Jenny Reardon’s UCSD Science Studies Colloquium talk

UC Santa Cruz professor of Sociology Jenny Reardon is the author of Race to the Finish: Identity and Governance in an Age of Genomics. This past Monday she came to speak at the UCSD Science Studies Program colloquium series.

Her presentation introduced her recent work on what she is calling The Postgenomic Condition, which, as I understand it, refers to the efforts of genome scientists to gain legitimacy for their work (as well as avoid controversy) by democratizing the field. This includes three main kinds of projects:
1) public genome-reading companies like 23&me that invite participation from the public. This produces new kinds of genomic subjects, that is, people who view their identity in terms of their genome. But this creates interesting problems when young people who have always identified as white discover that they are 11% native american and consider applying for tuition assistance based on this.
2) The Harvard genome project, where elites and authors can apply to have their entire genome read, archived like a public treasure, and presumably, opened to scientific scrutiny.
3) New iterations of the HaploMap project, in which indigenous communities around the world participate in the mapping of their genome. Controversy around this is the subject of Reardon’s earlier book. In it, she argues that the HaploMap project, rather than merely using science to understand racial categories, simultaneously produced them. That is, in the process of identifying groups for genetic study, the HapMap project had to presume that they constituted a racial (of common ancestry) group, and therefore the project co-constructed scientific and social categories. In current iterations, problems are arising because scientists are recruiting populations with promises of getting to label their own groups, but really want labels that correspond to hegemonic racial categories–or at least geographic ones–rather than the often politically charged ones that the populations themselves want to use.

There was also something to be said about the Henry Louis Gates’ new projects on Finding Oprah’s Roots, but we didn’t have time to go into that.

Reardon drew the title for her recent work on Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition, (1979) in which he argued that computers were creating a crisis of legitimacy around practices of knowledge-making. He argued in it that before computers, knowledge-making gained legitimacy in one of two ways: by being linked to God’s Truth or by connected to ideas of liberation (“the truth will set you free”). Computer-based knowledge challenged both of these in a way that for many drew into question the value of knowledge-making as an activity as anything other than a practice of power and domination.

I was thoroughly fascinated by the talk, which for me, was an exemplar of the kind of research I came to STS to do: work that tries to grapple with the societal impacts of new sciences and technologies in ways that can help scientists, policy makers, and lay people–as well as academics–better understand one another’s goals and interests. Only by wrestling with the these issues can we think about what justice means in a world with ever more novel objects and sources of knowledge.

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