Imagined genetic membership

Costica Dumbrava|Published in: Citizenship and Technology, Oxford Handbook of Citizenship

windows-787486_960_720The genetic revolution triggered by the discovery of deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) and bolstered by the recent mapping of all human genes (the Human Genome Project) has raised hopes about treating diseases, improving life, and even defeating death. However, the rapid development of genetic technologies also prompted concerns about the ‘geneticization’ of social life,[1] as human behaviour and social interactions are increasingly viewed through the lens of genetics. The worry is that population genomics studies will contribute to legitimizing and ‘naturalizing’ inequality and to the designation of new vulnerable groups based on arbitrary patterns and statistical correlations.[2]

While genetic technologies may allow for new ways of imagining identities and social relations (e.g. rediscovering and reinterpreting one’s origin), they also tend to reiterate essentialist views about genetic relatedness, race, and nation. The commercial success of personal DNA testing kits indicates a renewed interest in linking personal identity with genetic ‘truths’. The use of these tests has expanded across different areas to include paternity checks, immigration control, and ancestry search. While promising to provide accurate measures of biological relatedness, these instruments acquire a truth revealing function that may collide with established legal and cultural norms about social relatedness (e.g. family, paternity, race, and ethnicity).

States have begun to use DNA tests to check family relationships for the purpose of immigration control. With family reunification becoming the primary legal channel of immigration in the West, efforts to restrict immigration have focused on combating fraud and detecting ‘fake’ family ties (including marriages of convenience). Parental DNA testing in the immigration context has become a standard procedure in many countries.[3] Although these measures have been justified within a human rights frame, for example providing claimants with reliable proofs, combating child trafficking, they are often driven by and reinforce a ‘rationale of suspicion’.[4]

There are a number of problems with using DNA tests for immigration purposes. DNA tests tend to reinforce a narrow biological concept of the family, which is often at odds with family norms prevalent in the immigrant’s country of origin and even in the country of immigration. Social ties, as opposed to biological ones, form the basis of family institutions in many cultures.[5] Moreover, while many countries of immigration recognize family relationships regardless of the genetic connection between parents and children, testing such connection in the context of immigration establishes a double standard applied to native citizens and immigrants.[6] There are also concerns that current DNA testing procedures violate the applicants’ informational privacy and self- determination.[7]

By putting emphasis on genetic and biological ties DNA tests lead to a ‘geneticization of the family’.[8] It is true that certain genetic applications, such as personal DNA- based ancestry tests (one can order online lunch- box sized DNA laboratories, e.g. https:// may provide resources for enriching and diversifying personal identities.[9], for example, invites potential clients to ‘uncover [their] ethnic mix, discover distant relatives, and find new details about [their] unique family history’. However, such identity- making exercises often reinforce ethno- racial classifications and stereotypes that are built into these applications.

At the collective level, genetic science becomes instrumental for (re) constructing the nation as an ‘imagined genetic community’.[10] Weaving genetic evidence into narratives of group distinctiveness contributes to a biologization and essentialization of national, ethnic, and racial identities.[11] References to genetic ‘truths’ lend support to claims of ethnic or racial distinctiveness, similarity or continuity. This leads to a return of racial and biological determinism, which is embodied in the belief that ‘race is anchored in a person’s genes and, thus, racial inequality is largely the result of biological predispositions’.[12] In Mexico the state invested considerable efforts and resources in order to identify the ‘indigenous DNA’, which could be moulded into the official narratives of Mexican national identity.[13] Israel has attempted to use genetic tests to determine the ‘Jewishness’ of certain groups of people claiming Jewish heritage.[14] In the UK the media warned against a ‘Viking Baby Invasion’ caused by the widespread use of sperm from Danish donors in British ART procedures. An article in the newsletter Glasgow Herald suggested that the origins of the sperm didn’t matter as long as it came from a nation that could play football.[15] While ‘blood’ has long been a marker and symbol of nation belonging (e.g. jus sanguinis), the wide appeal of the gene may soon replace the blood as the true repository of identity.[16]

These new ‘ideologies of genetic inheritance’[17] are, nevertheless, contested and flexible. Genetic evidence can be ‘mobilised or ignored depending on the particular political and social objectives’.[18] For example, despite evidence that Lemba Bantu tribesmen from Southern Africa overwhelmingly shared the Cohen haplotype, which is believed to link back to the first Jewish priest, Israeli authorities have been reluctant to acknowledge the Jewishness of the tribe.[19] Moreover, genetic evidence can also be used in order ‘to repair and recast the past’[20] by supporting claims for redress, conciliation, and solidarity. Forensic DNA technology has been used by international criminal tribunals and in transitional justice processes in order to identify bodies and missing persons. For example, DNA technology was employed in order to identify children who were kidnapped by the military during the Argentinian dictatorship, thus enabling ‘to reconstruct and reconnect multiple levels of social life: the individual, the familial, and the national’.[21] Apart from reinforcing surveillance, biological determinism, and visceral nationalism, biotechnologies can also serve to attest and vindicate personal identities and to support projects of collective reconciliation.

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[1] Abby Lippman, ‘Prenatal Genetic Testing and Screening: Constructing Needs and Reinforcing Inequities’, American Journal of Law & Medicine 17, no. 1– 2 (1991): pp. 15– 50; Kaja Finkler, Experiencing the New Genetics: Kinship and Family on the Medical Frontier (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

[2] Herman T. Tavani, ‘Genomic Research and Data- Mining Technology: Implications for Personal Privacy and Informed Consent’, Ethics and Information Technology 6, no. 1 (2004): pp. 15– 28.

[3] Torsten Heinemann and Thomas Lemke, ‘Suspect Families: DNA Kinship Testing in German Immigration Policy’, Sociology 47, no. 4 (2013): pp. 810– 826.

[4] Janice D. Villiers, ‘Brave New World: The Use and Potential Misuse of DNA Technology in Immigration Law’, Boston College Third World Law Journal World 30, no. 2 (2010): pp. 239– 271.

[5] Ilpo Helén, ‘Biological Citizenship across the Borders: Politics of DNA Profiling for Family Reunification’, Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 15, no. 3 (2014): pp. 343– 360, p. 344.

[6] Tera Rica Murdock, ‘Whose Child is This: Genetic Analysis and Family Reunification Immigration in France’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 41 2008): pp. 1503– 1534.

[7] Martin G. Weiss, ‘Strange DNA: The Rise of DNA Analysis for Family Reunification and its Ethical Implications’, Life Sciences Society and Policy 7, no. 1 (2011): pp. 1– 19.

[8] Torsten Heinemann and Thomas Lemke, ‘Suspect Families: DNA Kinship Testing in German Immigration Policy’,  Sociology 47, no. 4 (2013): pp. 810– 826, p. 811.

[9] Catherine Nash, ‘Genetic Kinship’, Cultural Studies 18, no. 1 (2004): pp. 1– 33.

[10] Bob Simpson, ‘Imagined Genetic Communities: Ethnicity and Essentialism in the Twenty- First Century’, Anthropology Today 16, no. 3 (2000): pp. 3– 6.

[11] David Skinner, ‘Racialized Futures Biologism and the Changing Politics of Identity’, Social Studies of Science 36, no. 3 (2006): pp. 459– 488, p. 462.

[12] Carson W. Byrd and Matthew W. Hughey, ‘Biological Determinism and Racial Essentialism: The Ideological Double Helix of Racial Inequality’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 661, no. 1 (2015): pp. 8– 22, p. 10.

[13] Ernesto Schwartz- Marín and Irma Silva- Zolezzi, ‘“The Map of the Mexican’s Genome”: Overlapping National Identity, and Population Genomics’, Identity in the Information Society 3, no. 3 (2010): pp. 489– 514.

[14] Ian V. McGonigle and Lauren W. Herman, ‘Genetic Citizenship: DNA Testing and the Israeli Law of Return’, Journal of Law and the Biosciences 2, no. 2 (2015).

[15] [16] Bob Simpson, ‘Imagined Genetic Communities: Ethnicity and Essentialism in the Twenty- First Century’, Anthropology Today 16, no. 3 (2000) p. 4.

[17] Kaja Finkler, Experiencing the New Genetics: Kinship and Family on the Medical Frontier (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000).

[18] [19] Barbara Prainsack, Yael Hashiloni- Dole, and Lock Margaret, ‘Religion and Nationhood: Collective Identities and the New Genetics’, in Paul Atkinson and Glasner Peter, eds., The Handbook of Genetics and Society: Mapping the New Genomic Era (New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 404– 421, p. 412.

[20] Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, ‘Intruduction: Genetic Claims and the Unsettled Past’, in Keith Wailoo, Alondra Nelson, and Catherine Lee, eds., Genetics and the Unsettled Past: The Collision of DNA, Race, and History (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2012), p. 8.

[21] Adams L. Smith, ‘Identifying Democracy Citizenship, DNA, and Identity in Postdictatorship Argentina’, Science, Technology & Human Values (2016): pp. 1– 16, p.4, doi: 0162243916658708.