reflexive anti-geneticism

This is my contribution to the ongoing symposium on genetics,race, and sociological theory as well as its twin on that other blog. A quick disclaimer: I was in graduate school with J. Shiao, lead author of the paper being discussed, and we talk occasionally at conferences.

My view of the original paper is that its contribution is real but quite modest in the scheme of theory. The best way to read it is as a social-constructionist “friendly amendment” to constructivism’s tacit, yet stubborn, insistence that there is no biological basis for racial categorization. Genetic information can be used “to distinguish race/ethnicity from the existence of genetic clusters” (emphasis mine). Shiao et al. suggest that constructivist approaches to race need not cling to a strong no-genetic-clustering claim in order to maintain most of the findings of constructivism (“In sum, relatively little of the empirical explanations made by sociologists of race/ethnicity require the claim of biological nonreality traditionally associated with racial constructionism.”). In short, race is a

social reality that is historical, processual, stratified, and analytically multilevel but that is also entangled with biological inputs inherited from the geographic distribution of humans in genetic watersheds over the past 50,000 years.

While I’m no fan of genetic essentialism, I don’t think that’s what’s actually going on in the Shiao et al. article, and overall I find the critiques in the special issue quite disappointing because by and large they respond reflexively to something else instead of engaging the article’s actual contents. I actually think the most important criticism of Shiao et al. is that it’s not really all that important of a finding: the idea that minor, generally meaningless, and ancient genetic variations produce phenotypes that then become inputs to the social construction of race and ethnicity is a minor correction to social constructionism. It becomes important enough for an article in ST because of the sheer symbolic importance of race and the reflexive anti-geneticism in the field. And the character of much of the responses provide further evidence that the objections are to the symbolic affront of the article instead of to its content.

The most serious critique is the one by Ann Morning. Morning does acknowledge the modesty of Shiao’s contribution at one point:

To the extent that racial assignments incorporate information (alongside beliefs) about individuals’ phenotypic characteristics or geographic origins, they can be said to be informed by (or correlated with) biology. If that is the “biological reality” of race that Shiao et al. (2012) wish to emphasize, it does not represent a novel contribution—much less a challenge—to the constructionist account.

…but from the text of the original, it’s clear that that is the contribution offered: that “clinal classes simply summarize a potential input to the social definition of racial/ethnic categories.” And from the content of all three responses, it’s clear that even this very modest claim evokes a very strong reaction-formation.

Dan praises Morning’s critique for bringing to bear insights from STS on the scientific work deployed in Shiao et al. I find that element much less convincing. While Morning is certainly right that “approximations of the natural world are always shot through with the social,” the implication of this use of STS is that scientific evidence therefore has no evidentiary value whatsoever. Another way of saying this: is there any way to falsify Morning’s position? Could we imagine any evidence that would satisfactorily overcome the “shot through with the social” concern and thereby demonstrate that, indeed, racial categorization is “entangled with biological inputs inherited from… genetic watersheds”? Morning’s theoretical critique strongly implies that no such evidence is even possible, although her later technical critique of STRUCTURE and PCA seem to entail the opposite (you can’t claim something is a “statistical artifact” unless you can imagine something else out there that’s not an artifact!).[1]

Morning writes: “at issue is not the mapping but the construction of human clusters.” To translate that claim into genetic concepts, it seems to me, we would expect no discernible genetic clustering among human populations, or at least that any discernible clusters should be completely uncorrelated with commonly-understood racial and ethnic divisions. In a sense, that is the “null hypothesis” Shiao et al. are arguing that we should reject. But there’s no way to assess that hypothesis if we accept Morning’s strong interpretation of STS.

Turning to Fujimura et al., consider this shocking paragraph:

Despite their claims to the contrary, Shiao et al. (2012) are using recent human genetic research to reintroduce the age-old construct of biological races, just renamed as “clinal classes.” Shiao et al.’s interpretation of genetic clustering research opens the possibility that readers will misunderstand the clustering technologies and the genetic evidence.

This is the epitome of a straw-man argument. The original article doesn’t say something Fujimura et al. want to argue against, so they just state that it must say that, even though it doesn’t. Then the criticism they offer is that somebody else might misunderstand the evidence–not that the actual article is wrong, but that it might be misinterpreted! They proceed to offer a summary of genetic variation that is absolutely consistent with the claims in Shiao et al.:

our species is not subdivided into discrete, genetically distinct, and biologically homogeneous racial or continental groups. Instead, human populations tend to be most genetically similar to others who live nearby, irrespective of continental boundaries, and the degree of genetic similarity between populations is inversely correlated with geographic distance

Clearly, the thing they’re arguing against isn’t actually Shiao et al.’s article. It’s a tradition of bad scholarship with an ugly heritage and morally bankrupt motivations that Shiao et al. reminds them of. But the fact that Shiao et al. reminds them of this tradition is not sufficient for them to hang that whole tradition on Shiao et al.

The disappointment grows as we consider HoSang’s article, which is a morass of ad hominem arguments, claims to authority, and guilt-by-association. There’s very little even of relevance in this response.[2] Shiao’s response strikes me as entirely apt:

his critique of our bounded nature approach bears little resemblance to its actual content or theoretical purpose…. Frankly, I do not recognize our article in his list of its supposed claims.

I don’t either. And while HoSang’s is the most guilty of these, all three of the responses go well beyond the actual material to criticize the effort, the tradition, or the (predicted) interpretation. That’s too bad. In my view the implied null hypothesis is almost certainly wrong (as Fujimura et al. tacitly agree), but the fact of clinal clustering has rather little actual importance to the historical, social, and lived experience of race and racial classification.


[1] Interestingly this contradiction–a variant of the “borrowed kettle” problem–directly mirrors Rick Biernacki’s simultaneous theoretical rejection and methodological criticism of coding.

[2] Which is all the more curious given that HoSang is a colleague of Shiao’s at Oregon. I wonder what encounters in the faculty lounge are like.

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

12 thoughts on “reflexive anti-geneticism”

  1. Very interesting comments, especially the point about Morning’s use of the term ‘artifact’. In STS, ‘artifact’ sometimes has a precise meaning that is not at all pejorative, but here I think it’s simultaneously being used in the statistical vernacular of a ‘fake’ result. To be charitable to Morning, we could say that it’s an artifact in the sense that it is constructed a particular way, and we can document the choices that go into that construction, some of those choices seem to embed assumptions about race into the results, and in the absence of those assumptions the statistical result disappears. You may disagree with the empirics of some of those intervening steps, but I think that’s not a circular claim: it could be the case that the points where she identifies researchers smuggling pre-existing racial notions into the analysis don’t matter, and that would empirically refute the argument that this finding is an ‘artifact’ in the relevant sense. You don’t need to show that there are “non-artifactual” findings (in the STS sense), you just need to show that the way this artifact emerged followed from a set of assumptions that undermine its claims to prove those assumptions. In other words, science being shot through with the social is the starting point of analysis, not the end. The empirical details about *how* it’s shot through in this particular case are what, to me, make Morning’s critique compelling.

    In terms of Shiao et al.’s argument, I think there is some ambiguity in the original article that may have led to the hostile reactions from the race & STS community. I agree that the quote you pulled is not very threatening (and accords with Morning’s interpretation). But later, Shiao et al write:

    “we have offered a reformulation of racial constructionism that accepts that recent genetic research has identified a biological basis for race/ethnicity that exceeds the more realistic threshold of statistically identifiable clusters.” (emphasis added)

    It is one thing to say that definitions of race are “entangled with biological inputs” or that clinal classes are a “potential input”; it’s quite another to say that genetic research “identified a biological basis for race/ethnicity.” To me, these statements are not equivalent, and the second reads like the paper Morning and Fujimura et al are critiquing while the first does not.


    1. I think that’s an unfair reading of that paragraph. The “biological basis” clause is immediately followed by an explication that clarifies that “basis of” doesn’t mean “cause” or certainly “definition of”: “human genetic variation is composed of both clines and clinal classes that are homologous to certain racial/ethnic classifications and that this biological ancestry has nondeterministic effects and may contribute to average group differences…. our bounded-nature alternative envisions the relationship of society and human biology as thoroughly entangled and invites researchers to explore its complex causal chains of social determinations, gene-environment interactions, and gene-environment exaggerations.”

      While I grant that there are always multiple ways to read a text, I think this article went out of its way to endorse a racial-formation position and argue that biological differentiate constitutes one input to that process.


    1. Yes, that’s in the Fujimura et al. article as well. But Shiao et al. acknowledge that this is their concept, not something imported from genetics. So like many oxymora, it actually has its own meaning. The point in Shiao et al. is that there is observed clustering (the “classes” part) but that this clustering has no clear borders or predetermined clean breaks (the “clinal” part). In other words, they *know* they are coining a new term that combines distinct concepts.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. So the point is to take genetics seriously but not actually use real genetics when one is doing it? Instead to make up a concept that isn’t anything in actual genetics as practiced by real geneticists with academic credentials in genetics and then use that to claim one is taking genetics seriously? And the scholarly point of this activity is . . . ? And the reason commentators should treat this activity with respect is . . . ? What am I missing? Again, I don’t have the science background to evaluate Shiao’s claims directly, I’m responding to what you said, which in my mind opens Shaio to all the criticisms he’s getting.


      2. I think the scholarly point is that “real geneticists” don’t have any background or tools for conceptualizing the social construction of race. If “real geneticists” already had a theoretically-adequate concept of race, there would be no point in Shiao et al.’s syncretic work. The “clinal class” concept in a sense bridges between these fields. Instead of focusing on the term, how about focusing on the substantive claim: that there is observable genetic variation that clusters in certain ways along a continuum?


      3. But why do geneticists need a theoretically-adequate concept of race if it is not a genetic concept? They don’t think they do. So then the question is why does a sociologist think sociology needs a genetic concept of race? Why does Shiao not think that the social concept of race is good enough for understanding how race works socially? Do we worry about having a quantum mechanical conception of race?

        I’m still not getting the value added of the project. (And you agree on this, the value added of the actual argument is negligible.) Race is socially constructed, that is easy to demonstrate. Neither you nor Shiao disagree. Nobody ever argued that the social construction is random. Phenotype and [socially-recognized] ancestry are clearly relevant markers that are used in racially-stratified societies. Everybody* knows that “race” is a product of the invasion the Americans by people from Europe, the consequent genocide and enslavement of the indigenous Americans, and the forcible migration of Africans into American slavery. That there are continental origins of the peoples of the Americas is part of the social construction story and genetic analysis can even turn up interesting parts of the story, e.g. the recent finding that Black Americans mostly come from only 46 or so of the 1000+ ethnic groups in Africa. Or the more contested analyses that link various indigenous American populations to Asian populations. But “races” as distinct bounded groups rather than continuities are created through social processes of boundary-setting (e.g. European invasion, slavery, political control), not to mention the social processes that affect both the amount of intermixing between previously-defined groups and the social classification of the mixed offspring.

        “Race” makes much less (to zero) sense as a concept outside of the Americas because the rest of the world has a different history. What good is it to try to argue for some sort of pseudo-genetic basis for a classification that is only relevant in the US? Maybe it is helpful in medical applications where genetics might play a more important role, but even there, the “race” idea as a proxy for genetic background could lead to serious medical errors because individual people’s actual genetic makeup is different and way more diverse within these fuzzy-set clinal classes than between them. After the forum I mentioned, I talked to a dark-skinned Black woman who explained to me that she does not have the sickel-cell variant from Africa, but the equivalent one from the Mediterranean area, and her female line traces to Asia. She also reminded us all that a high percentage of our ancestry is actually lost from our individual DNA through the random processes or recombination across generations, so our individual genetic make-up is not even a full representation of our genetic ancestry. And out in the streets and office buildings where policing and discrimination happen, your phenotype, ancestry, group affiliations, and cultural presentation matter, not your genes.

        Shiao’s examples were going over the well-trod ground of how inherited characteristics can be reinforced or interact with environment, but I didn’t see where I need a geneticized concept of race to make those arguments.

        And I realize I’m going way overboard on this. I teach race so this stuff is on my mind. I guess I’ll go ahead and post rather than delete this. But I agree I’ve gone on too long for the purpose here. To cycle back to your original post, I’m not sure the take-downs of Shiao were unfounded.

        *Well “everybody” in the sense of everybody who knows basic history, I guess. Since we have to teach these basics to undergraduates, it obviously does not mean everybody the planetary sense.


      4. OW, I think we’re at the crux of the matter. I don’t think the value added is all that much, but I don’t think it’s irrelevant to offer a specific, genetically-informed mechanism by which, as you say, “phenotype…[is a] relevant marker.”

        I see Shiao as saying to social construction theory: “don’t freak out about genetic variation as a part of race, because social construction can relatively straightforwardly accommodate genetic inputs.” The responses are: (1) we already knew that, but (2) I can’t believe you would say something so unbelievably wrong and harmful. The two really aren’t compatible!


  2. Cycling back to consequences vs. intent, a grad student called my attention to footnote 2 in the HoSang article:

    “The implications for the arguments of “The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race” (or GC) also extend beyond the academy. Almost immediately after GC’s publication, the article was uploaded to two white supremacist websites. It appeared as “recommended reading” on the Occidentalist, a white supremacist website primarily devoted to race, genetics, and measures of intelligence, and to the official “study library” for Stormfront, one of the largest and most widely followed white supremacist and neo-Nazi websites in the world (official slogan: “White Pride World Wide”). The article appears to have been uploaded on September 12, 2012, by an unidentified poster under the title “Biodiversity” on the website’s “study library” at (accessed August 19, 2014). On contemporary white supremacists movements, see Zeskind (2009).

    To be sure, we cannot make any claims about the intent of the individuals who reposted the GC article to white supremacist websites, and GC’s authors do not bear culpability for their appearance. The circulation of the GC piece on these websites simply reveals the heightened stakes in debates over the scientific basis of racial difference and hierarchy. ”

    Whether this is guilt by association or an example of the heightened context of any discussion that purports to offer a biological conception of race, or both, is left to the reader.


    1. I suppose it’s “left to the reader” in the sense that any interpretation of text is left to the reader. But there is no fair or reasonable interpretation in which this is anything other than guilt by association. The definition of guilt by association is virtually written for this situation. As scholars we do not rely on Stormfront or the Occidentalist to assess the correctness or relevance of our studies,and it is phenomenally inappropriate to do so here. Either the argument works or it doesn’t. The fact that abhorrent people misread it to their advantage is of no consequence.

      You may also be interested in this blog post which reveals the extent to which this critique is simply about discrediting by innuendo and power rather than any substantive engagement with the argument or evidence. HoSang warns ominously of “projects with strong eugenicist overtones.” Again, no evidence, no engagement with argument, just good old fashioned ad hominem argument. If that’s the best racial constructionism can muster we’re all in trouble.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I have to admit that I have considerable disdain for the whole line of reasoning, common in sociology, that because hateful people have found an inspirational interpretation of an idea, sociologists are obliged to oppose the idea itself. It’s not because of the (correct) principle that just because an idea might be used in hateful ways doesn’t mean that it’s false. Rather, it’s because sociologists are basically saying that hateful people get to dictate the terms of debate. Hateful people get to decide what ideas they think advances their views, and then sociologists are supposed to discipline their own work in opposition, so that nothing they say could ever possibly be construed as helping out hate.

      It’s the academic counterpart to the “Party of No” corner that Republicans have worked themselves into vis-a-vis Obama. You also see it carried to extreme manifestations in work that tries to cultivate a wholesale skepticism toward science and quantification in disadvantaged groups, which in turn actually harms members of disadvantaged groups by encouraging them to self-exclude from genuinely helpful contributions of science (most notably in health).

      Liked by 2 people

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