Who Are We?: The Human Genome Project, Race and Ethnicity

By Callister, Paul; Didham, Robert | Social Policy Journal of New Zealand, August 2009 | Go to article overview

Who Are We?: The Human Genome Project, Race and Ethnicity


Callister, Paul, Didham, Robert, Social Policy Journal of New Zealand


Abstract

Race and ethnicity continue to be evolving concepts. They are influenced by genetic research but are also shaped by discussion and debate that takes place far from laboratories. Their meanings also evolve somewhat differently in local contexts. One of the newer influences on these concepts are the findings from the ongoing Human Genome Project. This project, as well as other genetic research, is already playing a part in the ongoing evolution of ideas of who we are, both individually and collectively. However, a range of factors, including the significant intermixing of people across various boundaries, suggest that personal definitions of identity are likely to become more important than "scientific" definitions imposed by external authorities.

INTRODUCTION

In 2008 Statistics New Zealand commissioned a literature review based on the broad question "Who are we?" (Callister et al. 2009). Topics explored in this review included ethnogenesis; the official construction of ethnicity in New Zealand; ethnic intermarriage, and related to this the transmission of ethnicity to children and multiple ethnicity; ethnic mobility; indigeneity; the recent growth of "New Zealander" responses in the New Zealand census; and genetics, the Human Genome project, race and ethnicity.

Ethnic mobility, the New Zealander response and one aspect of indigeneity--being part of an iwi (tribe)--are explored in some depth in this Social Policy Journal collection. Some issues of intermarriage, multiple ethnicity and social policy have already been explored in this journal (Callister 2004, Keddell 2007). In this paper we have chosen to expand on the outcomes of the literature review in just one area: the Human Genome Project, race and ethnicity. We have chosen this topic for a number of reasons.

First, although New Zealand official statistics have shifted to a self-defined and, in theory, culturally constructed, definition of ethnicity, it is possible that clearly bounded "racial groups" remain in the minds of many New Zealanders, especially when categorising people other than themselves. (2) Certainly the term "race" is still used at times in public debates; for example, regarding "race-based" social policies, there is a Race Relations Commissioner in the Human Rights Commission, and the Human Rights Commission supports a "Race Relations Day" each year (Callister 2007). Second, particularly in the U.S. there is an important public policy-related debate about whether "race" is a useful variable in both health research and in medicine. In addition, although New Zealand policy research focuses on the ethnicity variable, in areas such as ethnicity-based scholarships or law and medical school quotas, ancestry rather than ethnicity is generally the way to determine eligibility (Callister 2007). Generally, ancestry is based on biological links. (3) Another reason is that, particularly in the U.S. context, genetic testing has become part of genealogy research. Finally, of the six current official level 1 groupings of ethnicity in New Zealand, the four that are used mainly in public policy analysis (i.e. European, Maori, Pacific peoples, and, in more recent times, Asian) have some links back to current continental-based "racial" groups which have limited historical validity. Although we are not directly focusing on issues of indigeneity in this paper, these issues are inevitably confronted when studying human genetics, as will be shown.

In this paper we initially contextualise the debates with a brief history of New Zealand migration. Then, under the broad heading of the Human Genome Project, race and ethnicity, we consider a number of issues. First, we briefly discuss some early "scientific" systems of classifying groups, then move on to current debates about classification. In this discussion we talk about cultural versus biological construction of race or ethnicity. We realise there are various meanings given to the term "cultural construction", but in this context we align with the view that official ethnic categories are being created through social processes, with historical, political and economic forces shaping the naming of groups. …

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