Facing the unknown suspect: forensic DNA phenotyping and the oscillation between the individual and the collective


Forensic DNA phenotyping (FDP) encompasses a set of technologies geared towards inferring externally visible characteristics from DNA traces found at crime scenes. As such, they are used to generate facial renderings of unknown suspects. First, through the configuration of molecularly inscribed parts, pigmentary traits are assembled into a probabilistic rendition of the face; second, facial features are landscaped from DNA to produce a metrically rendered face; third, by geographically ordering DNA, an unknown suspect is attributed a particular genetic ancestry as to give him a face. We ethnographically examine these FDP practices within and beyond the laboratory to demonstrate how the promise of individuality—namely the face of the suspect—comes with the production of collectives. And it is precisely these collectives that are a matter of concern in the context of crime, as they rapidly become racialized. We show that each of these FDP practices folds in disparate histories—variously implicating the individual and the collective—while giving rise to different versions of race. The “race sorting logic” (Fullwiley in Br J Sociol 66(1):36–45, 2015) displays the tenacity of race in genetics research and its practical applications.

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  1. 1.

    https://www.bostonherald.com/2017/03/10/sketch-based-on-dna-of-serial-rapist-and-killer-brings-hope-of-justice/ (accessed 31/05/2019).

  2. 2.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fii45aFKDl4 (accessed 26/03/2020).

  3. 3.

    The same holds for Eugen Fischer’s hair color and texture table and Rudolf Martin’s eye color table (see, e.g., Walters 2018).

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    See for the problems of race in this legislation, M’charek (2008).

  5. 5.


  6. 6.

    The faces in the top row display the average effects of ancestry on facial shape, the heat maps in the bottom row each show different things. R2 demonstrates where on the face the greatest variety between ancestries is located. The other three show “‘face shape change parameters’ (FSCPs) and are a means of translating face shape changes from the abstract face space into language of facial characteristics” (Claes et al. 2014a, p. 11).

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    Conversation professor US lab, 10/4/2018.

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    In casework, this typically depends on which analyses were requested by the prosecutor, the amount of DNA available, and analyses previously performed on the trace.

  9. 9.

    The EMPOP is an online database containing mitochondrial profiles: https://empop.online/.

  10. 10.

    HVR refers to Hyper Variable Region, one part of the mitochondrial DNA genome.

  11. 11.

    The example here is another high-profile Dutch case, the Milica van Doorn case. See, e.g., https://www.forensicinstitute.nl/news/news/2018/01/29/dna-match-in-milica-van-doorn-cold-case, (accessed 26/01/2020).

  12. 12.

    These translations became clear through an interview the first author conducted with Dutch police officers on 05/10/2017.

  13. 13.

    Based on a database of faces that belong to people classified as possessing ‘African’ ancestry as well. This technology was provided to Parabon by a US lab that works on predicting facial morphology. We describe this method below.

  14. 14.

    http://abc13.com/dna-evidence-leads-to-new-hope-in-1981-murder-investigation/3070005/ (accessed 20/07/2018).

  15. 15.

    http://bridgewater.wickedlocal.com/news/20170307/will-sketch-help-catch-this-brockton-rapist (accessed 12/07/2018).

  16. 16.

    This dynamic can also be observed in other criminal cases, such as the 2006 Brussels “MP3 murder” (see M’charek 2008, p. 526).


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We are grateful to Peter Wade for careful reading and feedback on the draft version of this paper, and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful suggestions towards clarifying our argument. We also thank Victor Toom and the members of the RaceFaceID team for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper. We furthermore thank all the members of the laboratories for their openness and patience in introducing us to phenotyping technologies. Finally, we thank the ERC for supporting our research through an ERC-Consolidator Grant (fp7–617451-RaceFaceID-Race Matter: On the Absent Presence of Race in Forensic Identification), and the Brocher Foundation for providing Roos Hopman with a quiet and focused environment to work on this paper.


Funding was provided by H2020 European Research Council (Grant No. FP7-617451) and Fondation Brocher.

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Hopman, R., M’charek, A. Facing the unknown suspect: forensic DNA phenotyping and the oscillation between the individual and the collective. BioSocieties 15, 438–462 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1057/s41292-020-00190-9

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  • Forensic DNA phenotyping
  • Ethnography
  • Individual-collective
  • Race