Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier

Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier

Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier

Experiencing the New Genetics: Family and Kinship on the Medical Frontier

Synopsis

Over the past several decades there has been an explosion of interest in genetics and genetic inheritance within both the research community and the mass media. The science of genetics now forecasts great advances in alleviating disease and prolonging human life, placing the family and kin group under the spotlight.

In Experiencing the New Genetics, Kaja Finkler argues that the often uncritical presentation of research on genetic inheritance as well as the attitudes of some in the biomedical establishment contribute to a "genetic essentialism," a new genetic determinism, and the medicalization of kinship in American society. She explores some of the social and cultural consequences of this phenomenon. Finkler discovers that the new genetics can turn a healthy person into a perpetual patient, complicate the redefinition of the family that has been occurring in American society for the past few decades, and lead to the abdication of responsibility for addressing the problem of unhealthy environmental conditions. Experiencing the New Genetics will assist scholars and general readers alike in making sense of this timely and multifaceted issue.

Excerpt

During a span of twenty-five years as a medical anthropologist, my concern has been with various issues in economically developing nations, especially problems in medical anthropology. Whereas initially my research had focused on peasant economics and politics in Mexico, where I did fieldwork for eight years, as well as other parts of Latin America, for the past twenty-three years I have examined interrelated questions in medical anthropology, including the efficacy of Spiritualist healing, the cultural transformations of biomedical practice, and questions bearing on women’s health. In my work on Mexican Spiritualism and biomedicine, my chief interest was with how therapeutic practices, treatment outcomes, and sickness and its alleviation reveal the cultural nature of medical systems and the experience of sickness. During the course of my investigation of biomedical practice and patient response, I found that, among the poor people that I studied, the notion of genetic inheritance was one of several cultural beliefs people held about sickness etiologies. Hereditarian beliefs diffused to Mexico from Europe through biomedical practice and became one of many Mexican folk etiological explanations. After I returned to the United States, I became especially intrigued by the concept of heredity and its origins and I wondered how these ideas impacted on people’s interaction with their families, who, after all, presumably transmit diseases to their offspring.

In my training as an anthropologist, I was required to take a comparative perspective on any phenomena I observed in another culture. Having been raised in a European culture and grown up in the United States, I was particularly sensitive to cultural differences, and in my field stays I usually compared American practices with those of other cultures. My interest was therefore piqued by my Mexican findings concerning hereditary beliefs. Inasmuch as conceptualizations of familial inheritance of disease form part of contemporary biomedicine, I turned my anthropo-

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