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Colloquium Abstracts 1999

Colloquium 3: 6-7 September 1999

University of the West of England

This meeting was organised by Sandra Parsons and Wan Ching Yee and hosted by the Sci-Tec Unit in the faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at UWE. It was held in conjunction with the ESRC New Genetics Seminar Series session: ‘Literacy, Public Understanding and the Media’.

Presentations were given by Sahra Gibbon, Adam Hedgecoe, Iina Hellsten, Amade M’charek, Ruth McNally, Shaun Pattinson, Matthew Reed, Andrea Steiner, & Richard Tutton. Other participants included Wan Ching Yee and Sandra Parsons.

Presentation Abstracts

 Adam Hedgecoe

Lumping and Splitting Revisited: The Geneticization of Disease

This paper presents some of the conclusions from my Ph.D. research which has investigated the geneticization of three diseases over a 30 year period. Starting with the work of geneticist Victor McKusick who used the terms ‘lumping’ and ‘splitting’ to categorise the classification of genetic diseases, I will show how the discovery of the genes ‘for’ cystic fibrosis and diabetes have affected the classification of these diseases, the diagnosis of patients and the discursive structures around each condition.

Amade M’charek

The Traffic in Males and Other Stories on the Enactment of the Sexes in Studies of Genetic Lineage

This paper is about genetic sex. It aims at answering the question: what is genetic sex? Rather than defining it or asking geneticists what it is, I examine research practices and how the sexes are enacted in these. My argument is that the various practices that can be found in a laboratory setting, require different enactments of the sexes. The diversity that can be found in such a setting provides on the one hand a complex picture of genetic sex, and suggests, on the other, a less rigid approach towards it. Human geneticists know two sexes; XX and XY. Critics of this binary scheme, especially feminists, have argued that to state XX and XY is not to pay any attention to culture. The point of this paper, is showing that to state XX- XY is not to pay attention to practices of genetics. Rather than taking culture as the fact after the biological sexes, I view culture as part and parcel of genetic practices in which the sexes gain a certain reality. To focus on the materiality of genetic practices is to turn away from the DNA or the scientist as privileged sites for learning about the sexes. Thus the sexes will neither be taken as a natural quality of individuals nor as a cultural additive of science, but as an effect of practices where the sexes are deemed relevant. Genetic sex is hardly an issue in population studies interested in human histories. However, in the laboratories one may find samples indicating male or female, and in published paper one may find accounts of women’s migration history and that of men. This suggests that sex does matter. But where can it be located and how is it performed? In this paper the above raised questions are addressed within studies of genetic lineage in which mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosomal DNA approaches are considered. I will view the relevance and irrelevance of the sexes in a laboratory context where experiments are being conducted, and in published papers where the data is analysed and put in the context of population history and genealogy. It will be shown that there are many loci of the sexes, and that the different performances facilitate, both specific definitions of other biological categories, and the linking of different practices of genetic lineage.

Ruth McNally

Rhetorics of life, perfection and normalism in the (not so) great debate out abortion for handicap

In England, at the beginning of this century, foetuses at substantial risk of serious handicap enjoyed legal protection from abortion throughout pregnancy. In 1967, their legal protection from abortion was reduced to just the latter half of pregnancy when it became lawful under statute to terminate such pregnancies up to the time when the foetus was capable of being born alive. In 1990, the legal protection of such foetuses was removed altogether when it became lawful to terminate such pregnancies throughout pregnancy, up to birth. Unlike ‘social’ abortion and embryo research, there has been no Great Debate on abortion for risk of handicap. My research is a sociological analysis of how the law on abortion for risk of handicap is legitimated, with a particular focus on the characterisation of prenatal diagnosis technology. Using a similar approach to that used by Professor Michael Mulkay in his work on embryo research, I analyse the rhetorical structure of Parliamentary debates in the mid 1960s and late 1980s on proposed reforms of the law on abortion for risk of handicap in England and Wales. In this presentation, I shall outline how my research is similar to, and differs from that of Professor Mulkay. I shall discuss whether differences in our findings suggest qualitative differences between the embryo research debate, the debate on abortion in general, and the debate on abortion for risk of handicap. I shall also raise for discussion the methodological and wider implications of my research findings.

Richard Tutton

Who are the Orcadians? Genes, culture and identity in Orkney

There are cultural and ethical dimensions to the participation of particular groups in the collection of genetic samples for the European Human Genome Diversity Project. In 1994, Sir Walter Bodmer conducted a study in the northern Scottish islands of Orkney, taking samples from over one hundred and fifty individuals, and produced one of the first public representations of the European Human Genome Diversity Project in a BBC television programme, ‘Sir Walter’s Journey’, which illustrated the study’s wider scientific and cultural context. This paper presents preliminary findings from my research, using analysis of interview data gathered from Orkney residents who provided samples for the study, as well as examining how representations and discourses employed in the BBC programme relate to local discourses of identity, history, heritage, and folklore. Specifically, I shall explore how these participants understood Sir Walter Bodmer’s study of their genetic variation in the contexts of these local discourses, and how they connected ideas from genetics with these forms of knowledge. I shall also discuss the reasons for people’s involvement in the study and the public understanding of genetic science in this community.

Andreas Steiner

Hybridization of Life? A study of the human genome project beyond nature and culture.

Looking at contemporary debates about technoscience, we find increasing arguments for a blurring of the boundaries between what is human and non-human, artificial and natural, natural and cultural. Here, Bruno Latour promotes an overall dissemination of hybrids as the consequence of modernity, Donna Haraway shows us how cyborgian bodies lead to an implosion of nature and culture and Hans-Jörg Rheinberger sees molecular biology as a whole moving beyond Nature and Culture

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