Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research

Peer Reviewed


This article is an examination of academic, corporate, and state-funded alliance of molecular, biological, computer, and clinical scientists who are conducting research into the genetic epidemiology of type 2 diabetes. Because type 2 diabetes affects human groups differently, researchers use ethnic and racial taxonomies to parse populations and social history to rationalize their categorical choices. In a process termed "bioethnic conscription," the social identities and life conditions of DNA donors are grafted into the biological explanations of human difference and disease causality in both objectionable and constructive ways. Bioethnic conscription is presented as an ethnographically sound alternative to the either–or proposition of the (R)ace–no race debate within biomedicine and anthropology.

Matthew Todhunter, US Navy Mate 3rd class, "Machinist Mate 2nd Class David Rivera takes a DNA sample from his mouth with a cotton swab as part of a bone marrow drive aboard the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson." February 2007 via WikiMedia Commons.

Editorial Footnotes

Cultural Anthropology has published a number of other essays on the "conscription" of biology and culture, on genetics, and on race/ethnicity. These include Julia E. Liss' "Diasporic Identities: The Science and Politics of Race in the Work of Franz Boas and W. E. B. Du Bois, 1894–1919" (1998), Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson's "The Evolution of Ethnic Markers" (1997), Phyllis Pease Chock's "The Irony of Stereotypes: Toward an Anthropology of Ethnicity" (1987), Corinne P. Hayden's "Gender, Genetics, and Generation: Reformulating Biology in Lesbian Kinship" (1995) and Karen-Sue Taussig's "Bovine Abominations: Genetic Culture and Politics in the Netherlands" (2004).

About the Author

Michael Montoya's webpage

Multimedia and Links

Cultural Anthropology's Interview with Michael Montoya.

Video Interview with the author, in which he discusses how genetic researchers studying diabetes confuse social issues with biological differences. (February 14, 2007)

A longer lecture by the author entitled, "(Un)Making the Mexican Diabetic: Race, Science, and the Promise of Community Knowledge," delivered at Univerisity of California at Berkeley in November, 2011

UC Irvine Today article on Michael Montoya's research: "Study of diabetes and race reveals the imperfect science of defining ethnic group"

"Health Connections: Do Our Genes Determine Our Health?", a section of the American Anthropological Association’s "RACE Project"

In 2003, PBS ran a television series entitled, "Race: The Power of an Illusion." The website that accompanies the series features sections on genetics and scientific classification and a collection of experts' responses to questions about the role race plays in health research & medicine.

American Anthropolgical Association's Statement on "Race"

In his article, Professor Montoya refers to the "(R)ace–no race debate" in biomedicine. This debate, and its implications for the development of biotechnology, has recently been exemplified in the United States in BiDil, a heart medication that was marketed specifically for African American patients. Here are some links to articles and debates regarding the pharmaceutical drug BiDil and the controversy that surrounded its development and marketing:

BiDil website

Article: "F.D.A. Approves a Heart Drug for African-Americans" (New York Times, June 24, 2005)

Article: "Special Treatment: BiDil, Tuskegee, and the Logic of Race" by Susan Reverby, Journal of Health Care for the Poor and Underserved, August 2010

Video and transcript of a debate between Dr. Paul Underwood, president of the Association of Black Cardiologists, which was a co-sponsor of the clinical trials for BiDil and Jonathan Kahn, law professor at Hamline University, which aired on the independent news program Democracy Now! on August 1, 2005

Minnesota Public Radio program, "The controversial connection between race, genetics and medicine" (February 3, 2010), featuring Dorothy Roberts, law professor at Northwestern University, and David Goldstein, professor of genetics at Duke University

Michael Ströck, "An overview of the structure of DNA." February 2007 via WikiMedia Commons.

Questions for Classroom Discussion

1. How do social representations of human difference become entangled with biomedical discourse? In Montoya’s description of bioethnic conscription, what is the significance of the "slippages" between description and attribution?

2. Montoya integrates research from multiple fieldsites in describing the process of bioethnic conscription. What does the practice of multi-sited ethnography make visible about the scientific research process and the pathways of knowledge production that we might not otherwise be able to see? What are some of the mechanisms by which power circulates among and between the multiple sites Montoya describes?

3. As the author’s professional affiliations (with the Program in Public Health and Program in Nursing Science at UCI, for example) and his other ongoing projects (Community Knowledge Project) suggest, there are many possible audiences for this kind of research. What are some of the political and epistemological stakes of this kind of anthropological inquiry into the practice of genetic medical research?

Additional Works by the Author

Montoya, M. with Paradies, YC, and Fullerton, SM. "Racialized Genetics and the Study of Complex Diseases: The Thrifty Genotype Revisited." Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 50.2(2007): 203-27.

Montoya, Michael. Making the Mexican Diabetic: Race, Science and the Genetics of Inequality. University of California Press, 2011.

Editorial Overview

The question, "Is race real or a social construction?" has recently risen to the forefront of biomedical research, and geneticists, physicians, ethicists and other experts seem stuck in disagreement as they attempt to identify particular populations at greater risk of suffering from complex conditions such as heart disease, asthma, and diabetes. The reason for the conceptual gridlock is because "race" is neither biological nor cultural, but is instead a much more complex "graft" binding biological and cultural together, argues University of California-Irvine Professor of Anthropology Michael Montoya in the current issue of Cultural Anthropology. Montoya's essay is titled "Bioethnic Conscription: Genes, Race, and Mexicana/o Ethnicity in Diabetes Research."

Through original, long-term fieldwork among both geneticists researching Type 2 diabetes, and people with diabetes, Montoya has been able to detail a chain of processes – collecting and labeling blood samples, constructing genetic databases, classifying differences and similarities, reporting outcomes in scientific journals – through which "social identities and life conditions of DNA donors are grafted into the biological explanations of human difference and disease causality in both objectionable and constructive ways." Montoya calls this chain of processes "bioethnic conscription."

Just as geneticists have now shown that diabetes is a complex condition in which biological, cultural, and personal factors are inextricably "grafted" together to confound easy explanation or treatment, Montoya's anthropological work uncovers the real complexity of genetic research and of categories like "race" that genetics research sometimes relies on.

There is nothing one-dimensional -- or even two-dimensional -- about the scientists in Montoya's study, who are seen grappling creatively with inadequate classifications like "Mexicano." Genetics research itself is shown to be similarly complex. Montoya shows how "the complicated social and biological meanings of race and ethnicity simultaneously shape the biomedical production and representation of diabetes knowledge." Modern genetics doesn't give us a "simplistic remaking of the biological races of man," argues Montoya. "Bioethnic conscription occurs at many stages of the scientific research process and operates independently of the intentions of human actors," he says.

Montoya's essay does not conclude with a simple statement about whether race is "real," or "a fiction," instead showing how 'race' operates in the sciences – both constructively and problematically.

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