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.