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Genomic Sovereignty and the Comparative Biopolitics of Race

Principal Investigator(s): Ruha Benjamin
Genomic Sovereignty and the Comparative Biopolitics of Race

This project that builds upon my interest in the cultural politics of science: Genomic Sovereignty and the Comparative Biopolitics of Race-Ethnicity analyzes the geneticization of race and nationality in two countries–India and Mexico–both of which have undertaken initiatives to genetically map and commercially market the bioethnic diversity of their populations. They do so in response to the increasing implications of genetic variation for health outcomes and the growing economic value of genetic information in pharmaceutical development. Proponents of genomic sovereignty policies strategically (re)biologize the nation-state by asserting that less powerful nations must protect the cumulative genetic heredity of their populations from being pillaged by more powerful nations. In so doing, they lay claim to new biopolitical entities, “Mexican DNA” and “Indian DNA”, strategically conflating  and calibrating sociopolitical categories (i.e. nationality and race-ethnicity ) with scientifically-produced ones (i.e. genotypes and haplotypes).

On the surface, this policy frame asserts a deeply nationalist sentiment of self-determination in a time of increasing globalization. It  implicitly ‘brands’ national populations as biologically distinct from other populations, ‘naturalizing’ nation-state boundaries to ensure that less powerful countries receive the economic and medical benefits that may result from population genomics. However, my initial findings reveal contradictory tendencies of genomic sovereignty policies—unifying and differentiating a diverse body politic, cultivating scientific and commercial autonomy and dependence upon global knowledge networks and foreign capital.

Within these broader developments, I am particularly interested in two issues. The first is the way that African ancestry is construed simultaneously as a scientific curiosity, genetic resource, and socio-political liability in such genome initiatives. For example, I am analyzing the inclusion of communities of African descent in Southwestern India and the Costa Chica region of Mexico within each nation’s genome diversity map. Their importance to the construction of the national genome sits uneasily against their everyday denigration as socio-political ‘outsiders within’ the nation. Thus, I theorize that while genomic maps serve as a ‘naturalizing’ cartography of the nation that claims to account for the accumulated genetic inheritance of a people, such initiatives may also be analyzed as social maps for contemporary anxieties about social fragmentation and cohesion.

The second issue is the way that genetic samples taken from ethnic diasporas in the United States undercut the attempt of countries seeking to protect their genetic patrimony via genomic sovereignty policies. To the extent that such policies only have national reach, they are unable to assert authority over the millions of expatriates who were either born or live outside of their countries of origin and are free to donate their DNA to U.S researchers and commercial entities. In effect, the existence of ethnic diasporas undercuts the gate-keeping function of genomic sovereignty claims and the protection these seek to exercise over national populations as a source of pharmacogenomic wealth.

The reason why India and Mexico’s protectionist policies are the focus of this project, in turn, is that during the second phase (2005-2007) of the International Haplotype Mapping project, DNA samples were collected from “Mexicans in Los Angeles” and “Guajarati Indians in Houston”, labeled as such in the project’s database. Whether or not the genomic sovereignty policies of these two nation-states are in direct response to what may be seen as a Euro-American appropriation of their population genotype is undetermined. Whatever the initial motivation, leaders of both genome institutes cultivate political support and public investment in their national genomics efforts by arguing that the International HapMap’s diasporic samples do not fully represent their populations.

This issue of representation—as it is imbricated with questions of geography, political authority, ethnicity, and biology—often remains tacit in the work of genomics researchers and their critics. It simmers below the surface of this social field until, of course, some controversy erupts, and some group refutes the ways in which they have been represented. In the first phase of this project, I have tracked such controversies in which social and biological taxonomies fail to match-up, and I analyzed the ways in which genomic researchers and proponents of Indian and Mexican genome projects more broadly, ‘strategically calibrate’ these contrasting modes of group-making (Benjamin 2009). I found that the ways in which they do so is not simply a matter of political spin or obfuscation of data. Rather, it is through a complex process of reinterpreting data to match the historical record while also collaborating with anthropologists and historians to reimagine the historiography of these regions to make sense of their findings. In the second phase of this project, I wish to focus more intently on two nodes of controversy—the role of “African ancestry” and “ethnic diasporas” as contested biopolitical entities.

Related Publications

Benjamin, R. 2009. “A Lab of Their Own: Genomic Sovereignty as Postcolonial Science Policy”. Policy & Society, Fall Issue.