a change in aims: where the intentional action could change from making a problem comprehensible to making some product or service marketable.

We discussed some of the peculiar methodological concerns, which would face the researcher who would use the blogs and comments sections of websites as a resource for social research. In particular, what sort of voices do these publications represent? How would a blog that was curated effect the sort of voice telling a narrative? One could imagine that curated blogs might require each blogger to set up an account with some amount of contact information; but how would this differ to a website where authors could be completely anonymous? What sort of voice would be represented there? An interesting feature the group discussed was the capacity and ease of an author to revise a position after publication.

If you’d be interested in joining the group and discussing, with Katharine, her research, please contact us here.

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Cross, K., ‘Framing whiteness: the human genome diversity project (as seen on TV)’, Science as Culture, 10:3 (2001) 411-438

Fortier, A., ‘Genetic indigenisation in ‘The People of the British Isles’, Science as Culture, 21:2 (2012) 153-175

M’Charek, A., ‘Fragile differences, relational effects: stories about the materiality of race and sex’, European Journal of Women’s Studies, 17:4 (2010) 307-322

Nash, C., Genetic Geographies: the Trouble with Ancestry, (University of Minnesota Press, 2015)

Reardon, J., & K. Tallbear, ‘“Your DNA is our history”, genomics, anthropology, and the construction of whiteness as property’, Current Anthropology, 53:5 (2012) 233-245.

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