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Article Review: “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry”

I just finished reading an article by Alondra Nelson in the journal Social Studies of Science entitled “Bio Science: Genetic Genealogy Testing and the Pursuit of African Ancestry” (Social Studies of Science 2008 38: 759-783).  Dr. Nelson is Assistant Professor of Sociology, African American Studies and American Studies at Yale University.

This very interesting and insightful article aligns with my own premise, which I’ve stated previously, that receiving the results of a genetic genealogy test is only the beginning of the journey for any individual interested in their own identity or genealogy.

Based on her research in this area, Dr. Nelson writes about the complex interpretation of the results of genetic genealogy testing by African-Americans and black British.  Rather than completely altering their preconceived biographical narratives based on the results of testing, many people struggle to mesh genetic results with these narratives.  From the abstract:

“While there is some acquiescence to genetic thinking about ancestry, and by implication, ‘race’, among African-American and black British consumers of genetic genealogy testing, test-takers also adjudicate between sources of genealogical information and from these construct meaningful biographical narratives. Consumers engage in highly situated ‘objective’ and ‘affiliative’ self-fashioning, interpreting genetic test results in the context of their ‘genealogical aspirations’. I conclude that issues of site, scale, and subjectification must be attended to if scholars are to understand whether and to what extent social identities are being transformed by recent developments in genetic science.”

Nelson goes on to provide a deeper view into how some consumers of genetic genealogy “exercise some control over the interpretation of their test results” to formulate their own narrative “despite the presumption of [the tests'] conclusiveness”:

“My research shows that…the scientific data supplied through genetic genealogy are not always accepted as definitive proof of identity; test results are valuable to ‘root-seekers’ to the extent that they can be deployed in the construction of their individual and collective biographies. Root-seekers align bios (life) and bios (life narratives, life histories) in ways that are meaningful to them.  These users of genetic genealogy interpret and employ their test results in the context of personal experience and the historically shaped politics of identity. They actively draw together and evaluate many sources of genealogical information (genetic and otherwise) and from these weave their own ancestry narratives [footnotes and references omitted].”

I agree with Dr. Nelson’s assessment because I’ve seen it happen numerous times myself.  And, for at least two reasons, even the scientist in me finds support for why people might interpret their results personally: first, the results of a genetic genealogy test do not define me, since I am more than my DNA.  Second, genetic genealogy is still a young and rapidly developing field of science.

What do you think?  Should genetic genealogy consumers accept the results as definitive, or are they subject to personal interpretation?

“Genealogical Disorientation”

As part of the analysis, Dr. Nelson describes the effect testing can have on some individuals, in which “the receipt of genetic facts about ancestry open[] up new questions about identity and belonging, rather than settling them absolutely,”  and can create a “lack of orientation.”  She terms this effect “genealogical disorientation.”  I think this is a terrific term, and is undoubtedly one of the possible side-effects of genetic genealogy.

In fact, I have personally experienced my own genealogical disorientation, although it was minor compared to others.  My Y-DNA test revealed an anomaly found in only a tiny fraction of males – all of whom from England – and which had never been identified in Germany (where my ancestor was supposed to have originated).  This led me to wonder if there had been an NPE (non-paternal event) in my line and thus that my surname was possibly incorrect.  However, since I received my results others with nearby German origins have been shown to possess this particular anomaly, and thus my genealogical disorientation has subsided.

Where you disoriented when you first discovered your results?

Conclusions

So does the possibility of personal interpretation or genealogical disorientation mean that genetic genealogy is dangerous or unwarranted?  My answer to that question, perhaps unsurprisingly, is a resounding no.  It means that scientists, genetic genealogists, and testing companies must be aware of these possibilities and must continue to educate and support individuals who are interested in genetic genealogy testing.

Blaine Bettinger

Intellectual property attorney, genealogist, and author of The Genetic Genealogist since 2007

2 Comments

  1. Fisrt step is blood group. Second step birth blood or donor’s blood needs to check then you need to begin to search your ancestor.

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