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Alondra Nelson and the Social Life of DNA

What does genetic ancestry tell us about ourselves? Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies hosted Professor Alondra Nelson for a seminar on November 1 in which she discussed her newest book The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome. Nelson delves into the evolving significance of genetic ancestry testing in American culture, exploring the intersections of issues of race, justice and family in direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

Nelson is the president of the Social Science Research Council and professor of sociology at Columbia University. A scholar of science, technology and social inequality. The book project she discussed emerged out of Nelson’s work with direct-to-consumer genetic testing services and community groups compiling genealogical records with a focus on early adopters in African American communities. Ideas about race, genetics and genealogy, Nelson effectively illustrates, were not worked out in one domain at a time. Rather, the multiple uses of genetic analyses often “spill over” between domains such as genetic counseling, family history and criminal justice.

The title of her book is a nod to Arjun Appadurai’s 1986 book The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. This tremendously influential work has inspired other scholars to experiment with the same method of following particular objects with thick description to elucidate their social context. Nelson uses this approach to explore the changing epistemology of genealogy/genetics in the United States over recent decades with the explosion of interest in and technological tools for individual exploration of personal genetics.

She also writes about the emergence of genetic data into legal and political questions of social justice and reparation, relating the story of Farmer-Paellmann v FleetBoston 2002, a court case in which lawyer Deadria Paellmann attempted to hold a number of corporations legally responsible for having benefitted from the slave trade. When the case was dismissed, it was for lack of standing- the courts disputed the claim that genetic testing provided a decisive link between slaves and their descendants. The evolving ways in which Americans use and think about genetic testing intersects with complex questions of family history, ethnic and racial identity, and national trauma.

These issues are particularly relevant within academia today. Nelson writes about several American universities which have grappled with institutional histories of involvement in the slave trade, dwelling at length on Georgetown which exists today because of a sale of over 200 people as slaves during a period of financial difficulty. Using genealogical records and genetic testing, the descendants of these slaves have been identified, initiating moral debate on how the university needs to make amends. Drawing on Didier Fassin’s work on moral institutions and institutional morality (At the Heart of the State: The Moral World of Institutions), Nelson writes about institutional morality as a choice which institutions can and should make.

Nelson’s other publications include Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination; Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History and Technicolor: Race, Technology and Everyday Life.

This page was last updated: July 26, 2018



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