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Bioculturalism and Identity: The Anthropology of “Others” in the Genetic Age

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Anthropology
Wordcount: 1142 words Published: 8th Feb 2020

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 The study of “identity” in anthropology has undergone an epistemological shift in recent decades. Anthropologists have long sought to disassociate identity as a fixed object of study arguing that is this concept is purely a product of social performance with a collective nature that arises from the navigation of existing political structures (Sökefeld 1999, Brodwin 2002). However, the recent contributions of human genetics research contrast this stance as identity, or differences, has a biological basis. With the inclusion of genetic studies into discussions of identity formation and reconstruction, anthropology has been prompted to engage new directions in anthropological theory and methodology producing a deeper understanding of how humans engage with each other and with larger group identities (Franklin 2003, Marks 2013, Sökefeld 1999, Brodwin 2002). However, the incorporation of genetic evidence into anthropological discourse is not seamless as it has been met with resistance from several scholars citing its practice as a return to old or revalued conceptions of race, identity, and ethnicity with the potential to incite new divisions rather than its promise to dissolve standing myths about racial, ethnic and cultural identities (Reich 2018). (Tallbear 2013, Reardon and Tallbear 2012). Anthropology has begun to address these concerns through several lines of questioning: How have these recent genetic studies influenced the formation of identities and heritage? What theoretical or methodological frameworks allow anthropology to navigate the aftermath of the genomic revolution? It is this intersection of cultural-biological boundaries that I wish to explore in this research paper.

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 To address how genetic studies have impacted identity, it is essential to first define “identity” in its traditional anthropological sense. For this paper, identity will be approached dialectically, arguing its existence in the negotiation of sameness and difference (Franklin 2003, Marks 2013, Sökefeld 1999, Brodwin 2002). The social formations of race, ethnicity, and indigeneity will constitute much of this discussion with the aim to present how both social and biological factors can permeate into a definition of identity. Following this clarification, I want to further examine the methodological and theoretical exchanges prompted by the inclusion of genetics in anthropology in hopes to discuss a negotiated sociobiological epistemology (Franklin 2003, Meloni 2013). Before proceeding forward, it is necessary to address the consequences of this shift, as some have defined this negotiated framework as a form of biocolonialism and further deconstructs indigenous and disenfranchised identities. I plan to present these viewpoints through the works of Brodwin (2002), Caspari (2010), Tallbear (2012, 2013), and others writing on this topic. Several key themes that will be addressed are the recreation of a white identity, a normalization of the unmarked nature of European and further exoticism of non-European identities, and the undercutting of unity in disenfranchised groups. With the current situation in place, I plan to close this paper with a discussion of several proposed methodological frameworks that navigate these concerns while still pressing forward. The bulk of these are community-based research practices that approaches identity as a biocultural phenomenon and geared towards a shared critical historicity (Tallbear 2013, Bang 2016). I hope to expand this discussion focusing on ancestral and heritage narratives in greater detail.

Underlying this topic is an examination of human groupings as a biocultural product. Through a provision of the history and theoretical frameworks that incorporate the biological foundations into the social sciences, concepts of identity, such as race, indigeneity, and ethnicity can be reexamined through a biocultural lens. As anthropology moves towards greater interdisciplinary research, a greater acknowledgement of a biosocial framework can foster more effective communication between disciplines and the communities under study which deepening our comprehension of the human experience.

Preliminary Works Cited

1)     Bang, Megan, Lori Faber, Jasmine Gurneau, Ananda Marin, and Cynthia Soto. “Community-based design research: Learning across generations and strategic transformations of institutional relations toward axiological innovations.” Mind, Culture, and Activity 23, no. 1 (2016): 28-41.

2)     Brodwin, Paul. “Genetics, identity, and the anthropology of essentialism.” Anthropological Quarterly 75, no. 2 (2002): 323-330.

3)     Caspari, Rachel. “Deconstructing race: racial thinking, geographic variation, and implications for biological anthropology.” A companion to biological anthropology (2010): 104-123.

4)     Franklin, Sarah. “Re-thinking nature—culture: Anthropology and the new genetics.” Anthropological theory 3, no. 1 (2003): 65-85.

5)     Genetics Working Group. “The use of racial, ethnic, and ancestral categories in human genetics research.” The American Journal of Human Genetics 77, no. 4 (2005): 519-532.

6)     Marks, Jonathan. “The nature/culture of genetic facts.” Annual Review of Anthropology 42 (2013): 247-267.

7)     Meloni, Maurizio, Simon Williams, and Paul Martin. “The biosocial: sociological themes and issues.” (2016): 7-25.

8)     Reardon, Jenny, and Kim TallBear. ““Your DNA Is Our History” Genomics, Anthropology, and the Construction of Whiteness as Property.” Current Anthropology 53, no. S5 (2012): S233-S245.

9)     Reich, David. Who we are and how we got here: Ancient DNA and the new science of the human past. Oxford University Press, 2018.

10) Sökefeld, Martin. “Debating self, identity, and culture in anthropology.” Current anthropology 40, no. 4 (1999): 417-448.

11) TallBear, Kim. “Genomic articulations of indigeneity.” Social Studies of Science 43, no. 4 (2013): 509-533.

12) Wolpoff, Milford H., and Rachel Caspari. “Paleoanthropology and race.” A companion to paleoanthropology (2013): 321-337.


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