The impact of genetic ancestry testing on racial essentialism

Séminaire LIEPP/ OSC 6 décembre 2018 - 12h30 - 14h30
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L'axe Discriminations et inégalités sociales du LIEPP et l'OSC ont le plaisir de vous inviter au séminaire : 

The impact of genetic ancestry testing on racial essentialism

Jeudi 6 décembre 2018, 12h30 - 14h30

Salle Lavau

98, rue de l'Université, 75007 Paris



wendy roth


Wendy Roth

Professeure associée de  sociologie 
Université de Colombie britannique


Since the decoding of the human genome in 2003, at least 74 companies have emerged to sell genetic ancestry tests directly to the public. Individuals receive a test kit in the mail, send back a DNA sample, and can receive a chart linking direct family lines to particular populations or geographic regions, or analyzing what proportion of their lineage is, for example, European, African, Native American, and Asian – labels that closely mirror contemporary racial categories. An estimated 12 million tests have been sold, and more people were tested in 2017 than in all previous years combined, making it increasingly important to understand the social impacts of ancestry testing. Although social scientists have long asserted that race is socially constructed, many fear that genetic ancestry testing will reinforce an essentialized view of race as purely biological, fixed, and deterministic. Alternatively, some have speculated that the tests may have the opposite effect, by revealing the lack of genetic determination to the social identifications people have long held, and by showing the relatedness of all contemporary groups. To assess these claims, I present findings from the first randomized controlled trial testing the causal effect of genetic ancestry tests on essentialist views of race. Using random-digit dialling, the study recruited a random sample of native-born White Americans, half of whom were randomly assigned to receive admixture and maternal-line ancestry tests. The findings indicate that the impact of the tests on genetic essentialism is moderated by genetic literacy, whereby those who have high knowledge of genetics develop less essentialist views after taking the test. This study concludes that the ancestry tests do have an impact on essentialist views of race yet the direction of the effect hinges on how well the results are understood.