Social Science Bites

Alondra Nelson on Genetic Testing

October 1, 2020 13076

Sociologist Alondra Nelson calls it “root-seeking” – individuals wanting to know their ethnic background. Knowing who your people were as a way to know who you are verges on being a human need – witness the Hebrew Bible or the carefully tended genealogies of royal houses.

In her own seeking, Nelson has studied the rise and use of direct-to-consumer genetic testing as made popular by companies like 23andme, Ancestry.com and AncestryDNA. Those firms and others promise to decode, at least in part, stories found in your own chromosomal makeup. As Nelson achieved other career milestones, including being the current president of the Social Science Research Council and the Harold F. Linder Professor at the Institute for Advanced Study, she’s also spent close to two decades unraveling the story of consumer genetic testing, accounts of which resulted in two of her books, Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome.

In this Social Science Bites podcast, Nelson describes her particular interest in those root-seekers whose journeys usually aren’t always captured in antebellum church registries or in tales passed down in the same hamlet through countless generations. She’s focused on the descendants of people ‘stolen from Africa’ in the slave trade, who make up so much of the African diaspora.

In surveys and later in extensive interviewing among the African-American community, Nelson found a great deal of interest among Black Americans in DNA testing despite some historical misgivings.

“Marginalized communities, and in the context of the U.S., African-Americans in particular, have a very understandable historic distrust of genetic research and medical experimentation,” she explains to interviewer David Edmonds. “So the fact that African Americans were early adopters in this space is surprising given that history. What’s not surprising is the genealogical aspiration that many African Americans are trying to fulfill – a profound and pronounced and often very living and present longing sense of loss and longing about identity, original family names, of points and places on the continent of Africa where one’s ancestors might have come from.”

She also learned, as her investigations branched out from surveys of the genealogical community to interviews with test-takers, that “getting the test results was really the beginning of the endeavor, rather than the end.

“What in the world did you think you could do with this information, besides filing it away in a drawer and telling your family that we now know that we have Ibo, Yoruba, whatever the test provided for ancestry?” Answering that question meant Nelson’s own approach must evolve.

“That transformed the methodology to a kind of ethnographic methodology that I call the ‘social life of DNA’ in which I followed what happened with the test, what happened with the information, what did they think that these genetic inferences could do with the world. That really opens up a whole other space of thinking about the importance of genetic testing.”

Part of that space she explored is uniquely American. For much of (White) America, one’s ethnic ties to the ‘old country’ – to be Irish or Italian, say — are a linchpin of identity. “That’s not been available to African Americans,” she notes, whose roots are assigned to a large swathe of sub-Saharan Africa, since specific roots were eradicated when now enslaved peoples arrived in the New World. “People lost their given names, lost the languages of their foremothers and forefathers,” Nelson said.

“[P]art of the work of what slave-making entailed was taking people from often very different places on the continent of Africa, with different languages, cultural norms, religious backgrounds and to create out of a multicultural and multiethnic diverse group of people of different backgrounds a ‘caste’.” These enslaved Africans were henceforth categorized as a race, and that race was assigned the caste of enslaved person.

Genetic testing, in turn, opens up that ‘Black box’ of lost identity and reveals what place and culture forebearers were likely ripped from. (Nelson, for example, had her own code analyzed and discovered a component of her heritage was inferred to be from what is now Cameroon.)

In this podcast, Nelson also talks about how Black Americans may respond to their growing awareness of their inferred genetic identities, how this might impact the reparations debate in the United States, and why people are primed to be emotional at reveals of their genetic heritage.

In addition to her two books on genetic testing, Nelson writes extensively at the nexus of science, technology, and social inequality. Her publications, for example, include the books Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination  and Technicolor: Race, Technology, and Everyday Life. She is also editor of “Afrofuturism,” an influential special issue of Social Text.

To download an MP3 of this podcast, right-click HERE and save.


For a complete listing of past Social Science Bites podcasts, click HERE. You can follow Bites on Twitter @socialscibites and David Edmonds @DavidEdmonds100.

Welcome to the blog for the Social Science Bites podcast: a series of interviews with leading social scientists. Each episode explores an aspect of our social world. You can access all audio and the transcripts from each interview here. Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter @socialscibites.

View all posts by Social Science Bites

Related Articles

New SSRC Project Aims to Develop AI Principles for Private Sector
Industry
July 19, 2024

New SSRC Project Aims to Develop AI Principles for Private Sector

Read Now
AI Upskilling Can and Should Empower Business School Faculty
Higher Education Reform
July 10, 2024

AI Upskilling Can and Should Empower Business School Faculty

Read Now
Paper Opening Science to the New Statistics Proves Its Import a Decade Later
Impact
July 2, 2024

Paper Opening Science to the New Statistics Proves Its Import a Decade Later

Read Now
Megan Stevenson on Why Interventions in the Criminal Justice System Don’t Work
Social Science Bites
July 1, 2024

Megan Stevenson on Why Interventions in the Criminal Justice System Don’t Work

Read Now
Rob Ford on Immigration

Rob Ford on Immigration

Opinions on immigration are not set in stone, suggests Rob Ford – but they may be set in generations. Zeroing in on the experience of the United Kingdom since the end of World War II, Ford – a political scientist at the University of Manchester – explains how this generation’s ‘other’ becomes the next generation’s ‘neighbor.’

Read Now
Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income

Tavneet Suri on Universal Basic Income

Economist Tavneet Suri discusses fieldwork she’s done in handing our cash directly to Kenyans in poor and rural parts of Kenya, and what the generally good news from that work may herald more broadly.

Read Now
The Long Arm of Criminality

The Long Arm of Criminality

David Canter considers the daily reminders of details of our actions that have been caused by criminality.

Read Now
5 1 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

1 Comment
Newest
Oldest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
john vaughan

This is most interesting and very high quality – what Mintzberg calls ‘intellectually rigorous’!