Mapping the Icelandic Genome

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  • 5 October 1999:
    Iceland: The Case of a National Human Genome Project
    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 await us...
      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."

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Last update 3/14/2000.