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Egenis · Events

Genomics and Identity Politics Workshop

Workshop   24.09.2009





Organised by

ESRC Genomics Network


24th September 2009 - Reed Hall, University of Exeterbr />

Event details

Genomics and Identity PoliticsThursday 24th September 2009Reed Hall, University of Exeter

Time TitleSpeaker
9:00 Welcome John Dupre
9:15 to 9:45 Ossified or Liberated? Identity in the age of genomics. Christine Hauskeller, Egenis
9:45 to 10:15 ‘Making babies and Making Parents’; what is the impact of new genetic and reproductive technologies on the family in the UK? Gill Haddow, Innogen
10:15 to 10:45 Genetic suspects: DNA and forensic identificationbbsp;Steve Sturdy, Forum
10:45 to 11:15 Census and the Biopolitics of Identity Richard Tutton, Cesagen
11:15 to 11:45 Tea/coffee break
11:45 to 13:00 Genomics, Blood, and the Shifting Precisions of U.S. Native American Identity Kimberly TallBear (Berkeley)
13:00 to 14:00 Lunch
14:00 to 15:15‘Look in the mirror’: technologies of reassurance and the DNA mapping of Britain Anne-Marie Fortier (Lancaster)
15:15 to 15:30 Tea/coffee break
15:30 to 16:45The Combustible Intersection of Forensic Science, Genomics and Race Troy Duster (New York)
16:45 open endedClosing discussion


Ossified or liberated: Human Identities in the Age of GenomicsChristine Hauskeller, Egenis, University of Exeter Bureaucratic institutions widely employ genetic testing to arrange distribution of their services. Equally, individuals use genetic tests to learn about who they are. In this presentation I will discuss different understandings of identity and illustrate how the use of DNA testing is simultaneously a filter and a catalyst of identity politics.I argue that regardless of the prominence of DNA testing of identity, tensions are present within the ways in which identity is defined and in the related difficulties of managing the actual fluidity of both personal self-understanding and the relevant clusters for bureaucratic control in rapidly changing societies. DNA tests promise to eradicate the vagueness of markers by defining the genetic equivalent of ethnic, gender and kinship group memberships. Such certainty could in effect limit the perception of these categories as open-for-change products of cultural history. Moreover, this certainty will not eradicate the tests’ basic ambiguity – i.e. that they make people manageable through large bureaucratic systems while allowing them to develop strategies to influence the form of this management. The commitment to fundamental human rights in its many understandings and the fact that every maltreated group can appeal for compensation give the stigmatising marker a potentially powerful position. Speaking in Foucauldian terms, genetics enables both subjection and resistance in a special way, by being a technology that carries truth value and thus fixes identity positions. Many of the general identity markers are widely shared across cultures and nations, however, being black or Jewish means something different in the USA, Nigeria, Israel, and Germany. Similarly, a DNA test for sex indicating a female fetus holds different understandings for parents in countries such as Afghanistan, China, and in Simon de Beauvoir’s France. Genetics may standardize how to establish those qualities in any person, and the public availability of tests has certainly created both a lot of turmoil in many people’s lives and a massive increase in the number and kind of identities that an individual can own and consume.While different aspects of identity are made to matter in a DNA-ridden identity politics, they should also remain open to socio-political negotiation. Subjectivities and psychological personal identities are products of social and cultural life and they should not be overlooked in our assessments of who a person is seen to be. The psychological life in its openness and fluidity may need affirmation in the competition against the socio-technical system of DNA identifiers if we want to understand what it means to be a father, disease afflicted, gay or, say, Italian. ‘Making babies and making parents’; what is the impact of new genetic and reproductive technologies on the family in the UK? Gill Haddow, Innogen, Martin Richards, Cambridge, Carol Smart, ManchesterSince the first IVF baby in the UK was born in 1978, dramatic changes have occurred in assisted reproduction and the medical technologies that can be offered to infertile individuals or partners. Changing technologies, e.g. DNA testing, development of ICSI, (intracytoplasmic sperm injection), PGD (preimplantation genetic diagnosis) and practices e.g. egg sharing, ending anonymity and developing embryo research, have arguably made significant impacts on what the “family” is. At the same time as innovations in ARTs have developed, there have been significant social changes in the UK. The age of child bearing has increased with the majority of women choosing to have children in their late 30s and early 40s. Such a demographic shift has contributed to increasing the demand for IVF etc. despite reports of the minimal improvement in IVF pregnancy rates. More single women and lesbian couples are accessing ARTs, and there is now a programme for male couples. The legal and regulatory context has had to keep abreast with developments. Arguably due to recognition of such changes in 2008, the new (2008) HFE Act does not refer to a child's "need for a father" but to “supportive parenting”. While regulatory changes such as these have invoked some controversy it is questionable what impact, if any, this will have in clinical practice or on the families themselves.

Without doubt, reactions to reproductive transformations have more continuity with the past than is often assumed to be the case. For example, lesbian couples often attempt to find a “matching” donor representing an attempt therefore to become a biologically related family (Petra Nordqvist). These parents probably “tell” their children the truth of their conception but other couples may not despite an emphasis on the importance of “genetic truth” for the child’s identity (Martin Richards). Indeed, despite an increasing tendency to identify genetic fathers as "real" fathers in the English Law, questions about family secrets around paternity are not new and were not uncommon in the past (Carol Smart). Ideas or theories about genetics can be challenged or recast when people attempt to explain family resemblances (Jennifer Mason et al). Further, in the context of genetic risk information in the clinic, researchers have shown that families and individuals often employ strategies of collusion or deferral regarding others rights to knowledge (Katie Featherstone et al). Others have shown that dual processes of resistance and adoption are carried out by parents with children who have a present (or potential) genetic condition (Susan E. Kelly et al) and the ways in which children respond to how genetic representations and practices “other” them is also complex affecting their sense of self (Janice McLaughlin et al).Hence, there is an iterative process at work between family agency and genetic technologies that means there are often issues of resistance going on as well as assimilation. Controversially, it may be that the reactions by individuals and kinship groups have more in common with the past than is often assumed to be the case. Genetic suspects: identity politics and the forensic uses of DNADr Steve Sturdy, ESRC Genomics Policy and Research Forum, University of EdinburghSince its inception in the 1980s, DNA profiling or “fingerprinting” has become widely accepted as the most effective means of identifying individuals for forensic purposes. However, increasing reliance on DNA evidence by police and by the courts raises a number of issues of identity politics.While DNA profiling can provide strong evidence to connect an individual with a crime, that evidence remains both circumstantial and fallible. Nonetheless, in practice, DNA evidence has come to enjoy a degree of credibility that often goes well beyond what a critical analysis of the circumstances surrounding a particular crime might warrant. The reasons for this are intimately bound up with the routines of judicial procedure, and with the amenities that DNA evidence may afford to defence lawyers as well as prosecutors (Aronson, 2007; Lynch et al., 2008). But the consequence has been a significant shift in the kinds and standards of evidence the criminal justice system as a whole treats as sufficient to identify an individual as a criminal, and raises concerns about the political and practical priorities that govern that system.

The rapid expansion of forensic DNA databases to store genetic profiles raises further issues of identity politics. Such databases are routinely searched many times per day in case profiles obtained from crime-scene DNA samples can be matched against those of known individuals. Forensic DNA databases thus serve not just to identify individual suspects, but also to define a suspect population that is routinely subjected to speculative investigation for any crime where DNA evidence is found. Debates over the proper extent and constitution of that population are typically conducted in terms of the balance between individual rights – particularly the right to privacy – and social security; and different databasing practices in different jurisdictions reflect different political judgements about where that balance should legitimately be drawn. In the UK, for instance, the expansion of the National DNA Database (NDNAD) was undertaken with the express intention of bringing all “known suspect offenders” – meaning, in practice, anyone ever arrested in connection with a crime, irrespective of whether they were found to have committed that crime – under routine surveillance and investigation. According to Williams and Johnson (2008), this marks a significant step in a wider shift in the UK criminal justice system from a “criminal justice paradigm”, in which the attribution of innocence or guilt to an individual takes priority over benefits to society as a whole, to a “crime management paradigm”, in which these priorities are reversed. Since the recruitment of individuals onto forensic DNA databases is inevitably informed by the discriminatory values that distort the practices of policing and criminal justice more generally, the effect is to focus the machinery of crime management onto the populations so recruited, thereby further reinforcing prejudicial identities and discriminatory practices.

Meanwhile, further innovations continue to be made in the forensic use of DNA. Forensic phenotyping, for instance, analyses the coding sections of crime-scene DNA to draw inferences about the likely physical appearance, geographical or ethnic origin or other identifying features of unknown suspects. Forensic phenotyping has been used both to incriminate and to exclude members of ethnic minorities from criminal investigations. Given the probabilistic nature of the inferences on which such decisions are made, however, it is likely that forensic phenotyping will tend in the long run to reinforce rather than challenge discriminatory policing and detection practices. Meanwhile, efforts to identify genes that may be statistically associated with criminal behaviour raise the possibility that some suspect populations will come to be defined biologically, and subjected to increased surveillance and various forms of intervention in the absence of any other evidence of criminality. Such efforts are intensely if implicitly political, bound up as they are with deep-seated assumptions about the causes of criminal behaviour and its distribution within the population. Such assumptions are not themselves novel; but the development of new genetic technologies brings a new dynamic to the complex politics of identity and identification to which they give rise. Census and the Biopolitics of IdentityRichard Tutton, Cesagen and Celia Roberts, Lancaster University

In 1992 Paul Rabinow suggested that genetics would be a great force in reshaping society. He envisaged the formation of individual and collective identities around new ‘truths’ produced about human biology. This he called ‘biosociality’, and for Rabinow, the archetype of biosociality was patient advocacy. He suggested that advocacy groups would form on the basis of the identification of genetic traits and these would seek to create alliances with scientists, medics and others to drive future research and support families and individuals with these traits. The notion of biosociality has been extremely generative for a number of social scientists studying forms of health activism particularly in the arena of genetics. In articulating the notion of biosociality, Rabinow had acknowledged that emerging biosocial categories and practices of identity-formation were still connected to existing categories and practices associated with gender, race and age. In complicated and insidious ways, Rabinow suggested, these could actually take on renewed force in relation to the biosociality that he described as taking form in the 1990s. In their recent edited collection on the place of biosociality in the social studies of biomedicine, Gibbon and Novas (2007) suggest that the intersection between biosocial and such older forms of classifications as gender and race need to be considered in more detail. They question how these classifications inform, shape or exist in tension with new emergent biological identities. This paper contributes to this ongoing task and takes as its focus the contexts of health activism and patient advocacy. We contend that where groups understood as biosocial have appeared it has been more often than not in contexts where these older forms of classification and identity are powerful mobilizing factors. This can be seen most clearly with the case of gender such as in the example of breast cancer activism. We can also see it with reference to social class – which has not received the kind of attention that it deserves either from the perspective of authors working with biosociality or those studying the formation and activities of patient organizations. We argue that class is a powerful structuring factor in the formation of patient groups, the material and symbolic resources on which they can draw, and the level of access and influence that they are able to exert on other actors such as scientists, industry and government. We draw on a number of examples of patient advocacy organizations to illustrate our argument. We also reflect on a potential counterpoint to our argument, considering how race, in so far as it has appeared as a significant factor in health activism centred on biomedicine, reveals a more complex relationship between the biosocial and older forms of classification and identity practices. ‘Look in the mirror’: technologies of reassurance and the DNA mapping of BritainAnne-Marie Fortier, Director, Centre for Gender and Women's Studies, Lancaster UniversityThis paper is about how digital photography, morphing technologies, population statistics and genetics are variously combined to operate as technologies of reassurance at a time of when we are said to be undergoing deeply transformative changes that threaten to fragment white Britain. The paper will focus on a three-part television series screened on Channel 4 in 2007. Entitled Face of Britain, the series documented the results of a £2.3 million study led by geneticist Sir Walter Bodmer, at the University of Oxford, which aims at tracking the genetic origins of the British population. A striking feature of the series is how the study is cast as the last opportunity to trace these origins in the current hyper-mobile, globalised world – indeed, it is also referred to as the ‘genetic Domesday book’. In the paper, I discuss the study’s methodology as well as the different ‘faces’ of Britain presented in the series (and elsewhere). The analysis is threefold. First, I show how the very methodology of the genetic mapping of Britain reproduces and shores up the rural idyll as the site where the pure (and sedentary) national character can be found. Second, different ways of looking at the body as evidence are deployed and co-exist in Face of Britain, and different understandings of corporeal transparency are deployed in relation to different bodies. Third, the various ‘average faces’ used for the series are produced within a fantasy frame that supports the belief in the promises of DNA research and visual technologies as the apotheoses of the ‘dream of corporeal transparency’ (Chinn 2000: 146), which are mobilised here to work as mirrors – the series subtitle goes ‘Look in the mirror: thousands of years of history are looking back at you’ – that make the nation ‘whole’ against perceived fragmentation and gradual invisibility. But against the assumed unity of the ‘face of Britain’, the paper will draw on theoretical insights from feminist, psychoanalytic and postcolonial approaches to examine how these different technologies of reassurance dramatically highlight the very ambivalence of the nation’s idea or knowledge of itself. Thus overall, this paper examines the material role of visual praxis and visual technologies in contemporary popular scientific discourses and representations of national character and ‘type’. Genomics, Blood, and Re-articulating U.S. Native American Identity Kim TallBear, University of California, Berkeley Different types of DNA tests—genetic ancestry tests and the more common “DNA fingerprint”—target Native American identity at two levels of conceptual and social organization, “race” and “tribe.” In order to understand the complexity of US Native American identity in an age of genomics, I compare notions of kinship, race, and tribe embodied in genetic ancestry technologies with how they are embodied in symbolic blood as it is evoked in the blood enrolment rules of US tribal governments. I conclude with a broader analysis of how human genetic diversity research (the basis for genetic ancestry tests) is articulating a new form of genetic indigeneity. The Combustible Intersection of Forensic Science, Genomics and RaceTroy Duster, New York UniversityIn the last decade, state and national DNA databases have expanded exponentially, and the US now has collected and stored more than six million samples. Both the federal government and several states are taking the DNA from those merely arrested for misdemeanors. While these arrest patterns have a decidedly racial cast, new evidence has surfaced that DNA matches are not nearly as certain as the public has been led to believe. While we can and should applaud the Innocence Project and other initiatives that exonerate the innocent using DNA technology, we should stay ever alert to the false precision of "cold hits" (presumed matches with a database) that have the potential of sending many more innocents to prison. One of the many ironies in this arena is that the same technology used for ancestry testing is also being offered to police departments to assist in the identification of potential suspects.

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