Qualitative Sociology

, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 423–443 | Cite as

Translating Racial Genomics: Passages in and Beyond the Lab

  • Catherine Bliss


While qualitative studies of science have traditionally focused on sciences as bounded cultures, or cohesive communities that operate in well-defined research settings, Actor-Network Theory (ANT) helps to envision the complex processual formation of scientific associations across a diverse array of social entities and sites. Using the case of race and health disparities research in genetic science, this article explores how ANT’s emphasis on agentic symmetry, and the translation of interests between humans and nonhumans, makes visible the multiplicity of agencies and research institutes that, guided by the US federal government’s Directive No. 15, marshaled genomics to construct race as a social problem. It also examines the multiplicity of methodological strategies such an analysis entails. Here, qualitative analysis of government regulations, policy councils, funding mechanisms, scientific practices, and statements from key scientists in elite biomedical positions is used to show how it came to be that racial governance became an “obligatory passage point” for scientists, and, in a second movement, that genomics became an obligatory passage point for conceiving large-scale analysis of racial stratification. Yet, going beyond current conceptions of ANT, I consider how tracing translation in and beyond the lab can expose a third multiplicity: the multiplicity of obligatory passage points in a given network. I argue that ANT, taken to its logical end, involves study of a plurality of mutually reinforcing actors that co-constitute one another and synergistically push collective agendas.


Actor-network theory Genomics Race Science 



This article draws on research sponsored by the National Science Foundation and funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Thanks are due to Crystal Biruk, Aaron Panofsky, and Tyson Smith, as well as four anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, San FranciscoSan FranciscoUSA

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