Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg

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Research Project

New Genetics, Old Identities? The Impact of Science on Notions of Race, Ethnicity and Citizenship in South Africa

Recent scientific practices in population genetics focus on the statistical analysis of mutation patterns (as occurring in Single Nucleotide Polymorphisms) in mitochondrial and Y-chromosomal DNA in order to determine human ancestry. The reference system to these patterns correlates with spatio-geographical notions of populations and thus harks back on social categories of race and ethnicity. At the same time, these boundaries may turn porous, since admixture appears to be very common in individual samples. Race and ethnicity are therefore highly ambiguous – on the one hand they are reaffirmed (for example in the general framework of analysis), on the other hand they are deconstructed (by showing that population boundaries are not as fixed as one might assume). I am interested in this very ambiguity and the effects it has on the production of political subjectivities in South Africa, where the practice of racial classification has had a particularly perverse political and scientific legacy (see Erasmus & Ellison 2008; Bowker & Star 2000). The project will look at the dynamics between the formation of scientific classifications (here in relation to genetic concepts of “populations”, i.e. race and ethnicity), their historical situatedness (in different contexts, such as the Pan-African and Black Consciousness Movements, Apartheid, “African Renaissance” in post-apartheid South Africa and present-day nationalism) and their political and legal impact on notions of national identity and citizenship. I am asking how symbolic categories of belonging are translated into biological concepts of ancestry and relatedness, and vice versa. In other words – how do concepts of (cultural) heritage intersect with those of (biological) inheritance?
This project is informed by a broad academic debate that looks into the development of new forms of political organization and subjectivities in the wake of the new genetics / molecular biology (see Rose 2007). Significant here are the critical discussions about the re-biologization of “race” that are very prominent in the United States (see Koenig, Lee & Richardson 2008), but have also gained critical attention in Europe (see Lippardt & Niewöhner 2007; Schramm, Skinner & Rottenburg 2010), or, more specifically, Germany (see AG gegen Rassismus in den Lebenswissenschaften 2009). Many of these studies focus on the medical sector, yet there are a few that also look at Genetic Ancestry Testing (see Nash 2004; Nelson 2008) and pay attention to the interplay of popular culture and consumption within these new genetic technologies. My project aims at broadening this perspective by showing how genetic technologies are embedded in existing legal and epistemological orders while also having the potential of transforming these. Scientific laboratory, public sphere and political practice are analyzed as mutually constitutive. Genetic identities are thus understood as deeply political and closely connected to ideas of national belonging; not resulting in an idea of biological citizenship (see Rose & Novas 2005) outside the framework of the state but rather deeply embedded in its bureaucratic machinery.  
South Africa has been chosen for various reasons. First, its history of race, racism and racialization differs in many respects from the United States, thus offering a new outlook on the way in which race is scientifically and socio-politically co-produced (see Dubow 1995). Secondly, South Africa is a site in Africa where population genetics has for long been a scientific practice in its own right (see Jenkins 1988), and not just a repository for sampling. Third, genetic ancestry testing is practiced today in various fields – from genomic research into population ancestry (see Schuster et al. 2010) to the popularity of genetic genealogy among white Afrikaners (Himla Soodyall, personal communication) or the affirmation of genetic “Jewishness” by the South African Lemba (see Azoulay 2006). Thirdly, a discourse on common human ancestry in Africa (see Bonner, Esterhuysen & Jenkins 2007; Soodyall 2003) is popularized in terms of South African national unity (see Bystrom 2009) while at the same time playing on notions of racial and ethnic difference as well as ideas of autochthony and distinction. Finally, one needs to note the close entanglement of science and politics in relation to racial classification during Apartheid – and the question of how this history plays out in the new gene/alogical practices and their public representations.
By employing an anthropological lens to these problems, the project will be able to concretize both the epistemic objects that are central to it (i.e. “race”, “DNA”, “ethnicity” or “citizenship”) as well as the social actors that are involved in the various translation processes between science and the public (i.e. scientists, politicians, consumers or activists).


AG gegen Rassismus in den Lebenswissenschaften (ed) 2009. Gemachte Differenz:  Kontinuitäten biologischer "Rasse" Konzepte Münster: Unrast.

Azoulay, Katya Gibel 2006. Reflections on race and the biologization of difference. Patterns of prejudice 40 (4-5): 353-379.

Bonner, Philip, Amanda Esterhuysen & Trefor Jenkins (eds) 2007. A search for origins: Science, history and South Africa's "Cradle of Humankind". Johannesburg: Wits University Press.Bowker, Geoffrey C. & Susan Leigh Star 2000. “The Case of Race Classification and Reclassification under Apartheid”, In: Sorting things out: Classification and its consequences. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 195-228.

Bystrom, Kerry 2009. The DNA of the Democratic South Africa: Ancestral Maps, Family Trees, Genealogical Fictions. Journal of Southern African Studies 35 (1): 223 - 235.

Dubow, Saul 1995. Scientific racism in modern South Africa. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Erasmus, Yvonne & George T. Ellison 2008. “What can we learn about the meaning of race from the classification of population groups during apartheid?” South African Journal of Science 104: 450-452.Jenkins, Trefor (1988) The Peoples of Southern Africa: Studies in Diversity and Disease. Johannesburg: Institute for the Study of Man in Africa.

Koenig, Barbara A., Soo-Jin Sandra Lee & Sarah S. Richardson (eds) 2008. Revisiting race in a genomic age. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

Lipphardt, Veronika & Jörg Niewöhner 2007. “Producing difference in an age of biosociality. Biohistorical narratives, standardization and resistance as translations,” Science, technology & Innovation Studies 3: 46-65.

Rose, Nikolas & Carlos Novas 2005. Biological citizenship. In Global assemblages: Technology, politics, and ethics as anthropological problems, edited by Ong, Aihwa & Stephen J. Collier. Oxford: Blackwell, 439-463.

Schramm, Katharina, David Skinner & Richard Rottenburg (eds) 2011. Identity Politics after DNA: Re/Creating Categories of Difference and Belonging. Oxford: Berghahn (forthcoming)

Schuster SC 2010. Complete Khoisan and Bantu genomes from southern Africa. Nature. Feb 18; 463 (7283): 943-7.

Soodyall, Himla 2003. A Walk in the Garden of Eden: Genetic Trails into our African Past. Socail Cohesion and Integration Research Programme, Africa Human Genome Initiative Occasional Paper Series No. 2.