The social life of DNA: racial reconciliation and institutional morality after the genome.

Icon for Wiley Related Articles

The social life of DNA: racial reconciliation and institutional morality after the genome.

Br J Sociol. 2018 Sep;69(3):522-537

Authors: Nelson A

This 2017 British Journal of Sociology Lecture builds upon ideas developed in The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation after the Genome (Nelson 2016). I argue that one of the more significant developments of the postgenomic era is the circulation of DNA analysis outside of the life sciences, especially commercial applications such as direct-to-consumer genealogical testing. These tests are increasingly taken up in ‘reconciliation projects’ – endeavours in which DNA analysis is put to the use of repairing the past, including a recently launched attempt in the United States to locate descendants of enslaved persons sold by the Jesuit stewards of Georgetown College in order to bolster that institution’s finances. With this reconciliation project, genetic genealogy has become a vehicle for a form of social repair, and most particularly, the reuniting of ‘lost’ kin. This use of genetic genealogy takes place against the backdrop of an expanding, national inquiry into ties between education and slavery. In the process, the legacy of racial slavery is rendered both contemporary and proximate, despite a ‘colour-blind’ racial project that aims to negate the significance of this history and its coeval development with US higher education. Elite educational institutions such as Georgetown that elect to excavate these histories are soon after faced with the choice of how to respond, on campus and beyond, to revelations of entanglements between edification and bondage. However imperfectly, colleges and universities are among the few institutional settings where the contested issue of structural racism (and remedies to it) may be aired. It is in these fraught debates that the exercise of ‘institutional morality’ can take shape; organizations engage in practices that articulate institutional values and are faced with a choice of symbolic and distributional responses.

PMID: 30328106 [PubMed – indexed for MEDLINE]