Genetic Ancestry Testing and the Nature of Race

Nov 04, 2015

Abstract:Since the decoding of the Human Genome, more than 40 companies have emerged to sell genetic ancestry tests directly to the public. Individuals receive a test kit in the mail, send back a DNA sample, and can receive a chart analyzing what proportion of their lineage is European, African, Native American and Asian, or link direct family lines to particular populations or sub-continental geographical regions. More than two million tests have been sold, using ancestry categories that closely mirror contemporary racial groups. How do these tests influence the way people conceptualize the nature of race? Although social scientists have long asserted that race is socially constructed, many fear that genetic ancestry testing will reinforce an essentialized view of race as purely biological. Alternatively, some have speculated that the tests may have the opposite effect, by revealing the lack of genetic determination to the social identifications people have long held, and by showing the relatedness of all contemporary groups. Drawing on longitudinal, in-depth interviews with 115 people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds who have taken genetic ancestry tests, I find that test-takers perceive the tests as reinforcing a variety of perspectives, including viewing race as biological, as socially constructed, and many things in between. Genetic ancestry tests do not promote a single interpretation of race, but serve as a genetic Rorschach test, allowing users to project onto them a variety of meanings based on historical norms of racial classification.
Speaker:Wendy Roth is an Associate Professor of Sociology at UBC, where she studies race, ethnicity, and immigration, with substantive interests in Latin America, transnational processes, multiracial populations and identities, and intersections of race and genomics. During her year as a Wall Scholar, she will be working on her latest project on how genetic ancestry tests influence conceptions of race and ethnicity, and ethnic and racial identities, attitudes, and interactions.Peter Wall Institute, Seminar Room 307, University Centre, UBC, 6331 Crescent Road, Vancouver