Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg


Further settings

Login for editors

Race, ethnicity, genetics: Re/Creating Categories of Difference and Belonging

organised by Dr. Katharina Schramm

Location:   Max-Planck-Institut für ethnologische Forschung
                Advokatenweg 36
                06114 Halle (Saale)
Time:        9.15 am - 5 pm


Contemporary politics of identity are often marked by a high level of emotional and political commitment on part of the actors involved, and they remain a site of continuous contestation. They are not only influenced by various historical "presences", to borrow a phrase from Stuart Hall, plus their respective interrelations (religious, economic etc.); but they are also inspired by current streams of discourse derived from the natural sciences. The insights offered by genetics play a significant role here. On the one hand, they have been employed in order to show that genetic diversity cuts across the lines of powerful social markers of difference and belonging such as ‘race' or ‘ethnicity'. On the other hand, some of their practical applications (from the installation of new gene/alogical databases to the production of ‘race'-specific pharmaceutical products) and even of their theoretical assumptions (as, for example, expressed in the Human Genome Diversity Project) rely on precisely those classifications.
This one-day workshop, which will be organized under the auspices of the Graduate School Asia and Africa in World Reference Systems at the Martin-Luther-University Halle- Wittenberg, aims to take a closer look at the impact of changing technologies, and their various political adoptions, on the conceptualization of identities. It asks about the ways in which existing social categories are both maintained as well as transformed at the interface of (natural/) sciences and (cultural/) politics. Thereby, the focus lies on notions of ‘race' and ‘ethnicity' and their diversified and variable expressions in the idioms of kinship and citizenship. The workshop follows an ethnographic approach in its investigation of the social and conceptual space unfolding between genetic research and the social construction of identity. It takes the historical dynamics of processes of racialization and ethnicization into account, while at the same time asking about the impact of genetics on these processes and vice versa. In other words, it will consider the question of how history and biology are interlinked. Moreover, an actor-centered perspective should help to generate a better understanding of the concrete acts of translation taking place between the scientific lab and the public sphere. This will also enable a thorough analysis of the performative dimension of identity politics.

Possible areas of inquiry include:

  • he role of science and technology in the institutionalization of identityclaims and belonging;
  • the legal impact of new ethnicizations qua biological markers (questions of citizenship, politics of recognition, access to resources);
  • the changing role of the state in these classification processes / their transnational dimensions;
  • classification and power (racism, oppositional consciousness);
  • the mystification of origins.


09.15 - 09.20

09.20 - 09.35
Richard Rottenburg (Institute for Social Anthropology, MLU Halle-Wittenberg):
Introduction: Anthropology and Science and Technology Studies

09.35 - 10.15
Peter Wade (Department of Social Anthropology, University of Manchester):
Race, Identity and Kinship

10.15 - 10.55
Michi Knecht (Institut für Europäische Ethnologie, Humboldt-Universität Berlin):
Comparing Kinship Projects in the Realms of Assisting Reproductive
Technologies (ART)

10.55 - 11.10
Coffee Break (15 min)

11.10 - 11.50
David Skinner (Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge):
The Problem with Categories: Life Science, Social Science and 'The Public'

11.50 - 12.30
Suman Seth (Department of Science and Technology Studies, Cornell University):
Medicine Constructs Race: A Brief History

12.30 - 13.30
Lunch (1 h)

13.30 - 14.10
Ina Kerner (Center for Interdisciplinary Studies on Women and Gender, Technical University of Berlin):
Racial Classifications and Genetic Reasoning

14.10 - 14.50
Katharina Schramm (GSAA, MLU Halle-Wittenberg):
History in the Genes: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Politics of Black Identity

14.50 - 15.30
Stephan Palmié (Department of Anthropology, University of Chicago):
Biotechnological cults of affliction? Race, rationality, and enchantment in personal genomic histories (PGH)

15.30 - 16.00
Coffee break (30 min)

16.00 - 17.00
Final Discussion


Richard Rottenburg: Anthropology and Science & Technology Studies

In this introductory paper I intend to situate the topic of the workshop "Race, ethnicity, genetics: Re/creating categories of difference and belonging" into the broader field and recent history of science and technology studies and its overlaps with anthropology. In the early days of science studies most scholars of this mostly sociological and historical sub-discipline left the findings of the natural sciences black-boxed (Whitley 1972). The main concentration was on the socio-cultural effects of the techno-sciences. Beginning with the 1970s many scholars shifted their attention to the making of scientific findings and hence to the opening of the black-box .This shift caused a number of tensions about the status of scientific findings and the way how scientific controversies are closed. Attributing closures primarily to contingent factors, socio-cultural presuppositions, and power relations provoked sharp reactions by a few scientists. In the 1990s this debate climaxed in the so-called "Science War". After this unhappy peak, the controversy soon cooled down and settled somewhere around the position that science is a fallible cultural practice among other practices, yet a practice with techniques to create facts superior to those available to mundane ways of knowing. However, on a different scale some controversies continue and new ones emerge. The potential consequences of DNA-analysis-i.e. genetics and technologies of genetic modification-are perhaps the main field for present and future controversies. Recent attempts at genetic foundations of ethnic and racial belonging are situated somewhere in the middle of this contested terrain.

Peter Wade: Race, Identity and Kinship

This paper argues that kinship and race (and ethnicity and nationality) are linked through ideas about relatedness, and examines how that link works and has changed over time. I trace race-kinship intersections through Baton's ideas of "race as lineage" and "race as type" and from there into idea of "cultural racism". Then I explore a number of technologies of kinship - ancestry testing, assisted conception and transnational adoption - to see if recent changes in ways of understanding kinship have altered the way race and kinship intersect. I argue that there seem to be ways in which these new modes of kinship reckoning simply serve as arenas in which existing ideas about race are not only reiterated but also re-naturalised; and in which existing ideas about race shape and constrain kinship connections. But there also seem to be ways in which existing ideas about race are challenged, destabilised and even de-naturalised; and in which ideas about kinship are also reshaped.

Michi Knecht: Comparing Kinship Projects in the Realms of Assisting Reproductive Technologies (ART): Three “Styles of Comparison” in Recent Ethnographic Knowledge Production

Both “comparing” and “kinning / making kin” can be thought of as practices, even “technologies” that “create sameness and differences”. As such, they are pervasive both in the everyday worlds of actors as well as in academic knowledge production. Starting from Marilyn Strathern’s dictum that “comparison is not intrinsic to anything”. my contribution reflects on different ways through which comparative ethnographic knowledge production itself creates relations of similarity and difference. The paper traces three different “styles of comparison” in recent ethnographic research on assisting reproductive technologies: The first might be called a strategy of juxtaposition, the second is directed towards forms of localglobal articulation; the third focuses on tracing connections and transfers. The presentation will discuss how these comparative approaches create relations of difference and sameness or make them explicit by specifically attending to modes of generalization, questions of symmetry and an analytic of positionality.

David Skinner: The Problem with Categories: Life Science, Social Science and 'The Public'

A range of recent work has explored the extent to which new biologically-based accounts of self and difference are altering how race and racism are represented, discussed and lived. However, while there is much to be learnt from examining the interplay of the new life sciences and the public domain, a third dimension, the social sciences, should be added to any analysis of the changing politics of racialised knowledge.
Social scientists are routinely critical of attempts by researchers in health and associated life sciences to operationalise ‘race'. Their critique suggests that categories used by life scientists are under-theorised, lack precision, confuse race and ethnicity, blur objective and common sense definitions, wrongly privilege inherent explanations, and are open to misuse and misinterpretation. While this form of critique raises important issues, it is limited because it does not fully acknowledge that social scientists wrestle with the same practical, epistemological, methodological and political problems with race categories. There is also an unwillingness to consider the influence that the social sciences have had on natural science work in this area.
As the issue of categorisation also shows, both social scientists and natural scientists conduct discussions of race and racism with an eye to ‘the public' and struggle with dilemmas around their role as experts on difference. Both the social scientists and natural scientists frequently seek to deal with these dilemmas by delegating and deferring to each other. The paper considers how recent developments may make this strategy less plausible and useful.

Suman Seth: Medicine Constructs Race: A Brief History

What is novel about the epistemological regimes connecting medicine, race, and genetics? What differences-in practices, conceptual categories, and social forms-have new technologies in the biomedical sciences made? This paper seeks to provide the background for an answer to these questions by sketching a long history of the constitutive relationships between medicine and race in European thought from the early eighteenth to the midtwentieth century. A key aim in doing so is to disrupt a more traditional narrative that has tied the rise of scientific racism to the biological sciences, suggesting that much closer ties between medicine and colonial governmentality provide a more obvious site for the exploration of practices of race-making. Drawing largely on secondary materials, I take three representative moments as illustrative of the ties between changing socio-political context and medical theory. The first, based on work by Norris Saakwa-Mante and others, examines connections between polygenism and environmental explanations of disease in the 1730s. The second deals with a number of cases in colonial India in the mid-nineteenth century, a time when biological racial theories began to achieve a form of ascendancy over philological and environmental explanations of racial difference. The third, finally-based on work by Melbourne Tapper on the "Anthropathology of the ‘American Negro'"- takes up the question of the persistence of race-thinking in medicine even after the UNESCO statements in the 1950s suggested that race was no longer a useful category for the analyst. This last example suggests a route by which the recent return of (genetic) race-thinking-especially in regard to the analysis of hereditary disease-may be understood as a partial continuation of extant modes of research in the medical sciences.

Ina Kerner: Racial Classifications and Genetic Reasoning

Despite the fact that both normative and scientific reasons speak against the differentiation of human „races", race thinking prevails. While actors - be it the state or social movements - engaged in anti-racist and anti-discriminatory practices often claim that the term "race" that they employ was a social or political and not a biological category, the popularization of genetic research as well as the marketing of "ethnic drugs" like the heart failure medication BiDil - which, in 2005, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for black patients only - suggest that there were, in fact, noteworthy biological differences between racially defined groups, and that acknowledging them would not only be reasonable, but also to the public's and - in the case of personalized medicine - the individuals' best. In the critical literature addressing these developments, often the term "re-biologization" is used. While I am highly sympathetic with the critique that is voiced here, in my talk I would nevertheless like to ask whether - and if so, where - there has ever been an actual "debiologization" of race thinking. Drawing on the reflections of Troy Duster and others, I will attempt at assessing in which ways current genetic reasoning is backing race thinking, and in which ways it is challenging it.

Katharina Schramm: History in the Genes: Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Politics of Black Identity

Genetic ancestry testing has become one of the fields where the scientific discourse of genetics gets translated to a lay audience. Given its constantly growing popularity, the new technology also entails considerable profits for the commercial companies that are providing such services. Through its comparison of relevant genetic markers of a client's mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) or non-recombining Y-chromosome (NRY) with a geographically and in some cases also ethnically specified database, in which populations are constructed and consequently represented as distinct entities, genetic ancestry testing promises biological certainty about a client's maternal and/or paternal origins. By doing so, it seems to be particularly appealing to African Americans, for whom the question of historical belonging beyond the experience of slavery has always been a major issue, linked to a sense of traumatic loss and ongoing alienation in a racist environment.
Thus, the establishment of the ‘populations'-databases as well as the testing itself and the interpretation thereof follow a classificatory pattern that falls back on previously established (and historically and politically specific) categories, such as, for example, ‘black', ‘African', ‘Nigerian', or ‘Yoruba'. Through the tests, notions of symbolic kinship are being (re-) combined with those of biological kinship. Thereby, existing concepts of race and ethnicity are at once reaffirmed but at the same time seriously challenged and transformed.
My paper aims to analyze those processes and to investigate their linkage to wider identity politics. I ask about the ways in which history and biology are interlinked, or, in other words, how the mystification of a history of origins goes together with a mystification of nature as well as science and technology. In addition, I pay attention to the possible effects of the new geneticization of belonging on African states which are at the receiving end of the genealogical quest.

Stefan Palmié: Biotechnological cults of affliction? Race, rationality, and enchantment in personal genomic histories (PGH)

In a recent article, I argue that novel forms of genomic identity arbitration, and in particular the services offered to African Americans by commercial genomic ancestry providers reproduce a moment Karen E. Fields has aptly designated as "racecraft". They do so by employing an essentially divinatory logic (comparable to classic ethnographic cases) that proceeds from commonsensical ontological certainties about the (experientially given) "reality" of named social groups, and tautologically restates them in "biotic" terms (such as genomic allele frequencies) - oftentimes with reference to anthropologically utterly untenable notions of "African ethnic groups". Here I will look at this phenomenon from another angle by scrutinizing the projected utility of the "ancestry goods" thereby set in circulation in light of another classic anthropological topos: that of initiatory cults of affliction. We still lack good ethnographic evidence (as distinct from sensationalist media coverage) on how commercial Personal Genomic History services affect patterns of identity maintenance among their consumers. Yet it stands to argue that the marketing strategies of PGH providers throw intriguing light on the reproduction of ideologies that, in naturalizing the experience of racism, displace its (structural) sources downward into the realm of the biotic in a manner revealingly reminiscent of the manner in which classic "drums of affliction" (or, in the concrete case I will compare them to, Afro-Cuban initiatory rites) displace them upwards towards the divine.