You are on page 1of 9

Genetics, Identity, and the Anthropology of Essentialism Author(s): Paul Brodwin Reviewed work(s): Source: Anthropological Quarterly, Vol

. 75, No. 2 (Spring, 2002), pp. 323-330 Published by: The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research Stable URL: . Accessed: 23/10/2012 08:43
Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact


The George Washington University Institute for Ethnographic Research is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Anthropological Quarterly.

The notion that individualscraft their identity through social performances. and unalterablequality. critiquesof the autonomous.g. Outsidethe academy. adds the cachet of objective science to the notion that one's identity is an inborn. fundamentallydrivescurrentresearch into gender and sexuality.. natural. anthropology participated general For struction of "identity" as a stable object of scholarly inquiry.Rapidadvances in sequencing and analyzingthe human genome have strengthened essentialist thinking about identity in 323 several has in the decon- . self-sustaining subject within Westernmetaphysics)as well as feminism and cultural studies (e.g.for example..SOCIAL THOUGHTAND COMMENTARY Genetics.and to the dismay of anthropologistswho fancy themselves as the culturalavant-garde.and hence that their identityis not a fixed essence.essentialist identities grow ever more powerfuland seductive. New genetic knowledge. however. Identity. examinationof the unconsciousaspects of identityformationand the politicalresistanceenabled by multipleand hybrididentities)(see Halland Du Gay1996. ethnicityand nationalism. The notionthat collectiveidentityemerges out of political struggleand compromise underlies contemporarystudies of race.The anti-essentialistmood of today'santhropologyfits with wider currentsin philosophy(e. McRobbie 1994). of Anthropology By Paul Brodwin University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the Essentialism decades.

fundamentally)and of social connection (who I belong with. for the effectsof curand conceptualframework buildinga common vocabulary and collectiveidentity. ful belonging is not just good or bad science.or national group. fundamentally)have very high stakes.culturalpractices.I am the co-principal vestigator of an interdisciplinary group pursuing this topic.Legaland SocialImplications (ELSI).AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ESSENTIALISM RaynaRapp(1999)and KajaFinkler demonstrated for genetic testing and predictive diagnosis. changes in the meaning of the "fundamental. access to resources.tracingyourancestry-via a patternof particular alleles. ethnic studies and specialists.inclaimsof identityor rightWhatis at stake in genetically-based ner convictions).or mutations on the Y chromosome or in mitochondrialDNA-has become not just a laboratorytechnique. 324 . Asgenetic technologies Whyis this a compellingquestion for anthropology? and into publiclife. Not surprisingly.and hence the rent-day genetics on notionsof individual fundamental basis for social connection.and who providesit? Once people learn the results. Emerginggenetic knowledge thus has the potential to transformconteminporarynotions of social coherence and group identity. Americansociety and elsewhere. funded by a multi-year grantfrom the NationalHumanGenome ResearchInstitutethrough Ourresearchteam. The ramifyingdebates about genetic technologies(whichappear in courtcases. Who in our society requests this sort of DNAanalysis. internet sites. is comprising leading bioethicists. Forexample. cohesion. the presence of genetic evidence.there arise enormousdemove out of researchlaboratories bates about their proper use and interpretation(see Brodwin2000).and the redressing of historicalinjustice." Moreover. in that last sentence. Whatis at stake is also personal esteem and self-worth. its programon Ethical. articlesand books)are driven by largerquestions about inclusionand di(2000) have versityin Americansociety.writtendocumentation. geneticists. but a political act. To interpretthe results of researchwith genetic markers means not just judgingwhether the laboratoryused the rightpopulation-specificallele or had a largeenough sample size. contemporarydebates over claims of identity(who I am. and anthropologistscan help elucidate what is at stake. racial.who controlswhat those resultsmean? It is no longerjust geneticistsand population biologists. Italso involvesjudgingthe worth of genetic knowledge against other kinds of claims to authentic identity and group membership(oralhistory.and those who must decide to accept or reject their claims.individualsclaiminginclusionin a particular ethnic.but also politicalactivists.

PAUL BRODWIN Itturns out that setting the recordstraightabout who is relatedto whom is contested rightfrom the start.but also the bioethicist and geneticist).Butwhat if it had?(Remember of return" to allJews. it adds an entirelynew set of expertsto the debates (notjust the archivist.especially Y chromosome and mitochondrialDNAmutations-generate knowledgeof ancestry. identity alwaysimplies rights Tospecifywhat countsas legitimatebelongingwillaffecthow people obligations. geneticists in Englandhave used Y-chromosomemarkersto demonstratethat at least one of the clans of Lemba.the professorof ethnic studies or anthropology. specifyingwhat countsas a mother-child techrelationship (ina worldof sophisticated surrogacy where children can have two or even three is to nologies mothers) prior deciding what mothersand childrenowe to each other. To claim a certain social certain and my majorpoint.may peoples. 325 . circumcisingnewborn males. and for good reason. and not eating pork. Geneticevidence will probablynot fit perfectlyinto these longstandingand canonically-basedrules of ethnic inclusionand exclusion. However.Specifying who countsas a citizen conventional of what a nation and its citizensowe each othprecedes judgments er and what sortof moralclaimthey have on each other.) It'san important and it illustrates "right thoughtexperiment. But people always use knowledge of ancestry to illuminate social connections in the present. confirmed but it did not leadto massimmigration to Israel and demandforcitizenship that Israel offersthe papers.specifythe matrilinealinheritanceof Jewish identity. Jewsthemselves have their own complexand historically rooted rulesfor judgingmembership(which the of govern efficacy conversion. They announce a long-termgenerational connection.whichthey alreadybelieved because of such practicesas keeping one day of the week holy. Jewish" findingout that they were "genetically (a loadedterm) theiroraltradition. In any case.etc.Forexample. It also confirmedtheir convictionthat they are Jews. such respect rightsor enforce these obligations.a tribe in SouthAfrica and from be descended Semitic Lemba the Zimbabwe.what does it mean to say that this evithe Jewishidentityof Lemba? dence "confirms" Afterall.). The techniques I mentioned above-use of genetic markers.I will raisesome questionsabout the place of expert authorityin this arena.the links between people in the present and their biologicalforbears. it might even make things harder. Knowledgeof ancestry ratifiesor even creates a social connection in the present. But let me begin with some axioms for thinkingabout identityclaims in the wake of contemporarygenetics. Forexample.Atthe end of my essay. interpreted genetic finding as confirmingtheir oral tradition of Jewish descent. Forthe Lemba. Addinggenetic evidence does not make things any easier. historian.

and also as politicalactors seeking out compromiseand short-termgains.contemporarychronicles.AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ESSENTIALISM GENETICS. IDENTITY. moral. we should interrogatethe very way we discussthis use of genetic technologies. does this process change the resultingwebs of obligation and responsibility:personal. plantation records. knowledge itself doesn't change anything. Particularpeople use such knowledge either to undermine or buttress conventional understandings. they use the knowledgeas historicalactors. Is it to tracea genealogicallinkbetween individuals markers or possibleto use DNA families in the USA and ethnic or tribalcommunities in Africa? Is it feasible to do so (in terms of time and money. The possibilityof tracinggenetic links between African-Americans and populations in Westand Central Africailluminatessimilarissues. connected to me.etc. Of course.Culture loss. Whois posing the questions. Geneticknowledge has the power to change the group with whom we sharea "deep. and racial identity or (2) it may shore up conventional understandings of identity. as exin the Middle is to be mourned.)?The turn to genetics obviously demands careful methodologicalthinking. heal the historicalwounds of slavery"(in the words of supportersof such tests quoted in the national media) alreadyraises expectationsand sets in motion a powerfulnarrativeof loss and redemption. access to individualsin Africancountries willingto donate their genetic material. in the long historyof Americanracism. We must therefore ask. something use of population genetics as the "restoration of African-American genealogy" or a "vitalstep in helping . and it also paves the way for my final point about the ambiguitiesof professionalexpertise. But it also raisesoverarchingand quite sensitive politicaland ethical questions. To begin with. To refer to this perienced Passage.have Americansbegun to raise these questions about genetic and culturalconnections? How do the We questions arise from popular self-consciousnessabout multi-culturalism? should also recognizethe emotional stakesin the discussion. and hence the same as me in some categorical sense. ethnic. how does new genetic knowledge change the ways people claim connection to each other and to larger collectivities?How.. in turn.) Howshould genetic evidence be integrated with oral history and archivalevidence (manifestsof slave ships.and financial?Knowledgeof genetic connection altershow we imagineour "significant same":those people who are significantly like me.. legal.horizontal comradeship" 1991).Evenmore. aware of their group'sunique tragediesand longed-forfuture.The changescould un(Anderson fold in two ways: (1) such knowledge may undermine received wisdom about family. and before what audience? At what point.etc. Againwe must ask. how does the addition of genetic evidence change the 326 .

one. and whose collective identity involves the sense of unjustdislocationand culture-loss. Moreover. people here are turningto genetic evidence in orderto stabilizea particular historical the conviction consciousness: of connectedness to a certainculturalgroup over vast distance and centuries327 . many people have complex mixed genealogies. genetic knowledge might also provoke"ethnogenor the of novel ethnic formations.but mixed.Additionally. seeing it. We need to ask.renderedtangibleand visible.and for the same reasons. In However. such questions demonstrate how genetic evidence can de-stabilize long-standingpatterns of community membership. esis" emergence MitochondrialDNAand Y-chromosometracing concerns genealogical descent in exclusivelythe female or male line. and touching it createsthe sense that their group'smyth has just been authorizedas non-fiction. Yoruba. there are also potentialdangersto this use of genetic evidence.Visitingit.g. genetictracingof African Arguably..what people wish to accomplishthroughthe use of ancestries.. But preciselybecause of the nature of New Worldslavery.(Thisis a crucialchange. the Casamanceregion. since notionsof objectivehistorytypicallyfunctionas chartersfor politicalmobilizationin the present. therefore. A mere notion or shared recollectionof the past has become certifiedas objectivehistory.)Establishing genetic connections is thus enormouslycompellingfor people who mournthe passage from homeland to diaspora.Wolof)which can undercut the sense of shared interests(and hence unity)among African-American coman of munities in the USA. what new collective identity terms should people use? Wouldit make sense to use ethnic terms (such as Yoruba)? Wouldn'tregionalterms (e. alternative basis ethnic identification Givingpeople may well run into the same opposition as the used of "mixed race" as a Americancensus category. respectively.g. the Nigerdelta) be more appropriate. it may provide a competing basis for ethnic identification(e.ManyAmericanJews who visit it reportan unexpected experience:their collective historyhas suddenly become material. the case of African-American ancestry projects. Basingan account of one's "cultural past"on genetic evidence may thus substitute a fictivelypure genealogy for a more historically accurate.PAULBRODWIN way people figuretheir membershipin a certaingroup?Thinkof the experience of Jews who visit the WesternWallin Jerusalem.In general.Fulani.given the scientificframeworksof population genetics?Whatabout terms such as Senegalese or Malianwhich refer simultaneouslyto a geographic region and a politicalentity (albeit one created in part by Europeancolonialism).created by sexual exploitationand the deliberatemixingof enslaved Africans duringthe MiddlePassageand on Americanor Caribbean plantations.

Y chromosomes are passed only throughthe male line.the philosopher. in a particularcase. ethicists. but ratherto its reception. Ifyou had 1 Europeanancestor in that generation. To be blunt:are people being seduced by the promiseof a pure.First. than you would be 1/32 of but and course culturallyblack in the USA. people regard genes as "more stable over time than more putatively accidentalaspects of identity" (suchas nationality. it aclong separation. phenotypicallyblack. and an individualhas 16 male ancestors in the 5th preceding generation.Butsecond. should we carryout the brokeragein only one direction(makesure the lay views conformto the scientificviews?)Why not the other way around?Whatif the misunderstanding of genetics.AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY OF ESSENTIALISM GENETICS.) have a professional responsibilityto ensure that the users of African-American genetic genealogies don't make mistakes-that is.etc.religion. but fictive genealogy? Considerthe following example. citizenship. Whatis the place of expertknowledge(of the geneticist. Do the expertsin relevantfields (biologicaland culturalanthropologists. in some Scottishvillage). let alone the markerfor an ethnic-racial group.then Y-chromosome typing would place your ancestryentirelyin Europe(for example. responsible geneticist say singlegene a complex behavioraltrait.A gene is simplya long stringof base nucleotides. the historically-emergent is not reallya rescholarly(and left-liberal) oppositionto "geneticessentialism" action to contemporarygenetics. But if that Europeanman happened to be your father's father's father's father'sfather.The essentializing occursat the levelof popularreconstructions of geneticscience.Suchevidence becomes compellingfor two reasons. notion of ethnic distinctionis very long indeed. quiresthe general cachet of science as the ultimateguarantorof truth. IDENTITY. the in the scenario about Y-chromosomal and Africananthropologist) tracing American Isit to replacea misgenealogies(orsimilargenetic identityprojects)? of with true a Is it understanding genetics understanding? to warn the "users" of genetic knowledgenot to make mistakes? Is it to become "culture broker" between lay and scientificviews? If so.and professional anti-essentialistinterventionsshould be directedthere as well.and the rest of your male (and female) ancestorswere African. To begin that they don't succumb to a population-basedgenetic essentialism? there for no would that exists a with.Findingthat you are genetically descended from a Scottishhighlanderwill certainlyde-stabilizeyour ethnic narrativethat you identity! Such knowledge rupturesthe backward-looking had hoped to confirm. etc. So. actuallyhas politically effects (such advantageous(and progressive) 328 . European.and the passagefrom nucleotideto protein to anatomicalstructure to behaviorto collectivebehaviorto self-conscious.). geneticists.

Inthe contests over recognition. expertauthoritiesdo not stand outside or above the fray.they also affect how resourcesget allocated and how people imagine their "deepcomradeship" and authenticselves.Yetthey also reanimatethe historicmissionof our discipline: to conceptualize differencein precise ways and with full awarenessof the politicalstakes of expert knowldege. Citizenship: Identity Afterthe HumanGenomeProject" No. but it does so differentlyin each case.Theiropinions affect who controls recognitionand how claims of connection are evaluated. on Ethical. to Carl Thanks Elliott Laurie (Grant (PI).edu]. warningagainst genetic essentialism(cf.AfricanAmerican and the use (ornon-use)of genetic evidencefor varancestryprojects.the re-possession of a dis-possessedpast should not be blocked by an otherwisesalutary and Chrisman 1994: 11). ious identityclaims among NativeAmericans.among diasporic Jewsand certainvoices in the African-American community)and not in others (notablyNativeAmericans)? Whyis it easily accepted by some groups. 5R01-02196.. and to whose benefit?-must be asked anew for each case: Lembaidentityas Jews. Fromthis standpoint. it has strategicuses given certainoppressivepoliticalrealities.Williams Such questions about expert authority-expert for whom. Race.certainquestionsdo cryout for anthropological expertise. and anthropologistscan help pinpoint the historicaland political factors at work.Francoise Bayliss. the via genetic knowledge. Mark and other grantparticipants. In the long run. but the of extreme in target suspicion others?The availabilityof genetic tracingsurely altersthe playingfield of identityclaims. and SocialImplications Program Legal. ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS Research has been funded by a grant from the National Human Genome Research Institute.Why does genetic evidence proveso compellingin some cases (e. commentsto the author[brodwin@uwm. (ELSI): "Ethnicity.of one's collectivememory("my ratification. Pleasedirect Thomas. 329 .Therefore. Currentdebates over genetically based identity claims thus challenge the reflexiveanti-essentialismof contemporaryanthropology.PAUL BRODWIN as increased pride in one's heritage)?Should expert voices still attempt to demolish genetic essentialism?One alternativeuse of expert knowledgeis to support what one scholar calls strategic essentialism. Zoloth(co-PI). Entering this field demands huin the milityas well as attention to who is participating (and not participating) debate and among the circleof experts. group'sstory/memoryjust become scientifichistory.its 'fiction'just became non-fiction") should not be corrected.Redemptivememorycarriesits own justification. Nonetheless.g.

Hall.1999. McRobbie. REFERENCES Benedict. Brodwin. Questions of Cultural Identity. in the Fetus:TheSocialImpact Women.OF ESSENTIALISM AND THE ANTHROPOLOGY GENETICS. Paul (ed). Biotechnology and Culture:Bodies.Bloomington. Colonial Discourse and Post-ColonialTheory:A Reader.) 1996. Postmodernism and Popular Culture. New York:Columbia University Press. Anxieties. 2000. London: Sage Publications. New York:Routledge Press.1991. 330 . 1994. Kaja Family Frontier. 1994. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Rayna. Imagined Communities: and the Origins and Spread Anderson. Reflections of Nationalism. Patrickand LauraChrisman. IDENTITY. Williams. Experiencing the NewGenetics: and Kinship on the Medical Finkler. Stuart and Paul du Gay (eds. Testing Testing of Amniocentesis America. Rapp. Ethics.London: Routledge. Angela. London: Verso Press. IN: Indiana University Press 2000.