12/10/2014

Biological Reality of Race? What Does It Even Mean? (Also: Free access to Sage journals)

Via Dan Hirschman at Scatterplot comes a debate in Sociological Theory about the nature of race: is it social and/or biological? The new contributions consist of three critical reactions to an article in the 2012 volume of the same journal by Jiannbin Lee Shiao, Thomas Bode, Amber Beyer and Daniel Selvig called "The Genomic Challenge to the Social Construction of Race", and a rejoinder by Shiao. 

The topic isn't new, and the sub-exchange between Shiao in one corner and Daniel Martinez HoSang in the other confirms what something I've long been thinking about this.  

As you may know, variants of cluster analysis can be used to group individuals' genomes on the basis of similarities and dissimilarities, and it has been shown that the resulting clusters correspond to racial categories, as measured by self-identification, for example. One of the two main arguments in the initial Shiao et al. paper is that this clearly shows that the view that race has no biological basis, held by so many sociologists, is wrong.

HoSang's article ends in an attempt at character assassination that stops just short of holding Shiao et al. personally responsible for the gas chambers in Auschwitz, but the earlier portions actually have serious content. HoSang voices misgivings about the validity of the cluster analyses and their interpretation by Shiao et al. and others, but then goes on to say (p. 233):
And even if one accepts the (contested) finding that self-identified race or ethnicity correlates with population structure, this finding does not justify a conclusion that “race” (or clinal class) has a biological basis. At the most quotidian level, the findings suggest that a statistical analysis of genetic ancestry informative markers of a population in the United States that self-identifies as “black” is likely to bear a relationship to an analysis of populations sampled in some region of sub-Saharan Africa. And a population that self-identifies as Chinese is likely to be statistically related with a population in China (DuprĂ© 2008). That a new statistical technique has validated a high probability of such histories of migration is hardly revelatory; it does not establish a biological basis of race.
But  Shiao et al. clearly think just that: These findings show that race has a biological basis.

I suggest that people who wish to have this debate take a step back and start by reaching an agreement on the following:

1. What does it means to say, "Race has a biological basis"? What does it mean to say "Race is a biologically meaningful concept"? Are the two the same?

2. What evidence, if it existed, would show that race has a biological basis/is a biologically meaningful concept? What evidence, if it existed, would refute those claims?

If you don't do that, you'll debate ad infinitum.

Added: Along similar lines, Fabio Rojas comments.

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By the way, you can download all of the articles above, as Sage allows open access to all of its journals until October 31st (registration required).

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