Anthropologists and sociologists of race demonstrate the continuing significance of assumptions and practices based on a belief in the existence of races (1-2). These scholars agree that the idea of race is a social construction that emerged in the context of European expansion and colonialism in the fourteenth century. The meaning of race and the ways in which race defines populations as self and other is open to transformation over time. While concepts of human similarity and difference in relation to everyday conceptions of race are historically specific, it is agreed by anthropologists and sociologists that race refers to the concepts of biology, heredity, nature and phenotype (i.e. skin colour, hair type, facial features and body shape). It is also agreed by these scholars that ideas about natural human differences separating groups of people become associated with cultural differences, for example, religion, language, family organisation, and so forth.
While there is some debate on the matter, most geneticists now think that there is as much genetic variation within groups and populations of people defined as races as there is between them (3-4). Thus the emerging scientific orthodoxy is that there is no biological basis for the idea of race. However, in the public realm, there is an increased use of racial categories to explain human differences leading to a reinforcement of racial thinking. For example, some pharmaceutical companies are experimenting with drugs that they claim are made specifically for an ethnic market, such as black males with heart conditions (5).
It is in the face of these developments that I participated in a large European project that spanned seven countries, entitled The Public Understandings of Genetics: a cross-cultural and ethnographic study of the new genetics and social identity (6). My research aim was to examine the impact of scientific ideas about genetics upon lay understandings of race from the point of view of everyday understandings of biology, inheritance and descent.
My research draws upon twelve months of fieldwork (May 2002May 2003) and formed part of the aforementioned European project. The fieldwork focussed specifically, although not exclusively, upon the ways in which the members of mixed-race families from a British city understood concepts of blood, biology, genes and heredity when they are invited to talk about their racial identity (7-8).
While recent research on race and genetics reports that human groupings have always intermarried with one another to some extent rendering all human beings mixed-race, the majority of people interviewed for this study did not need a DNA test to prove their mixed-race identities and ancestries. Rather, according to popular conceptions of race they are the members of the first generation of mixed-race 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. The research focus on mixed-race families was motivated by empirical social science studies of mixed-race 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 mixed-race identities.
Ethnographic findings on race and genetics
The following findings are drawn from the empirical fieldwork that included semi-structured interviews with the research participants.
When research participants were asked direct questions on race, genetics and science they claimed that they knew nothing about such matters. For example when people were asked what they thought of the claims made by geneticists that race had no biological foundations, a common response was that it would be more appropriate for the researcher to consult an expert, such as a scientist, knowledgeable 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 it cannot be concluded that research participants 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, then they had much to say on race, biology, descent and identity. In this regard, people talked a lot about how their mixed-race children and/or themselves had grown up and developed. In so doing, people combined ideas about cultural influences and biological inheritance in ways that made it difficult to see a clear shift from biology towards culture. For example, mixed-race children of Asian-Caribbean heritage were described as having both Asian and African-Caribbean blood and culture inside them in ways that made biology and culture seem interchangeable.
The research also illustrated that genetic links are not always paramount in lay peoples experience of kinship. For example, some of the parents of mixed-race children experienced rejection and exclusion from members of their families, in particular their birth mother or father, for forming intimate relationships with a spouse, lover, friends and neighbours across the boundaries of racial difference. Research participants perceived these family members, often a birth/genetic parent, to be racist and so kinship ties with these genetic relatives were truncated.
An overlapping strand of the research was an examination of peoples perceptions of a media event that occurred during the fieldwork period - namely - the mistaken birth of black twins to a white IVF mother in a fertility clinic in the UK. A recurring theme in 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. They had heard of several such events occurring without the intervention of new reproductive technologies such as IVF. On the one hand, research participants emphasis upon the reoccurrence of racial traits across generations resonate with geneticists understanding that people from different racial groups are to some extent interrelated with each other. On the other hand, it could also be argued that research participants views reaffirm the black/white binary by proposing that a racial essence lays dormant in the body to unexpectedly reappear across generations.
This study demonstrates how everyday understandings of biology and concepts of blood, genes, culture, and so forth are employed in contradictory ways to both undermine but yet also support the idea of race and thus the reproduction of racism.
While mixed-race peoples narratives of inheritance challenge the concept of race, ideas of racial difference that associate skin colour with just white or just black genetic parentage structure and shape research participants lives. In this regard, the members of mixed-race families were often identified by strangers as just black, just white or just Asian depending upon their physical appearance, for example, the colour of their skin. Such categorisations undermine peoples complex self-descriptions that offer a way of being in the world that is beyond racial category and thought.
*Katharine Tyler is Lecturer in Race and Ethnicity Studies in the Department of Sociology at the University of Surrey. She has published articles on white ethnicity, rural racism and the inheritance of mixed-race identities. Katharine conducted the research referred to in this article during her time as a post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of Manchester, where she also obtained her PhD. Katharine Tyler is grateful to Jeanette Edwards and Peter Wade for their intellectual support and encouragement in the development of the research project referred to in this article.
(1) For reviews of this approach, see Goldberg D. Racist Culture: Philosophy and the Politics of Meaning. Oxford: Blackwell, 1993.
(2) For reviews of this approach, see Wade P. Race, Nature and Culture: An Anthropological Perspective. London: Pluto Press, 2002.
(3) For reviews of geneticists account, see Brown RA, Armelagos GJ. Apportionment of racial diversity: a review. Evolutionary Anthropology 2001; 10: 34-40.
(4) For reviews of geneticists account, see Condit CM, Parrott R, Harris TM. Lay understanding of the relationship between race and genetics: development of a collectivized knowledge through shared discourse. Public Understanding of Science 2002; 11: 373-387.
(5) See the pamphlets summarising the findings of the larger European project of which the research referred to in this article is a part [Online]. http://les1.man.ac.uk/sa/pug/pamphlets.htm (Accessed October 25, 2005).
(6) European Commission Fifth Framework Programme: Quality of Life and Management of Living Resources [Online]. Contract number: QLG7-CT-2001-01668. The Project was directed by Jeanette Edwards at the University of Manchester, Department of Social Anthropology. http://les1.man.ac.uk/sa/pug/index.htm (Accessed October 25 2005).
(7) Tyler K. Workpackage 4: Public Understandings of Race and Genetics [Online]. Research Report D4.3 (m24) presented to the European Commission, 2004. http://les1.man.ac.uk/sa/pug/wp4.htm (Accessed October 25 2005).
(8) Tyler K. The genealogical imagination: the inheritance of interracial identities. The Sociological Review 2005; 53(3): 475-494.