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Experiencing the New Genetics

Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier

By Kaja Finkler

Publication Year: 2000

Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of interest in genetics and genetic inheritance within both the research community and the mass media. The science of genetics now forecasts great advances in alleviating disease and prolonging human life, placing the family and kin group under the spotlight.

In Experiencing the New Genetics, Kaja Finkler argues that the often uncritical presentation of research on genetic inheritance as well as the attitudes of some in the biomedical establishment contribute to a "genetic essentialism," a new genetic determinism, and the medicalization of kinship in American society. She explores some of the social and cultural consequences of this phenomenon. Finkler discovers that the new genetics can turn a healthy person into a perpetual patient, complicate the redefinition of the family that has been occurring in American society for the past few decades, and lead to the abdication of responsibility for addressing the problem of unhealthy environmental conditions. Experiencing the New Genetics will assist scholars and general readers alike in making sense of this timely and multifaceted issue.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

During a span of twenty-five years as a medical anthropologist, my concern has been with various issues in economically developing nations, especially problems in medical anthropology. Whereas initially my research had focused on peasant economics and politics in Mexico, where I did fieldwork for eight years, as well as other parts of Latin America,1 for the past twenty-three years I have examined interrelated questions in ...

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1. Introduction

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pp. 1-17

In the past several decades there has been an explosion of research in genetics and genetic inheritance both in the scientific literature and in the mass media.1 Not a day passes without some mention of genetics, genetic engineering, or genetic inheritance in the popular press, on radio and television, and in health newsletters. Indeed, the executive ...

Part I. Setting the Stage: Kinship and Genetics

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2. The Role of Kinship in Human Life

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pp. 21-29

Contemporary scientific knowledge informs us that genetic traits are transmitted by reproduction and birth, natural processes that form the building blocks of family and kinship in American society. Whereas science and biomedicine regard genetic transmission as a universal and natural biological process that takes place in all living things, conceptualizations of family and kinship are culturally produced. In fact, as long as ...

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3. Family and Kinship in American Society

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pp. 30-43

Although there is a great diversity of scholarly opinion as to the nature of family and kinship, when we focus solely on American society we become more certain about their meanings and significance, which go back to at least the Middle Ages.1 In this chapter I briefly provide a broad overview of American ideas and practices concerning family and kin from their origins to the present in order to locate our contemporary conceptualizations within a historical context. ...

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4. Concepts of Heredity in Western Society

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pp. 44-53

The historically developed traditional definition of family and kinship has culminated in the new genetics, a relatively recent phenomenon in Western scientific thought. Conceptualizations have changed over time, pointing to the historically contingent nature of what is accepted as reality arid truth. Historically, it was held that the family and kin bestowed on their offspring economic and social standing, as well as such personal ...

Part II. Setting Out People's Experience

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5. People with a Genetic History I: Patients Without Symptoms

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pp. 57-75

My focus in the first three chapters was on historical and contemporary issues concerning kinship and concepts of heredity. In this chapter we see the ways in which historically developed kinship relations and medically conceptualized genetic inheritance have variously reproduced themselves in seven healthy women who originate from families with breast, ovarian, or colon cancer; in the next chapter we will meet fifteen women ...

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6. People with a Genetic History II: Recovered Patients

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pp. 76-116

In this chapter I turn to the women who became afflicted with breast cancer; they have been patients already. As among the healthy women, the ideology of genetic inheritance is confirmed experientially for the patients who believed they had suffered from cancer because other members in the family had had it, a recurring theme in all the women's narratives. How else could they explain the disease? Those who entertain ...

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7. People Without a Medical History: Adoptees

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pp. 117-172

In the last chapter we saw how women with a family medical history of cancer were variously guided by the ideology of genetic inheritance of disease. The majority of patients we met accepted notions about genetic inheritance while also entertaining alternative explanations of the disease. Of course, some of the women may have relegated alternative interpretations to occasional musings; only a few rejected, if incompletely, the belief that their affliction was produced by genetic inheritance. ...

Part III. Implications

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8. The Ideology of Genetic Inheritance in Contemporary Life: The Medicalization of Kinship

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pp. 175-187

In the previous three chapters, individuals with family histories of cancer, breast cancer patients, and adoptees illuminated the ways in which the concept of genetic inheritance variously influences day-to-day experience. In this chapter I propose that one important consequence of contemporary genetic conceptualizations has been the medicalization of family and kinship, which came into bold relief in the preceding three ...

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9. A Multidimensional Critique of Genetic Determinism

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pp. 188-196

In the previous chapter I explored the concept of medicalization. I argued that kinship became medicalized as a result of the prominence of molecular biology and genetics associated with inheritance of disease. In this chapter I examine some consequences of the ideology of genetic inheritance on both macro and micro levels of analysis. Paradoxically, the regnant ideology of genetic inheritance produces differing ...

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10. Conclusion

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pp. 197-211

My goal in this book has been to deepen our understanding of the way in which biomedical ideologies are played out in people's day-to-day experiences. Specifically, my focus has been on the ideology of genetic inheritance and the ways in which it shapes current understandings of family and kinship in contemporary American society and influences people's notions of normality and abnormality, agency and memory, while concurrently enmeshing them in numerous paradoxes. We saw that family ...


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pp. 213-241


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pp. 243-267


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pp. 269-276

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pp. 277

I wish to acknowledge numerous people —first and foremost, all the participants in this study, who freely gave me their time and received me with patience and forbearance. I am most grateful for their willingness to share with me their experience, which contributed so much to my understanding of many of the issues discussed here. I owe a special debt to Cecile Skrzynia, of the Division of Hematology and Oncology of the ...

E-ISBN-13: 9780812200607
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812217209

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2000