Workpackage 4: Public Understanding of Race and Genetics ...Document Transcript
Public Understanding of Genetics:
a cross-cultural and ethnographic study of the relationship between ‘new genetics’ and social identity.
Work-Package 4: Public Understanding of Race and Genetics
RESEARCH REPORT D4.3
University of Manchester
Section 1: Research Design and questions
Section 2: Description of fieldwork site
Section 3: Methodology
Section 4: Ethnographic themes
• Race and kinship
• Community and racism
• Diaspora, ancestry and nation
• Reflections upon an IVF media event
Section 5: Dissemination of the research
Section 6: Directions and development for WP 4
This research report summarises the main findings of WP 4 on public understandings of race and
genetics. Anthropological research in an ethnically diverse city in the East Midlands of England
reveals the ways in which research participants’ ideas of kinship, community and ancestry inform
their ideas about the inheritance of racial identity. A crucial finding is that when lay informants with
no vested interest in the new genetic technologies were asked directly about race and genetic
science then they were unable to respond. The research does not conclude however that
respondents were lacking ideas on biology and race. Rather, when informants were asked about
how they perceived certain characteristics to be passed on or inherited, for example ‘in the genes’,
‘in the blood’ and/or through upbringing in a particular cultural milieu, then they had much to say on
race, biology, kinship and inheritance. The research found that informants’ views on the meaning of
race, biology and inheritance often merged with and negotiated scientific understandings drawn
from the field of race and genetics. The research makes apparent that the gene is not a fixed and
stable marker of natural human difference at the popular level and so rejects academic accounts of
public understandings of race and genetics that argue the ‘gene’ appears to be an unambiguous
sign of natural racial difference. In this vein, the research shows that racism can lead to the
truncation of kinship ties with family members, for example with a birth/genetic parent, and so the
research illustrates that genetic links are not always paramount in lay people’s experience of
relatedness. The research also focused on public perceptions of a genetic media event concerning
issues of race that occurred during the fieldwork period namely the mistaken birth of black twins to
a white IVF mother. By asking informants their reactions to this media event, the impact of recent
ideas about the connections people make between race, sexual reproduction, ideas of procreation
and kinship were analysed. This aspect of the research illustrates how scientific understanding is
produced and formulated in lay people’s conceptual engagement with the new genetic
technologies in this case the reproductive technologies. The research demonstrates how
anthropological methods of investigation show the ways in which public understandings of race,
genetics, ancestry and descent merge with and negotiate scientific understandings of race and
Section 1: Research Design
Aims and objectives of WP 4
The aim of the workpackage was to investigate how people living in an ethnically diverse
community understand the implications of the new genetic technologies in relation to racial and
racialised identities. The key objectives for WP4 were as follows:
• To explore how the public sees the nature of racial identity
• To study the impact of recent ideas about genetics on lay understandings of racial identity
• To analyse the impact of recent ideas about genetics on the connections people make between
race, sexual reproduction and kinship
• To study the ethical limits people place on innovation in genetic science in relation to challenging
In order to achieve these objectives, fieldwork was designed to explore the way in which
residents of a specific multiracial (i.e. ethnically diverse) community in the UK understand and use
ideas of ‘blood’, ‘biology’, ‘genes’ and ‘heredity’ when they explain racial identity.
From the standpoint of scientific research on race and genetics, the emerging orthodoxy is that there
is as much genetic variation within as there is between groups and populations of people defined as
‘races’. There is therefore no set of genes that all white people have and all other peoples lack
(Conduit et al, 2002: 375). Yet at the same time social science studies of ‘race’ acknowledge and
document the continuing significance of assumptions and practices predicated on a belief in the
existence of ‘races’. Social science scholars agree that the idea of race is a social construction that,
according to Wade (2002: 12), emerged in the context of European expansion and colonialism from
the fourteenth century. The meaning of race and the ways in which race defines populations and
social agents as self and other is historically contingent and so is open to transformation over time
(Goldberg 1993: 80). It is precisely the ‘adaptive capacity’ of ‘race’ that provides it with the ability to
define population groups by imparting to social relations an apparent fixity based upon ideas about
human similarity and difference (Goldberg 1993: 80). While ideas of human similarity and diversity in
relation to everyday conceptions are historically specific, it is agreed by social scientists that ‘race’
refers to ideas of ‘biology’, ‘hereditary’, ‘nature’ and ‘phenotype’ (i.e. skin colour, hair type, facial
features and body shape). It is also agreed by social scientists that ideas about ‘natural’ human
differences separating groups of people become signified by and associated with cultural differences,
for example, religion, language, family formation and so forth. Wade (2002:11) makes the pertinent
observation that if ‘race’ refers to a discourse about ‘biology’ then in light of the fact that geneticists
are less certain about what human nature is, biologically speaking, it seems likely that the matter is
not clear cut for the lay public either. It is with this observation in mind that WP4 aimed to examine lay
understandings of race from the point of view of public understandings of race, genetics, biology,
culture, inheritance, ancestry and identity.
Focus upon inter-racial families
Recent research on race and genetics reports that human groupings have always intermarried with
one another to some extent. Thus from the standpoint of genetic science all human beings are related
to each other in ever widening circles of relatedness, rendering all human beings ‘mixed-race’. The
majority of people interviewed for this study did not need a DNA test to prove their inter-racial
identities and ancestries. Rather, according to popular conceptions of race they are the members of
the first generation of inter-racial families. They are the parents of children that belong to a different
racial category and/or the children of people that are recognised as belonging to distinct racial groups
(Ifekwunigwe 2001: 50). The shift in emphasis in the research design towards a focus on inter-racial
families was motivated by empirical social science studies of inter-racial families in the UK that point
to the ways in which ideas of kinship, race and the inheritance of identity are crucial to understanding
the formation of inter-racial identities.
Following the specific research questions set out in WP 4, the ways in which the members of inter-
racial families’ (i.e. the parents of mixed-race children and mixed-race people themselves) thoughts
about genetics interact (or not) with their ideas about inheritance, ancestry and belonging were
explored. More specific questions investigated included:
• How do the parents of inter-racial children (i.e. a white, Asian or black mother and a white, Asian or
black father of mixed-race children) talk about the idioms of ‘blood’, ‘genes’ and hereditary when they
think of their own and their children’s identities?
• How do they understand the impact of these factors relative to that of the ‘environment’ or
• How do inter-racial people (i.e. the offspring of parents from different ‘racial’ groups) themselves talk
about their racial identities, with an emphasis on the ways in which they imagine their own bodies to
be as they are, through being ‘brought up’ in given cultural environments?
• How do inter-racial people think they are related to, and distinguished from, other members of
their nuclear – for example, their mother, father, siblings - and extended family – for example,
grandparents, aunts - who may or may not share the same physical characteristics as themselves?
It is in the light of these questions that research participants were asked to reflect upon the
social and ethical implications of assisted reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilisation (IVF)
with or without the use of donated gametes (egg and sperm) or the help of women acting as
surrogate. In particular, informants’ thoughts and reflections on an assisted reproductive genetic
media event concerning issues of race that occurred during the fieldwork were elicited. The media
event concerned the mistaken birth of black twins to a white IVF mother. By asking research
participants to reflect upon the social and ethical implications of this event, we were able to analyse
the impact of informants’ ideas about the new reproductive technologies on the connections that they
make between race, sexual reproduction and kinship. At the same time we were also able to unpack
the ethical limits that people place on innovation in genetic science in relation to challenging ‘racial
boundaries’. In addition to research with members of inter-racial families other residents of the
research community were interviewed. These interviews augmented the analysis of the key research
themes, aims and objectives by facilitating an examination of the ways in which informants drew upon
their religious beliefs, in particular Islamic beliefs, to interpret the social and ethical implications of
Section 2: Description of the fieldwork site
Anthropological fieldwork was carried out in Leicester which is situated in the East Midlands area
of England, approximately one hundred miles north of London. Outside of London, the city has one
of the largest immigrant communities in the UK and it has the largest Asian population with origins
in East Africa (Kenya, Malawi, Tanzania, and Uganda). In the 2001 national census the total
population of Leicester is 279,921, with whites constituting 60.54% of the population. South Asians
are 29.92% of the population of Leicester. In comparison to the large Asian population, the local
black (African Caribbean) population makes up only 2.88% of the population. 2.23% of the
population of Leicester identified as being of ‘mixed-race’ ancestry.
Historically, the Highfields area of Leicester is the home-place of settlers to the city. Today, the
population of Highfields includes working and middle-class people from different areas of the UK and
Europe, South Asian (India, Bangladesh, Pakistan), South Asians from East Africa (Uganda), Africans
from Somalia and Gambia, students, and middle and working-class white people. The area is also the
home to the majority of the city’s African Caribbean descent population. Cities in the UK are divided
into areas called ‘wards’ for the purpose of census classification and for electing political
representatives. By the 2001 census classifications, the ethnic composition of the largest electoral
ward of the Highfields area is represented as follows:
White: British 15.39%
Mixed: White and
Mixed: White and
Mixed: White and
Mixed: Other 0.31%
Asian or Asian British:
Asian or Asian British:
Asian or Asian British:
Black or Black British:
Black or Black British:
Black or Black British:
By census classification 55.94% of the people of this electoral ward are Muslim.
Highfield’s recent history is plagued by high rates of unemployment making it one of the
most socio-economically deprived areas in the city of Leicester. The area was rated in the 1991
census as having one of the highest unemployment rates in the city of Leicester.
Section 3: Methodology
The researcher lived in the Highfields area of Leicester for a year and built up an extensive
network of research participants differing in age, ethnicity, gender and social class. Three key
ethnographic fieldwork methods were employed:
• Semi-structured interviews that were tape-recorded. In some cases when interviewees felt
intimidated by the tape-reorder the interviews were recorded by extensive notes.
• Engaged participation in local community networks and activities. These activities were recorded
• Informal conversations with members of the community in their homes, workplaces or the public
house (a bar where people buy and consume alcohol). Again these conversations were recorded
Twenty interviews were conducted with the members of inter-racial families (i.e. the parents of
mixed-race children and mixed-race people themselves) from Highfields and the surrounding area.
Seventeen of these interviews were tape-recorded and three were recorded as field-notes. In total
nineteen people from Highfields who self-identified as belonging to inter-racial families participated
in the research, including three men and sixteen women ranging from 18-45 years of age. A further
eleven members of the community from Highfields agreed to be interviewed for the research.
These interviewees included members of the African Caribbean community and members of the
Pakistani or Bangladeshi community who described themselves as Muslims.
The semi-structured interviews described above were complemented by regular participation in
local community events and political activities. These activities enabled the researcher to develop
an ‘in-depth knowledge’ of the locality and helped build up a network of people for interview.
Ethical approval for the research was given by the University of Manchester Committee on the
Ethics of Research on Human Beings.
Reflections upon public understandings of race and genetic science
Informants were asked questions about their views on science, race and genetics, for example,
research participants were asked what they thought of the claims made by geneticists that race
has no biological foundations. When such direct questions were posed concerning the latest
scientific and genetic findings about the meaning of race as a category for social identification,
interviewees were unable to respond and claimed that they knew nothing about such matters. One
conclusion from the research is that research participants were not well informed about the current
scientific thinking on race and genetics. From this we can not conclude that respondents’
‘ignorance’ made them into racists and biological determinists, and thus more scientific knowledge
would translate into less racism. Nor can we conclude that respondents were lacking ideas on
biology and race. That is, when people were asked about how they perceived certain
characteristics to be passed on or inherited, for example ‘in the genes’, ‘in the blood’ and/or
through ‘upbringing’ in a particular cultural milieu, then they had much to say on race, biology,
kinship, inheritance and identity. Similarly, when informants were asked to reflect upon a genetic
media event concerning issues of race then they were very forthcoming in their ideas on the way in
which race mediates ideas of sexual reproduction and kinship. It is clear that how questions are
posed and asked about people’s understandings of science, race and genetics mattered. Research
participants’ views on the meaning of race, biology and inheritance often merged with, negotiated,
rejected and even went beyond, contemporary scientific understandings drawn from the admittedly
huge field of race and genetics.
This research finding contributes to the broader themes of the PUG project that draws upon
anthropological methods to refute recent research into lay understandings of genetics that
suggests lay understandings of genetic inheritance ‘gets in the way’ of proper scientific
understanding (Edwards 2002: 167). This research finding also raises important questions about
what thinking scientifically actually means. From an anthropological perspective, we contend that
thinking scientifically is more than ‘people’s ability to retain bits and bytes of information’ but lies in
the complex ways in which people make connections between different domains of social life
(Edwards 2002: 166-167).
Section 4: Ethnographic Themes
The ethnographic themes are drawn from the empirical fieldwork data, including the interviews and
informal discussions with research participants, recorded by the researcher in Leicester. The
themes illustrate the key substantive findings and theoretical frameworks employed to analyse the
Race and kinship
A key theme throughout the research is an examination of the ways in which informants ‘see racial
identity’ (WP4 objective 1). To do this, we explored how research participants’ ideas about their
relationships with their family members, for example their spouse, children, siblings, parents,
inform their ideas about the inheritance of racial identities. We examined how informants think of
‘blood’, ‘biology’, ‘genes’ and ‘inheritance’ when they think of their racial identity and that of other
members of their nuclear (immediate) and extended (aunts, uncles, cousins) family. Emphasis was
upon the way in which informants understood the impact of these factors relative to that of ideas
about being ‘brought up’ in a particular cultural environment. Particular attention was paid to the
ways in which research participants employed the language of biology (‘genes’, ‘blood’, ‘semen’)
and culture (ideas about upbringing) to explain ideas of inheritance, kinship and relatedness.
Research participants talked a lot about the ways in which their children and/or themselves had
inherited particular racialised physical characteristics and traits from their parents (i.e. mother and/
or father) and/or members of their extended family (i.e. grandparents, aunts etc.) (see Tyler 2002).
These racialised physical characteristics included ‘light’ or ‘dark’ skin colour and tone, body shape
and hair type, for example, ‘straight’ or ‘curly Afro’ hair. Such physical characteristics were
imagined to be passed on ‘in the blood’, ‘in the genes’ and/or ‘given’ at birth. Importantly, research
participants’ ideas about the inheritance of such ‘given’ racialised physical characteristics at birth
only took meaning in relation to what informants imagined to be inherited through example and
experience. Thus one could not identify with being ‘black’ or ‘mixed-race’ if one did not know how
to look after black skin and hair. Similarly, inherited characteristics that might be identified with a
cultural aspect of identity, for example being a Muslim, might also be thought to be inherited at
birth, passed on in the father’s ‘seed’ or ‘sperm’. However, Muslim research participants felt that it
was no good being ‘born’ a Muslim without being taught how to be a Muslim, and so being taught
about Islamic beliefs and practices. From these research findings, we conclude that the dividing
line between what respondents imagined to be ‘given’ at birth (nature) and what is thought to be
inherited through example and experience (nurture) became blurred and ambiguous, making it
difficult to define a dividing line between the domains of ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’.
The research also found that the inheritance of racial identity was a process open to
transformation in differing contexts and at various life stages. Thus an individual could acquire
racial knowledge through experience and example and so identify and be identified by others as
‘white’, ‘black’, ‘Asian’ or ‘mixed-race’ in differing contexts and in various life stages such as
childhood, adulthood and so on. From this observation we conclude that research participants’
ideas about what constitutes the idea of ‘race’ and racial identification is context specific and open
to change across the life course.
These findings illustrate how lay understandings of the relationship between ideas of ‘race’,
‘inheritance’, ‘biology’ and ‘culture’ can undermine and disrupt the basis for racial classification
grounded upon a deterministic understanding of the relationship between a ‘given’ physical
appearance, for example black skin, that becomes associated with an acquired set of cultural
beliefs. These research findings also demonstrate the ways in which informants with no vested
interest in genetic science mobilise complex ideas about the flexible and malleable constitution of
race, culture and biology that merge with the rejection of reductionist notions of biology and race
offered by genetic science.
• The aim of this section was to illustrate how ‘the public’ see racial identity (WP 4 objective 1).
• To answer this research objective the ways in which research participants intersect ideas about
the social – ‘nurture’ - and the biological – ‘nature’ - when they think about ideas of inheritance and
identity were examined.
• We have illustrated how informants intersect and fuse ideas about the inheritance of physical
traits and characteristics with ideas about the inheritance of cultural knowledge when they think
about the inheritance of racial identities.
• This emphasis upon the flexibility and blurring of ideas about race, biological and cultural
inheritance signals a shift away from those academic accounts of popular understandings of race
and genetics which argue the ‘gene’ appears to be a fixed, stable and unambiguous sign of natural
• This finding elicited through anthropological research methods exemplifies how lay
understandings of race, biology and culture merge with scientific accounts of the inessential
relationship between these domains. Thus, this research finding demonstrates the unique way in
which anthropological research methods can contribute to the study of how ‘ordinary’ people who
are not scientists imagine ideas of race, biology, culture and inheritance.
Community and racism
The ways in which members of inter-racial families’ ideas about belonging to Highfields as a place
and a community became included in how they thought about the inheritance of racial identity was
examined. That is, how Highfields becomes the site for the making of kinship ties, ground upon
social (nurture) and biological (nature) relatedness, with nuclear and extended family members,
friends and neighbours across the boundaries of racial difference was explored. This research
theme also highlights how racism can truncate family ties based on ideas of biological and/or social
This research theme demonstrated how the intersection of ideas of the biological (nature) and the
social (nurture) in ideas of kinship opens the way for an exploration of the diverse mediators that
people draw upon to narrate ideas of relatedness, for example, belonging to a place, a community,
a family and the sharing of genes. Interviewees not only felt a sense of relatedness to a family
member – a husband, a wife, a parent and/or a child - based upon a sense of genetic connection
but also grounded upon a shared sense of belonging to Highfields as a place and a community.
For example, one respondent felt a sense of relatedness to her birth father based upon her genetic
connection to him, which became interwoven with her sense of affiliation to particular landmarks in
Highfields that included the place where she was conceived (see Tyler 2003a). It became apparent
that while some of the research participants formed kinship ties with family members (i.e. a
spouse), friends and neighbours from Highfields, they also sometimes severed kinship ties with
other family members, in particular a birth parent, that lived outside of the area. That is, some
informants experienced rejection and exclusion from members of their families, in particular (but
not exclusively) their birth mother or father, for forming intimate relationships with a spouse, lover,
friends and neighbours across the boundaries of racial difference. These respondents considered
the truncation of kinship ties to be dependent upon relatives’ racist attitudes towards their spouse
and/or their mixed-race children. Parental racist attitudes were understood to be dependent upon
their appropriation of negative stereotypes of people racially, and at times religiously, marked as
different to themselves. Thus informants perceived these family members, often a birth/genetic
parent, to be unable to engage in culturally competent discussions about race, inter-racial
relationships, religion and identity. This research finding highlights how racism can truncate kinship
ties, for example to a parent, grounded upon social (ideas of upbringing) and biological (genetic)
relatedness. This aspect of the research illustrates that the formation of inter-racial relationships
and identities cannot be understood apart from informants’ particular experiences of racism.
This research theme provides further insights into the ways in which research participants’
experiences of kinship and race negotiates scientific accounts of genetic relatedness. Despite the
claims of scientists that genetic kinship might allow for links to be ‘extended to all humans’ in ‘ever
widening circles’ (Edwards and Strathern 2000), it would seem that when it comes to recognising
persons as relatives, then in informants’ experiences racism intervenes to truncate genetic ties.
• The ways in which informants’ ideas about belonging to a place and to a community contribute to
how they think about the inheritance of racial identities were examined.
• How ideas about belonging to Highfields inform research participants’ ideas about the
intersection of the biological (nature) and the social (nurture) when they think of the inheritance of
racial identity were explored.
• We have illustrated how particular experiences of racism can determine the ways in which
respondents may feel that they are related or not to other members of their family, particularly their
• We conclude that racism grounded upon stereotypes of racial difference can lead to the
truncation of kinship ties with family members, in particular one’s birth/genetic parents.
• This finding has ramifications for the apparent public interest in genetic linkages exemplified by
the popular interest in genetic ancestry testing (see Nash, Forthcoming). An anthropological
analysis of kinship and relatedness demonstrates that genetic links are not always paramount in
lay people’s experience of kinship.
Diaspora, ancestry and nation
The narratives of members of inter-racial families exemplify how ideas about relatedness can
spread beyond the family and Highfields to include a sense of belonging to home-places,
communities and people outside the UK and in other historical time periods. These kinship ties
incorporate relatives living in Antigua and/or Barbados and/or they include a sense of affiliation to
ancestors that lived during times of slavery and colonialism. This research theme raises pertinent
questions about ideas of ancestry, history, kinship and nation.
The impetus for this aspect of the research is the sociological study of diasporic identities. Gilroy
(1997: 318) argues that the term diaspora identifies a ‘relational network’ characteristically
produced by ‘forced dispersal and the reluctant scattering of people’. The majority of the research
participants in this study who were members of inter-racial families defined themselves as
members of the African Caribbean diaspora. Ifekwunigwe (2001: 49) tells us that the ‘English-
African diaspora’ comprises of black people from the post-colonial home-places of ‘the Caribbean,
North and Latin America, and their descendants who find themselves in England…frequently by
birth’. She contends that the members of the English- African diaspora feel a sense of connection
to ‘African diaspora(s)’ dispersed around the world. This sense of relatedness is based upon a
‘common heritage of slavery, colonialism and racism’ and ‘common cultural roots emanating from
the African continent’ (2001: 49).
By tracing the ways in which research participants felt a sense of attachment and
relatedness to home-places, ancestors and living kin outside of the UK, a complex, shifting and
fluid relationship between ideas of nationhood, ancestry and kinship was revealed. This research
finding contributes to the critique and rejection of the assumption, made by some social theorists of
race and genetics, that popular understanding of ancestry and descent in relation to national,
ethnic and racial identities is necessarily politically regressive and deterministic.
• The ways in which research participants construct a sense of affiliation to ancestors that lived
during times of slavery and colonialism were examined.
• The ways in which people feel a sense of attachment to post-colonial home-places such as
Antigua outside of the UK were explored.
• We illustrated how Gilroy’s notion of diaspora based upon the rejection of a simple notion of
ancestral ties and nationhood is a useful theoretical tool for the analysis of the ways in which
informants see this aspect of their racial identities.
• This research theme contributes to the analysis of the complex, fluid and shifting ways in which
research participants imagine ideas of nationhood, descent and ancestry. In so doing, this research
finding contributes to the critique of academic accounts of popular understandings of race and
genetics that suggest ideas of ancestry and descent in relation to everyday ideas of nationhood
are necessarily deterministic.
Reflections upon an IVF media event
On July 8th 2002,The Sun newspaper (the most widely read tabloid newspaper in the UK) reported
their exclusive scoop of the week captured by the headline ‘White Couple have black IVF Twins’.
The newspaper described how ‘the devastating mix-up’ involved ‘a black couple who had also
been desperately trying for a test tube baby’ (July 8th 2002, p.1). The questions posed by the media
at the time of research was ‘Who are the real parents of the twins?’ It was thought that either the
black (African Caribbean descent) couple’s fertilised egg was wrongly implanted into the white
woman or the black man’s sperm was used to fertilise the white woman’s egg. This so-called ‘mix-
up’ was later resolved by DNA tests that showed that the white mother’s egg had been fertilised by
mistake by the black man’s sperm in a laboratory and then the embryos were implanted into the
white woman’s womb. A British legal court ruled that the black man was the legal father of the
twins. However, it was decided that because the twins’ ‘biological’ parents were not married then
the white mother’s husband had the right to adopt the twins and so displace the black man’s legal
status as the father of the twins. At the time of the break of this story ethnographic fieldwork in
Highfields had begun. Throughout the fieldwork research participants were asked to reflect upon
this case. Their thoughts and ideas provided insights into the following objectives of WP 4:
• The impact of ideas about genetics on the connections people make between race,
sexual reproduction and kinship.
• The ethical limits people place on innovation in genetic science in relation to challenging
In the analysis of this event British newspapers reports were juxtaposed with the thoughts
of the research participants. This research strategy has facilitated the examination of the contrasts
and complexities between these narratives. The respondents drew upon their experiences of
assisted reproduction, which included IVF without the use of donated egg and sperm, being a
child, a husband, a wife, a mother or a father to reflect upon the social and ethical implications of
this mistake. In this regard, the analysis of research participants’ reflections has allowed for the
examination of the ways in which they think about ideas of motherhood and fatherhood.
A recurring theme in the research participants’ thoughts on this event was that there was
nothing new in parents producing children that were lighter or darker than them in skin colour. That
is, they had heard of several such events occurring without the aid of new reproductive
technologies such as IVF.
Research participants also drew upon their religious beliefs, in particular their Islamic
beliefs, to interpret the social and ethical implications of this ‘mix-up’. The research revealed
contrasts, complexities and similarities between informants’ Islamic values and ideas on the ethics
of the new reproductive technologies and sexual reproduction with those advocated by the British
press and legal ruling on this event (see Tyler 2003b). For example, one Muslim respondent felt
that the mistaken fertilisation of the white woman’s egg with sperm from a man who was not her
husband confused ideas of paternal inheritance and descent rendering the white woman an
adulteress according to Islamic law. The white mother’s supposedly ‘adulterous’ relationship was
thought by this respondent to truncate her claims to motherhood. Thus he concluded that the
children were for others to adopt and to claim as their own. In this regard, the respondent’s
conclusion resonates with the Islamic belief that ‘every child is born with its own rizq, or source of
sustenance’ (Inhorn 2000: 164). Similarly in British jurisprudence children are seen as autonomous
individuals with their own legal rights independent of their parents. However unlike the British legal
ruling on this event, the respondent believed that the children’s ‘best interests’ were not
synonymous with those of either of their genetic parents. He believed that the children should be
placed in the care of the state for others to adopt. This resolution to the ‘mix-up’ on the one hand,
offered a solution to the ‘adulterous’ nature of the relationship that the respondent thought
constituted this mistake. While on the other hand, the respondent’s solution contradicted orthodox
Islamic teachings that prohibits adoption due to the lack of ‘blood ties’ between adoptive fathers
and their offspring, leading to nagging questions of paternity, descent, and inheritance (Inhorn
This research theme illustrates how ‘public understandings’ of the new reproductive
technologies are formulated in lay people’s ‘conceptual engagement’ with them (Edwards 2002:
172). By asking the research participants their thoughts, ideas and reactions to this reproductive
media event we were able to examine anthropologically the complex ways in which the
respondents drew upon their religious values to critically reflect upon the ethics and potential
consequences of scientific innovation. The research findings suggest that respondents were
attuned to the social, ethical and moral questions and implications of these technologies.
• By asking the research participants to reflect upon a key media event involving the mistaken birth
of black twins to a white IVF mother, the impact of recent ideas about genetics on the connections
people make between race, sexual reproduction, ideas of procreation and kinship were analysed.
• In particular, research participants’ ideas about race, genetics, sexual reproduction, motherhood
and fatherhood were studied.
• The ethical limits that respondents place on innovation in genetic science in challenging ‘racial
boundaries’ were also explored.
• The ways in which informants drew upon their Islamic beliefs to define such ethical limits were
• This research finding exemplifies how anthropological methods can be employed to illustrate how
scientific understanding is produced and formulated in lay people’s conceptual engagement with
the new genetic technologies in this case the reproductive technologies.
Section 5: Dissemination of the research
Aspects of this research have been disseminated by Katharine Tyler at the following conferences
June 2002: Annual Conference of the Anthropological Association of Ireland, National University of
June 2002: Project Workshop 2 on Kinship and Genetics, Vilnius.
October 2002: Workshop on Reprogenetic Encounters, University of Lancaster.
December 2002: Project Workshop 3 on Race and Genetics, Oslo.
February 2003: The Post-colonial Studies Seminar Series, convened by the
Departments of Sociology and Historical Studies, University of Leicester.
April 2003: British Sociological Association Annual Conference, University of York.
July 2003: Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial Conference on
Science and Technology, University of Manchester.
Dec 2003: Project Workshop 5 on the Media and PUG, Rome
Feb 2004: Invitation to present a paper based upon this research to the BIOS seminar series,
Centre for the study of Bioscience, Biomedicine, Biotechnology and Society, The London School of
Peter Wade organised a conference panel on ‘Race, ethnicity, biotechnology and science’ at the
Association of Social Anthropologists Decennial Conference on Science and Technology,
University of Manchester, July 2003.
Section 6: Directions and development of WP 4
Reflections upon race, kinship and genetics across the PUG WPs
WP 4 will contribute to WPs 1, 2 and 2.1 in the third year of PUG. The ethnographic research of
WP 4 intersects with research conducted by Partners 2 and 7 on trans-national adoption in Spain
(WP 11) and Norway (WP 10). The key themes linking WPs 4, 10 and 11 will be developed in the
third year of PUG and will contribute to WPs 1 and 2 by examining ideas of kinship, genetics, race,
immigration and nationhood across the European contexts of Spain, Norway and the UK. The
findings of this research will be published in the proposed project book on kinship for WP 1 to be
edited by Carles Salzar. The key intersecting themes identified are as follows:
• Race, community and kinship
Year 3 will examine how ideas of race, community and kinship are mobilised across WPs 4, 10 and
11. WPs 10 and 11 emphasise the adoptive parents’ shared experience of the adoption process
and the diverse kinds of kinship and affinity produced by these shared experiences. In relation to
the findings of WP4, the respondents who were members of inter-racial families from Leicester
made friends with and identified with other inter-racial families. However, like adopted children in
WP 10, they did not necessarily regard themselves to be ‘kin’ by virtue of their shared experiences.
• Race and the body
Year 3 will examine ideas of race, inheritance and the body across WPs 4, 10 and 11. WPs 10 and
11 report that physical racial differences separating the adopted children from their adoptive
parents are negotiated and at times displaced by parents. The importance for adoptive parents to
learn information about their children’s countries of origin is examined by WPs 10 and 11. WP 4
reports that informants place emphasis upon the inheritance of racialised physical traits and
characteristic that become merged with ideas about the inheritance of cultural knowledge.
• Nationhood and racism
Year 3 will examine how the concepts of nationhood, immigration, racism and assimilation are
mobilised across WPs 4, 10 and 11. WPs 10 and 11 emphasise the importance of adopted children
becoming assimilated into the nation. WP 10 reports that this process of assimilation is important
for the reproduction of the adoptive family as a ‘proper’ Norwegian family. By contrast to this
process of assimilation of adopted children, WPs 10 and 11 report that immigrants to Norway and
Spain respectively are racialised and experience racial discrimination. The members of inter-racial
families that figure in WP 4 are ‘born and bred’, so to speak, in the UK and are citizens of the
nation. However unlike the experiences of adopted children reported in WPs 10 and 11, these
respondents experience racism.
• Diaspora and globalisation
WPs 10 and 11 employ the theoretical term ‘globalisation’ to highlight the legal and economic
processes affecting the movement of trans-nationally adopted children across the globe. In WP 4,
the term ‘diaspora’ is employed to analyse how informants think about ideas of ancestry,
nationhood and kinship across post-colonial geographical space and historical time. This
theoretical contrast between WPs 10 and 11 on the one hand, and WP4 on the other, is reflected in
the diverse ways in which informants feel related to and disconnected from places of origin and
other home-places. It is with this observation in mind, that the contrasts, similarities and differences
between ideas of ancestry, belonging and not belonging to diasporic and global home-places
reported by the WPs will be examined in the third year of PUG.
• The meaning of race, ethnicity and genetics
A question for further analysis is what do race, ethnicity, genetics and racism mean both
theoretically and empirically across WPs 4, 10 and 11? WPs 10 and 11 report that the adopted
children, who by definition are not genetically related to their adoptive parents, are assimilated into
the family and the nation and so questions of racial and ethnic difference are displaced and at
times rendered invisible. By contrast WP 4 reports that issues of race and racism are central to the
analysis of the ways in which informants think about ideas of relatedness, genetic kinship,
inheritance and ancestry.
Further Publication Plans
- ‘The genealogical imagination: the inheritance of inter-racial identities’. Submitted to the
Sociological Review by Katharine Tyler (Sept 03). A revised version of this paper will be prepared
for the proposed project book for WP 2 on Race, ethnicity, nation and genetics across Europe to be
edited by Peter Wade.
- ‘Race and reprogenetic ‘‘mix-ups’’: reflections on the birth of black twins to a white IVF mother’.
Article under preparation by Katharine Tyler for publication in a proposed project volume on the
Media and Genetics across Europe.
Conduit, M., Parrott, R., and Harris, T. (2002) ‘Lay Understandings of the Relationship Between
Race and Genetics: Development of a Collectivized Knowledge Through Shared Discourse’,
Public Understanding of Science, vol. 2, pp. 373-387.
Edwards, J. (2002) ‘Bits and Bytes of Information’, in Rapport, N. (ed.), British Subjects: An
Anthropology of Britain, Oxford: Berg: 163- 180.
Edwards, J. and Strathern, M. (2000) ‘Including Our Own’, in Carsten, J. (ed.),
Cultures of Relatedness: New Approaches to the Study of Kinship, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press: 149-166.
Gilroy, P. (1997) ‘Diaspora and the Detours of Identity’, in Woodward, K. (ed.), Identity and
Difference, London: Sage: 299-346.
Goldberg, D. (1993) Racist Culture: philosophy and the politics of meaning, Oxford: Blackwell.
Ifekwunigwe, J. (2001) ‘Re-membering ‘‘Race’’: On Gender, ‘‘Mixed Race’’ and
Family in the English-African Diaspora’, in Parker, D. and Song, M. (eds.),
Rethinking ‘Mixed Race’, London: Pluto Press: 42-63.
Inhorn, M. C. (2000) ‘Missing Motherhood: Infertility, Technology, and Poverty in Egyptian Women’s
Lives’, in Ragone, H. and Twine, F. W. (eds.), Ideologies and Technologies of Motherhood: Race,
Class, Sexuality, Nationalism. London: Routledge: 139-168.
Nash, C. (Forthcoming) ‘Genetic Kinship’, Cultural Studies.
The Sun, July 8th 2002, p. 1, White Couple Have Black IVF Twins: Shocking NHS test tube
bungle, John Kay.
Tyler, K. (2002) ‘Public Understandings of Race and Genetics’, Research Report for Work-package
4, Month 12 Deliverable.
Tyler, K. (2003a) ‘The Genealogical Imagination: the Inheritance of Inter-racial Identities’, Research
Report for Work-package 4, Month 18 Deliverable.
Tyler, K (2003b) ‘Reflections Upon a Racialised Reprogenetic Media Event: The Birth of ‘Black’
Twins to a White IVF Mother’, paper presented to Workshop 7 on the Media and Genetics, Rome.
Wade, P. (2002) Race, Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Perspective,
London: Pluto Press.