ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

(P04)
Anthropology, race and genetics: temporalities and spatialities
Location Calman - Rosemary Cramp
Date and Start Time 06 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 1

Convenors

  • Peter Wade (Manchester University) email
  • Katharine Tyler (University of Exeter) email

Mail All Convenors

Discussant Yulia Egorova (University of Durham)

Short Abstract

This panel considers the temporalities and spatialities at work in the practice, commercialisation, representation and public engagement of genetic science. E.g. the concept of genetic ancestry draws on a spatio-temporal narrative about how humans peopled the world and became biologically diverse.

Long Abstract

This panel considers the temporalities and spatialities at work in genetic science including its practice, commercialisation, representation and public engagement. The panel focuses on the diverse sub-fields of genetic science, such as medical genomics, forensic identifications and the study of human population history, including so-called 'recreational genetics'. For example, the concept of genetic ancestry, which is fundamental to these sub-fields, draws on a specific temporal and spatial narrative about how and when humans spread across the world and biologically diversified. This narrative can resonate with - and explicitly reinforce - long-standing concepts of "race" as a biological reality or, in more complex ways, as a bio-cultural materiality. In this narrative, there is a built-in tension between stability (community, population isolate, adaptation to a niche, endogamy, indigeneity, origins) and instability (movement, migration, mixing). Based on these discourses about the past, genetic science rehearses another temporal narrative about a progressive future - undermining racism, improving health, and, through forensic genetics, combatting state impunity and helping restitution for victims' families. Each claim, however, can be challenged with evidence that the technology is socially regressive - reinforcing race, distracting attention from the social causes of ill-health, and increasing oppressive securitisation of the nation's internal and external spaces. The panel invites reflections on how historical and geographical discourses figure in genetic science, often in taken-for-granted ways, how they relate to changing ideas and practices about human diversity in genetic science, and what the future looks like for genetic science in these spatio-temporal narratives.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Imagining britishness: laypeople's perspectives on genetic ancestry tests

Author: Katharine Tyler (University of Exeter)  email

Short Abstract

This paper traces the discourses of ancestry/history and place/space/geography at work in laypeople’s reflections on the possibilities offered by genetic ancestry tests for tracing individual and collective racial, ethnic and national identities and ancestries.

Long Abstract

Population geneticists have argued that innovations in genetic science show that the DNA contained in a swab of saliva provides information on the genetic identities of the subject's ancestors. In recent years there has been a commercialisation of this technology for public consumption. The potentiality of such technologies has led to the marketing of these tests to individuals interested in tracing their ethnic, racial and national identities. In the wake of the commercialisation of these technologies, I shall explore what some lay Britons think of the possibilities offered by these tests for imagining the genealogical constitution of their own and the nation's identities. I will analyse publically available blogs written in response to a newspaper article that argued that the commercialisation of genetic ancestry tests is 'genetic astrology'. I illustrate how bloggers' thoughts on and reactions to this claim offers a window on the spatial and temporal narratives that constitute laypeople's conceptions of individual and collective national, ethnic and racial identities and ancestries. I will scrutinise how bloggers narrate identities that are both fluid and fixed, orientated to ancient racially white indigenous pasts as well as post-racial presents and futures, geographically bound to Europe but also spatially connected to differing parts of the globe. Crucially I examine the potentially socially progressive and regressive consequences of these discourses in relation to wider public issues concerning multiculturalism and immigration. I also reflect on how my analysis of this blog material has raised questions that anthropological inquiry is well placed to address.

The tree and the net: spatio-temporal narratives of human population genomics

Author: Peter Wade (Manchester University)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the spatio-temporal narratives embedded within human population genomic science, contrasting the evolutionary tree narrative to the rhizomic network narrative and assessing the political affordances each narrative contains.

Long Abstract

This paper explores the spatio-temporal narratives embedded within human population genomic science. For example, genetic ancestry testing depends on an underlying narrative about the peopling of the world through migrations, followed by a continental-level stabilisation, during which genetic and phenotypic differences were established (including the ones commonly described as "racial"), followed by global-level diasporic migrations. This narrative is represented by a spatio-temporal genealogical tree, which shows "unity in diversity", in which unity derives from common origin. A different rhizomic network model derives unity from constant flows across space and time. These past spatio-temporalities impinge on genomics' promise to deliver a better future: less (racial) intolerance, greater health for all, more democracy. The tree model affords ideas of genetic unity, which implies an anti-racism based on downplaying difference; and ideas of genetic diversity, which implies recognising (and geneticizing) "racial" difference and can underwrite racism, but also anti-racism based on recognising (genetic) difference in order to correct inequalities (e.g. of health). Health disparities seen to be due in part to population genetic difference invoke the tree narrative with its deep timeframe. Health inequalities seen to be due to environmental influences (interacting with genomes) invoke the shallower timeframes of the network model. The potential of the tree model to underwrite deep-rooted diversity and geneticize (racial) difference - despite its potential to highlight unity - should be borne in mind. Attention to the various spatio-temporal models underlying different approaches to understanding genetic variation helps us to be mindful of their political and ethical implications.

Healthy genes: Speculative well-being and the afterlife of the Human Genome Diversity Project

Author: Kriti Kapila (King's College, London)  email

Short Abstract

The paper examines notions of speculative well-being and imagined futures in the research on genomic medicine in India.

Long Abstract

In this paper, I compare two different research projects underway at the National Institute of Biogenomic Medicine, India to understand the speculative hope vested in genomic medicine. While the first project takes the diversity of a local population to understand the complex interaction between genetic and epigenetic factors in the overall incidence of disease, the second centres around a single condition (oral cancer) and is part of the International Cancer Genome Consortium. The two projects may share a common understanding of genetic variation as a marker of 'stability' and 'instability' as outlined in the panel abstract, they are nevertheless underpinned by different conceptions of the relationship between population, predictive medicine, and health. Through these research projects, the paper examines notions of speculative well-being and imagined futures that are marshaled to accelerate wider adoption of genomic medicine.

Genetic science as a space of knowledge: looking back at the formation of the Cypriot thalassaemia prevention system

Author: Theodoros Kyriakides (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

I put Hagner and Rheinberger's notion of "spaces of knowledge" in conversation with a case study of a thalassaemia prevention system in Cyprus. I then develop a ethical paradigm of how relations between science and public should be fostered.

Long Abstract

Hagner and Rheinberger's notion of "spaces of knowledge" as "a dynamic network of mobile elements" (2003: 220) provides a suitable starting point for exploring the spatio-temporal facets of genetic science. On the one hand, the given concept denotes the cartography of publics, scientific institutions and national governments by which genetic knowledge is assembled and mobilised. On the other hand, it shows how the given space processually unfolds and transforms though time, according to techno-scientific and socio-cultural change. This paper puts the concept of space of knowledge in conversation with a case study of a thalassaemia prevention system in Cyprus. Thalassaemia is one of the most common recessive blood disorders globally, and is especially prevalent in countries situated around the Mediterranean basin. The paper traces the history of the prevention system from its early stages of inception in the early 60s, when Cyprus became a republic, up to 1984 when it achieved a 100% prevention rate. By examining the prevention system's trajectory through its spatial and temporal dimensions, and by exploring the main actors involved in this process, I develop an ethical paradigm of how relations between genetic science and polity should be fostered. Following Isabelle Stengers' proposition of "slow science" (2011), I make the case that the Cypriot thalassaemia prevention system proved successful because it accounted for and treated uncertainties met in its course as potential points of articulation between genetic science and the Cypriot public, instead of disregarding them in favour of actualising a predetermined plan.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.