Anthropological insights into the use of race/ethnicity to explore genetic contributions to disparities in health were developed using in-depth qualitative interviews with editorial staff from nineteen genetics journals, focusing on the methodological and conceptual mechanisms required to make race/ethnicity a genetic variable. As such, these analyses explore how and why race/ethnicity comes to be used in the context of genetic research, set against the background of continuing critiques from anthropology and related human sciences that focus on the social construction, structural correlates and limited genetic validity of racial/ethnic categories. The analyses demonstrate how these critiques have failed to engage geneticists, and how geneticists use a range of essentially cultural devices to protect and separate their use of race/ethnicity as a genetic construct from its use as a societal and social science resource. Given its multidisciplinary, biosocial nature and the cultural gaze of its ethnographic methodologies, anthropology is well placed to explore the cultural separation of science and society, and of natural and social science disciplines. Anthropological insights into the use of race/ethnicity to explore disparities in health suggest that moving beyond genetic explanations of innate difference might benefit from a more even-handed critique of how both the natural and social sciences tend to essentialize selective elements of race/ethnicity. Drawing on the example of HIV/AIDS, this paper demonstrates how public health has been undermined by the use of race/ethnicity as an analytical variable, both as a cipher for innate genetic differences in susceptibility and response to treatment, and in its use to identify ‘core groups’ at greater risk of becoming infected and infecting others. Clearly, a tendency for biological reductionism can place many biomedical issues beyond the scope of public health interventions, while socio-cultural essentialization has tended to stigmatize ‘unhealthy behaviours’ and the communities where these are more prevalent.
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