The 89th Annual Meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (2020)

Navigating identity politics in genomics research:  a case study of Afro-descendants in Puerto Rico


Department of Anthropology, Vanderbilt University, Vanderbilt Genetics Institute, Vanderbilt University

April 16, 2020 4:00PM, Diamond 4 Add to calendar

Within human population genetics, the concept of population is fundamental to addressing questions about the nature and dynamics of human genetic variation. Though typically defined as a geographically restricted (potentially) interbreeding group to the exclusion of other groups, the concept of population in reference to humans is multifaceted when accounting for historical factors that also shape mate choice. Defining a population is further complicated by identity politics, that is, social and political contexts that influence how people identify themselves as a member of a group or community. In groups that have experienced long-term social, economic, and political marginalization, identity and identity politics become especially critical in genomics work that aims to address questions about the roles that social structures have in shaping genetic variation.

In this paper I draw from my more recent fieldwork experience in collecting genetic samples from African-descended Puerto Ricans for a project designed to address questions about intra- and inter- island diversity and genetic ancestry. Because Puerto Ricans generally adhere to a national narrative proclaiming a ‘tri-cultural heritage’, that is descent from Native American, African, and European peoples, the ways in which people identify, or not, becomes a political statement in itself. By sharing the challenges that I have faced in deciding who to recruit and who ultimately enrolled in my study, I show that intersubjectivity on questions of identity between the researcher and participants are fundamental to defining a population and the eventual success of this type of genomic work.

This research was funded with a grant from the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Vanderbilt University.

Slides/Poster (pdf)