Race Is A Social Construct

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One of our all time most popular posts here on Anthropology.net is a 2008 blog post, “Race as a Social Construct.”

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Yesterday the journal Science published an open access paper that stated race should be phased out of current studies on human genetic diversity. Modern genetics research operate in a paradox, which that race is understood to be a useful tool to elucidate human genetic diversity. On the other hand, race is also understood to be a poorly defined marker of that diversity and an imprecise proxy for the relationship between ancestry and genetics. The authors address that race is not the best proxy to use to understand human genetic diversity, especially as the prevalence of admixture is increasing across populations.

The paper leads into a discussion on DuBois and Dobzhansky as early pioneers in the race as a social construct argument.  They then define ancestry vs. race,

“Ancestry is a process-based concept, a statement about an individual’s relationship to other individuals in their genealogical history; thus, it is a very personal understanding of one’s genomic heritage. Race, on the other hand, is a pattern-based concept that has led scientists and laypersons alike to draw conclusions about hierarchical organization of humans, which connect an individual to a larger preconceived geographically circumscribed or socially constructed group.”

I particularly appreciated the discussion about how race can muddy the waters in medical genetics. For example sickle cell disease is often thought of as a “Black” disease and can lead to misdiagnoses in “non-Black” peoples. Other hemoglobinopathies such as a thalassemia and Mediterranean and cystic fibrosis and Jewish populations can lead to similar misdiagnosis and ultimately delay in care.

The call upon scientific journals and professional societies to phase out racial terms like Black and white, for example and instead encourage use of terms like “ancestry” or “population” to describe human groupings. They’ve called on the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to put together a panel of experts across the biological and social sciences to come up with ways for researchers to shift away from the racial concept in genetics research.

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