- 5 October 1999:
Iceland: The Case of a National Human
Anthropology Today, V15 N5:14. October 1999.
By Gisli Palsson and Paul Rabinow
- "Iceland has been the site of complex and controversial events
between 1996 and 1999. DeCode Genetics, a start-up genomics company,
has burst onto the local and global scenes with a project to map
the genome of the Icelandic people as part of a unique combination
of the most advanced gene mapping strategies for locating multi-factorial
diseases, clinical records dating back to 1915, and a genealogical
database that seeks to locate all living Icelanders, as well as
a substantial portion of those who have ever lived, on a computerized
database. Both of us are studying these developments, the expansion
of the company, the construction of the database, and the public
debates surrounding them in both Iceland and elsewhere. As we begin
our fieldwork in Reykjavik and our observations of the global ecumene
of biotechnology, the human genome industry, and the world of mass
media, we have been engaged in discussions about a number of key
themes and issues. What kind of anthropology is it that concerns
itself with such developments? What is the relationship between
this type of anthropology and ethnographic practice? Since ethical
concerns, debates and conflicts are central to the object of study
what is the best way to take up those issues? Is there such a thing
as ethical neutrality in such cases and if so, is it desirable to
adopt such a stance? If not, what does that mean for anthropological
practice? We present a preliminary discussion of these issues below
just at the moment that our research is beginning. We welcome our
colleagues' reflections, suggestions and critiques. As with the
weather in Iceland, we know that unknown and changeable conditions
Anthropology is confronted with a twin challenge today: First, how
to study the social and cultural formations arising from the intersections
of new biosciences, new forms of representation, and an extremely
fluid system of global capital. Secondly, the fracturing of anthropology
(the weakening of the four field approach in North America and the
persistence of the dualistic structure of European anthropology)
will be overcome only when social anthropologists learn more biology
as our richer and more powerful colleagues have urged us to do.
However, the converse is even more compelling: molecularly inclined
anthropologists must accept the fact that social biology (with its
social Darwinist underpinnings and discourse) is more appropriate
to the 19th century than the 21st where nature and its inequalities
will be social ones as much as they are natural. Both camps must
come to see that in order to understand the knowledge they are producing
they must themselves become more fully anthropological in the broadest
sense of the term. Such a vision is neither nostalgic nor utopian.
We can already find examples of such synthesis in the study of medical
anthropology (Lindenbaum and Lock 1993) and environmental anthropology
(Ingold 2000). We are convinced that the time is ripe for a molecular
anthropology that includes scientific, technological, political,
cultural and ethical dimensions.
The problem facing anthropologists about to embark on a study of
DeCode and similar phenomena in the contemporary world is how to
situate themselves in this work. George Marcus has recently argued
(1998) that anthropologists are moving from a relationship of 'rapport'
with their informants to one of 'complicity'. Complicity is an ethically
and epistemologically much more complex term than rapport and one
that no doubt many anthropologists will feel less immediately comfortable
with. But the old tropes of rapport associated with earlier relations
of ethnographic production are now too closely tied to a colonial
context that often facilitated it but was too infrequently analysed,
to a presumed psychological relationship in which only one member
spoke and wrote, to a view of two cultures facing each other across
a clear divide. Complicity blurs and complicates these niceties
even if it does not entirely eliminate them. To even have access
to the kind of work we are proposing one must confront a set of
questions and queries posed by informed, literate and demanding
interlocutors. How does one begin with the 'native's point of view'
in such situations? Or are we ready to abandon this imperative?
Or only apply it when we are dealing with the dominated of the world?
We are not proposing that complicity become the master trope of
an anthropology of the modern world. We will most certainly need
a range of such terms adequate to a range of different types of
relationships that will be forged. In sum, we will need a new anthropological
imaginary as well as politics, epistemology and ethics."