Can Science Have Progressive Goals? A Discussion with Alondra Nelson

Tuesday, March 13, 2012
4-6:00 PM in Engineering 2, 599

Narratives of scientific progress are often paired with narratives about political progress, suggesting that the expansion of scientific knowledge always—or at least generally—leads to the betterment of humankind as a whole. But many socially disadvantaged and oppressed peoples contend that such “progress” is distributed unevenly and often comes at some cost to them. Alondra Nelson will share some of her research on Black politics and genetic genealogy to open a discussion on whether science can have progressive ends, if there can truly be a “science for the people,” and how science and justice can have paired or oppositional goals.

Herman Gray (Sociology) will be a respondent.

Alondra Nelson, "Can Science Have Progressive Goals?"
SJWG Rapporteur Report:
13 March 2012
Rapporteur: Martha Kenney, History of Consciousness
Alondra Nelson, Associate Professor of Sociology at Columbia, spoke to us about DNA testing
in African American communities. She framed her talk with articles from Nicholas Wade and
Craig Venter that argued that genomics has not lived up to its original hype. Nelson said that
despite these pronouncements there is currently a lot going in genomics outside of medicine.
She suggested that the logics of DNA analysis have made their way into our culture as social and
political technologies.

Nelson used the popularity of the genetic ancestry testing company “African Ancestry” as her
primary example. When she conducted her fieldwork, Nelson was interested in “how and why
African Americans would put their DNA in an envelope and send it to a stranger,” especially
given the vulnerability of African American communities in the history of American biomedical
institutions. She found that “African Ancestry” appealed to pre-existing genealogical
organizations, whose members were mainly middle class women, ages 50+ engaged in practices
of “kin keeping.” In this context Nelson became interested in what she calls “the social life of
DNA,” the way that DNA and genetic technologies takes on meaning in social worlds. “The
social life of DNA” serves as a reminder that genetic technologies are not only one thing (e.g.
bio-informatic technologies tied to histories of oppression) but take on different political
possibilities in different historical and social contexts.

Nelson also found that African American consumers were drawn to “African Ancestry” because
of the involvement of a scientist named Rick Kittles. Early in his career Kittles had been
instrumental in contesting how the remains in an African American burial ground in Lower
Manhattan were classified. Familiar with the racism in the history of physiology, Kittles
believed the remains should be analyzed for what he framed as their “ethnic” origins not their
race. This earned Kittles the trust of African American communities; Nelson referred to him an
“authentic expert”—someone who is seen as authentically holding African American values and
is a scientific expert by way of his training and standing in scientific communities. Her
discussion of Kittles foregrounded how authenticity and expertise make ancestry testing a viable
option for kin-making in African American communities, and how critiques of scientific racism
have shaped biological categories (e.g., the use of ethnicity instead of race) and scientific
practices of classification, creating new ways of constructing biological kinship.

In the final part of her talk, Nelson discussed how genetic technologies were being imbricated
into issues of racial slavery and cultural memory. In the case Farmer-Paellmann v. FleetBoston,
which sought reparations for descendants of slaves who were bought and sold by a private
corporation, genetic ancestry testing was used to constitute proof of slave ancestry. This
evidence did not prove substantive, however, because the court drew a distinction between
genetic and genealogical connection, arguing that the plaintiffs needed to prove the latter. The
other example raised by Nelson was the Leon H Sullivan Foundation, which has argued that
African Americans and Africans share a linked fate. In the context of genetic technologies they
have argued that African Americans should target their philanthropy to the groups they are
genetically connected to. These two cases offered examples of people enrolling genetic
technologies in their political initiatives, claiming kinship (to slaves and African communities)
that was otherwise unknown or denied to them with other kinds of evidence. Nelson ended on
these examples to bring us to her central question: “can science have progressive goals?” If
ancestry tests have been creating new kinds of kinship that can serve as a basis for forming
political identities, are there ways to develop these potentialities further and in different

Herman Gray, Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz, acted as a respondent to Nelson’s talk.
He was curious about what relationships between individuals and collectives are made in the
practice of genetic ancestry tests: What kinds of imagined communities (Benedict Anderson) do
they create? How are these communities formed? And how do they foster a sense of belonging?
Gray wondered about authority and expertise in the cases laid out by Nelson: What is the
relationship between legitimization and expert knowledge? What is the nature of people’s claims
on experts? And how do people become implicated in state projects—in particular, neoliberal
ones that emphasize individual responsibility—in these configurations of science and expertise?
What kind of politics—if any—are possible in these sorts of state projects? Finally, drawing on
critical race theorist Saddiya Hartman, Gray asked what kinds of genealogical fantasies are
created through the practice of genetic ancestry testing. In Gray’s response, he expressed more
trepidation than Nelson about the political potentials of genetic testing. He felt that the desire for
ancestry testing in African American communities played into the forms of individualism
encouraged in American society and relied on outside expertise to make authoritative knowledge

In her response to Gray, Nelson emphasized that genetics is never only about the individual, but
is a basis for affiliation. She returned to Rick Kittles, whom she characterized as having a
special kind of post-Civil-Rights expertise. Nelson also took the opportunity to flesh out her
concept of “the social life of DNA,” which she defined as an analytic that understands that there
are different spheres with different stakes in genetic technologies, but they co-authorize one
another. She also emphasized that genetic ancestry testing is a kind of politics, if we are to
define politics as people trying to make change. In this way Nelson endeavored to take seriously
the political and scientific desires of the people she interviewed rather than explaining them
away as motivated by unconscious ideologies.

During the Q&A, Ed Green asked if African American consumers were satisfied with their test
results, because he did not feel he got useful ancestry information from his own genetic testing;
the time-scale was too large. Whitney Boesel followed up on this question later by asking about
the relationship between ancestry information and medical information; did people who wanted
ancestry tests also want medical information? Lisa Petrella was curious about what Nelson meant
by “progressive”--is it about political or scientific progress? Megan Moodie wondered what the
connections and disconnections between African Americans’ interest in ancestry tests and
Mormons’. Max Tabatchnik asked how African American communities understand the difference
between race and ethnicity in the context of Rick Kittles and the politics of these biological
categories in general. Continuing the theme of political possibilities, Jenny Reardon asked what
kind of stories produced something as politically “actionable” in this context. Pierre du Plasiss
and Herman Gray were curious about the difference between a politics of recognition and a
politics of representation. Through the audience questions and Alondra Nelson’s thoughtful
responses, questions of political and scientific categories, community and identity, authenticity
and expertise, arose in their specific relationships to violent histories (slavery and scientific
racism). Without answering the question “can science have progressive goals?” Nelson
presented a complex landscape where different communities have incorporated genetic
technologies into their practices of making community and telling histories. Staying true to the
political yearnings of her interview/ethnographic subject, while asking questions from critical
race theory and Science and Technology Studies, Nelson provided compelling ways to approach
the complexities of doing politics with and through emerging technologies.

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