International workshop

Thursday, 2 June - Friday, 3 June 2011


Workshop outline

In many European countries the discussion of race as a biological phenomenon has long been an anathema. Recent changes in the life sciences and other disciplines (i.e. archaeology) have, however, put race and biology globally back on the agenda in sometimes all too familiar and sometimes novel ways.
Developments in the new genetics and beyond have promoted a renewed willingness to discuss self, kin and group in biological terms. This biologisation takes place across a variety of fields, ranging from medical practice and biomedical research, behavioral genetics and forensic policing, to population genetics and genealogy. Race is an often shadowy and always contested presence in these developments which cannot be dismissed as a return to scientific racism. For example, racial and ethnic categories typically feature in new life sciences as hybrid objects bridging the social and the biological and combining objective systems of classification and subjective identifications.

There is a growing body of academic work on race and the new life sciences. Much of this is, however, focused on North America and relatively little considers the specific ways in which these developments play out in Europe. This workshop begins the work of filling that gap by exploring what race is made to be in the European context. European countries have their own particular histories that include colonialism, post-colonialism, the Second World War, and distinct patterns of state-formation, migration and settlement. A specifically European approach will acknowledge the continued influence of these histories, the varied national regimes for managing and categorising minorities, and the complex diasporic, national and regional dynamics of identification at play.

Thanks to new life science, genes, brains and reproductive material take a new prominence in discussions of identity and difference. Changing circumstances make the dismissal of race as an ideological fiction or a ‘social construct’ less intellectually and politically compelling. However our workshop challenges any assumption that race is merely a matter of fact, something that is inscribed in the body (needy of improved techniques to better understand or debunk it). Race is not a pre-given entity: a whole range of markers of difference might become interesting objects of research and in specific circumstances become racialized. But how to study this in a manner that does not 'lock-up' differences in the gene, the gamete or, the brain? How can we study race, maybe even use it as a concept of research, without naturalizing differences and reifying race as a unified biological entity? What can we learn from research on e.g. sex-differences, disease, or the body about the constructed and fluid nature of 'biological' phenomena?

Given the growing relevance of this historically invested, politicized and uneasy category, social scientists cannot but relate to race as an object of research. Public discussion of race has previously and will continue to take place using a number of different registers: new biological accounts of similarity and difference blend with discussion of appearance, nation, population, religion, and descent. The complex on-going discursive construction of race, its ambiguities, and the slippages between biology/society nature/culture fixity/plasticity involved are worthy of detailed exploration. But beyond this our workshop aims to consider the specific, varied and shifting practices by which race is made to be. What technologies are in place to produce differences? And how are various differences known and worked on and in the process made into race? By using the notion of technologies in the sense of Michel Foucault we wish to emphasise that the development of new life science practice is inseparable from other kinds of institutional instruments for the governing of selves and population groups. In contrast to public debates in the US that usually foreground race, discussions on the management of difference in Europe often go along with references to “culture” and/or “religion”. We are interested in the ways whereby these become identified as markers of difference; are naturalized in the process and, moreover, become closely entwined with biological differences – and thereby racialised.

Analysis of race making involves an appreciation of movements and translations across time, between locations, between field of expertise, and between experts and the public. New life science is implicated in a range of different socio-technical spheres including health, immigration law, criminal justice, genealogy and archaeology. Thus in Europe racialised discussions of belonging take place on different levels, for example:

  • The management of borders e.g. via biometrics
  • The management of minority populations within those boarders e.g. via DNA databases
  • The telling of European, national and regional narratives of shared heritage and identity e.g. via population genetics and genealogy.

Our workshop aims to examine the ways in which race is made and remade across these different domains.

The workshop will bring together scholars from the history of science, anthropology, science and technology studies and post-colonial studies. The format of the workshop is such that it invites the engagement and debate as to help unravel the similarities and differences between these fields and specifically what race is made to be in them. Rather than aiming at an ultimate answer to what race is, we seek to understand the multiple effects of race thinking and doing. The workshop is intended to the start of a series of events on this and related themes.

Recent Announcements

Relevant Readings

Alexandra Widmer - The Depopulation of Melanesia and the Apprehension of Europe Abstract Alexandra Widmer Alexandra Widmer 
Catherine Nash - Who are the people Abstract Catherine Nash Catherine Nash 
Marianne Sommer - Do you have Celtic, Jewish, Germanic roots? Abstract Marianne Sommer Marianne Sommer 
M'charek, Schramm and Skinner - Topologies of Race Abstract M'charek, Schramm & Skinner M'charek, Schramm & Skinner 
Staffan Mueller-Wille The Concept of Race Abstract Staffan Mueller-Wille Staffan Mueller-Wille 
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conference Technologies of Belonging,
Jun 6, 2011, 7:56 AM