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Anthropological Quarterly 75.2 (2002) 323-330

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Social Thought and Commentary

Genetics, Identity, and the Anthropology of Essentialism

Paul Brodwin
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

For several decades, anthropology has participated in the general deconstruction of "identity" as a stable object of scholarly inquiry. The notion that individuals craft their identity through social performances, and hence that their identity is not a fixed essence, fundamentally drives current research into gender and sexuality. The notion that collective identity emerges out of political struggle and compromise underlies contemporary studies of race, ethnicity and nationalism. The anti-essentialist mood of today's anthropology fits with wider currents in philosophy (e.g., critiques of the autonomous, self-sustaining subject within Western metaphysics) as well as feminism and cultural studies (e.g., examination of the unconscious aspects of identity formation and the political resistance enabled by multiple and hybrid identities) (see Hall and Du Gay 1996, McRobbie 1994).

Outside the academy, however, and to the dismay of anthropologists who fancy themselves as the cultural avant-garde, essentialist identities grow ever more powerful and seductive. New genetic knowledge, for example, adds the cachet of objective science to the notion that one's identity is an inborn, natural, and unalterable quality. Rapid advances in sequencing and analyzing the human genome have strengthened essentialist thinking about identity in [End Page 323] American society and elsewhere, and anthropologists can help elucidate what is at stake.

Emerging genetic knowledge thus has the potential to transform contemporary notions of social coherence and group identity. I am the co-principal investigator of an interdisciplinary group pursuing this topic, funded by a multi-year grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute through its program on Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI). Our research team, comprising leading bioethicists, geneticists, and ethnic studies specialists, is building a common vocabulary and conceptual framework for the effects of current-day genetics on notions of individual and collective identity, and hence the fundamental basis for social connection.

Why is this a compelling question for anthropology? As genetic technologies move out of research laboratories and into public life, there arise enormous debates about their proper use and interpretation (see Brodwin 2000). The ramifying debates about genetic technologies (which appear in court cases, internet sites, articles and books) are driven by larger questions about inclusion and diversity in American society, as Rayna Rapp (1999) and Kaja Finkler (2000) have demonstrated for genetic testing and predictive diagnosis. Not surprisingly, contemporary debates over claims of identity (who I am, fundamentally) and of social connection (who I belong with, fundamentally) have very high stakes. Moreover, the meaning of the "fundamental," in that last sentence, changes in the presence of genetic evidence.

For example, tracing your ancestry—via a pattern of particular alleles, or mutations on the Y chromosome or in mitochondrial DNA—has become not just a laboratory technique, but a political act. Who in our society requests this sort of DNA analysis, and who provides it? Once people learn the results, who controls what those results mean? It is no longer just geneticists and population biologists, but also political activists, individuals claiming inclusion in a particular ethnic, racial, or national group, and those who must decide to accept or reject their claims. To interpret the results of research with genetic markers means not just judging whether the laboratory used the right population-specific allele or had a large enough sample size. It also involves judging the worth of genetic knowledge against other kinds of claims to authentic identity and group membership (oral history, written documentation, cultural practices, inner convictions). What is at stake in genetically-based claims of identity or rightful belonging is not just good or bad science. What is at stake is also personal esteem and self-worth, group cohesion, access to resources, and the redressing of historical injustice. [End Page 324]

It turns out that setting the record straight about who is related to whom is contested right from the start, and for good reason. Adding genetic evidence does not make things any easier; it might even make things harder. In any...


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