Different differences: the use of 'genetic ancestry' versus race in biomedical human genetic research

Soc Stud Sci. 2011 Feb;41(1):5-30. doi: 10.1177/0306312710379170.


This article presents findings from our ethnographic research on biomedical scientists' studies of human genetic variation and common complex disease. We examine the socio-material work involved in genome-wide association studies (GWAS) and discuss whether, how, and when notions of race and ethnicity are or are not used. We analyze how researchers produce simultaneously different kinds of populations and population differences. Although many geneticists use race in their analyses, we find some who have invented a statistical genetics method and associated software that they use specifically to avoid using categories of race in their genetic analysis. Their method allows them to operationalize their concept of 'genetic ancestry' without resorting to notions of race and ethnicity. We focus on the construction and implementation of the software's algorithms, and discuss the consequences and implications of the software technology for debates and policies around the use of race in genetics research. We also demonstrate that the production and use of their method involves a dynamic and fluid assemblage of actors in various disciplines responding to disciplinary and sociopolitical contexts and concerns. This assemblage also includes particular discourses on human history and geography as they become entangled with research on genetic markers and disease.We introduce the concept of'genome geography' to analyze how some researchers studying human genetic variation'locate' stretches of DNA in different places and times. The concept of genetic ancestry and the practice of genome geography rely on old discourses, but they also incorporate new technologies, infrastructures, and political and scientific commitments. Some of these new technologies provide opportunities to change some of our institutional and cultural forms and frames around notions of difference and similarity. Nevertheless, we also highlight the slipperiness of genome geography and the tenacity of race and race concepts.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Anthropology, Cultural
  • Genetic Research*
  • Genetics, Population* / methods
  • Genetics, Population* / standards
  • Genome-Wide Association Study* / methods
  • Genome-Wide Association Study* / standards
  • Humans
  • Polymorphism, Single Nucleotide
  • Racial Groups
  • Software