A post-genomic surprise. The molecular reinscription of race in science, law and medicine

Br J Sociol. 2015 Mar;66(1):1-27. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12118.


The completion of the first draft of the Human Genome Map in 2000 was widely heralded as the promise and future of genetics-based medicines and therapies - so much so that pundits began referring to the new century as 'The Century of Genetics'. Moreover, definitive assertions about the overwhelming similarities of all humans' DNA (99.9 per cent) by the leaders of the Human Genome Project were trumpeted as the end of racial thinking about racial taxonomies of human genetic differences. But the first decade of the new century brought unwelcomed surprises. First, gene therapies turned out to be far more complicated than any had anticipated - and instead the pharmaceutical industry turned to a focus on drugs that might be 'related' to population differences based upon genetic markers. While the language of 'personalized medicine' dominated this frame, research on racially and ethnically designated populations differential responsiveness to drugs dominated the empirical work in the field. Ancestry testing and 'admixture research' would play an important role in a new kind of molecular reification of racial categories. Moreover, the capacity of the super-computer to map differences reverberated into personal identification that would affect both the criminal justice system and forensic science, and generate new levels of concern about personal privacy. Social scientists in general, and sociologists in particular, have been caught short by these developments - relying mainly on assertions that racial categories are socially constructed, regionally and historically contingent, and politically arbitrary. While these assertions are true, the imprimatur of scientific legitimacy has shifted the burden, since now 'admixture research' can claim that its results get at the 'reality' of human differentiation, not the admittedly flawed social constructions of racial categories. Yet what was missing from this framing of the problem: 'admixture research' is itself based upon socially constructed categories of race.

Keywords: Reductionism; genetics; post-genomic; racial admixture; reification.

MeSH terms

  • Genetic Variation
  • Health Status Disparities*
  • Human Genome Project / ethics
  • Humans
  • Jurisprudence
  • Medicine
  • Molecular Biology
  • Racial Groups / genetics*
  • Science
  • Social Responsibility
  • Sociology, Medical