Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

, Volume 29, Issue 2, pp 145–178

“Bioethics in Action” and Human Population Genetics Research



Recent disputes about human population genetics research have been provoked by the field's political vulnerability (the historic imbalance of power between the geneticists and the people they study) and conceptual vulnerability (the mismatch between scientific and popular understandings of the genetic basis of collective identity). The small, isolated groups often studied by this science are now mobilizing themselves as political subjects, pressing sovereignty claims, and demanding control over the direction and interpretation of research. Negotiations between the geneticists and the people asked to donate DNA have resulted not only in explicit bioethics protocols but also in diffuse anxiety over the incommensurability between expert and non-expert views about genetic evidence for identity claims. This article compares two disputes over genetics research: the Human Genome Diversity Project and the use of genetics to prove identity claims among the Melungeons of Tennessee. The case studies illustrate “bioethics in action”: how particular controversies and interests drive the production of bioethics discourses and techniques (such as informed consent protocols). They also illustrate some limits on the usual apparatus of bioethics in overcoming this science's multiple vulnerabilities.

Key Words

bioethics identity politics population genetics group consent Human Genome Diversity Project Melungeons 


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Copyright information

© Springer Science + Business Media, Inc. 2005

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of Wisconsin-MilwaukeeMilwaukeeUSA

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