Risky Relations Family, Kinship and the New Genetics by Katie Featherstone, Aditya Bharadwaj, Angus Clarke, Paul Atkinson, Berg Publishers, 2006; pp.vii+169, £25.19
About the Authors
Katie Featherstone (Research Fellow), Aditya Bhardwaj (Research Associate), and Paul Atkinson (Professor of Sociology and Associate Director of ESRC), belong to the Centre for Social and Economic Aspects of Genomics, in Cardiff University, U.K. Angus Clarke is professor and honorary consultant in Clinical Genetics at the University of Wales, College of Medicine, U.K.
Since the advent of DNA sequencing, IVF, new reproductive technologies, we have entered into an era of biologization, genetization, biosociality, biological citizenship etc., in which all these things like kinship, or belonging of a different kind, and ideas about wellbeing and health are increasingly imagined, experienced and discoursed through biology or what one calls, life itself, the molecules or the DNA base. This somehow will lead to the idea of belonging- to biological determinism. Although biology and eugenics are becoming pervasive, their effects are not that predictable. This has brought a new series of anthropological discourse in kinship studies, which has been discussed in length by Feminists and later anthropologists in the 21st century. The development of CRISPR has brought a revolution in the genetics and the medicinal anthropology, inspiring several scholars to come up with the literature on kinship and genetics. Risky Relations Family, Kinship and the New Genetics by Kati Featherstone, Aditya Bharadwaj, Angus Clarke, Paul Atkinson, is a welcome addition to this pool of literature. Passionately written and coherent and rigorous in its exposition, this book provides an excellent work on how new genetic technologies impact the social relations, self-identity and how do families make sense of those information around genetically transmitted disease, and how do they disclose and share these inheritance and how medical professionals and other stakeholders respond to the proband and their families. It skillfully highlights the way families perceive the risks and the way they impact their relations and kinship. The sheer empirical evidence that the authors put together with several case studies of families in South Wales in the UK and the wonderful insights that they provide with ethnographic presentations, emphasizing on the ethical, medical and social debates makes this must-read for students of New Kinship and social anthropology.
The book consists of seven chapters but thematically speaking, one can think of the book as consisting of three broad sections. The initial two chapters provide the theoretical context of kinship and recent developments in biomedical science. The next three chapters examine the beliefs on inheritance, and mutual surveillance among family members and how are these knowledge and information shared and distributed within the families. In last two chapters, authors analyze the linkage between the cultural categories practices of inheritance, practical kinship and everyday ethics through an extended case study of one family and conclude it with a detailed summary of the whole thesis of the book.
Intellectual account and Sites of Kinship and Genetics
At the heart of the book are a series of ideas that were developed by Carsten, Atkinson, Housley, Rosaldo and others at the beginning of the 21st century. Unlike many of the discourses on genetics and kinship which focus on the generalization of the impact of diagnosis of the genetic diseases on family and kinship relations, this book deals with the complexities of those experiences from the perspective of family, not limiting itself to the proband i.e. the individual who has been diagnosed with the genetic disease. On this journey, they first take us to the flashback of late 19th century anthropological studies, then to the late 20th-century decline in the studies and back to the 21st century with a radical shift in the whole kinship studies through the advent of CRISPR.
In early 19th century when biology used to be the part of the extensive discourse on the anthropological investigation, where blood was more than the substance, with the introduction of DNA sequencing, the biology has turned malleable, and become more cultural and has disturbed the whole idea of the biological determinism. Although Family has been the key domain for thinking about the natural cultural congruity, the appearance of a child, her traits and attributes are inherited heritage explicable to the certain sets of parentage. Whether it’s Aristotle, who says that in nature like produces like, or Herzfeld who comments that the idea that physical resemblance (the semiotic property of iconicity) reveals the presence of common blood predated the popularization of DNA-based metaphors and is likely to have facilitated that process. Nevertheless, the studies of family and Kinship have been reinvigorated in recent years due to the genetics, which authors have coherently introduced us as a theoretical base on which they build the sites of kinship and genetics.
Interestingly, the interaction between the kinship studies and studies of genetics is two way, both impact each other on diverse lines, especially in the context of the cosmopolitan network of ethnic and cultural differences and how these diverse arrangements impact the study of everyday genetics. The authors argue that the kinship has been medicalized through geneticization and how it has changed the way families perceive their kinship. Notwithstanding, which brings us to the concept of the risks associated with the genetic disorder which they have talked in detail. Borrowing from the Kant to Ewald, to Foucault, they conceptualized the meaning of risk which they have further explained in later chapters when they talk about mutual surveillance and encountering risks.
Based on these, they account to us the sites of kinship and genetics, their methodology, i.e. they have conducted their research by observation of the work of a medical genetics clinic, home visits by professional practitioners and interviewing members of families who were followed up after their clinic consultations. Through such methods, they have tried to build a point of convergence between the everyday experience and medical work and the research activities of the social scientists.
Complexities of Risks: Constructing Kinship through Expert Knowledge of Clinical staffs and lay knowledge of Family beliefs
What do we inherit, how and why? What does it mean to accept, love and belong, what shapes our selfhood? These are the questions which actually gives meaning to the frail identities of our family and kinship. In this book, the author looks into these questions through the lens of the medical staffs through drawing pedigrees, conducting genetic tests and from the stories of the beliefs of the individuals (probands) and their families which they termed as lay beliefs. According to the authors, the knowledge formed from the lay beliefs is, “dialectically produced as a consequence of a sustained engagement with the clinical domain where biomedical ideas of relatedness and inheritance penetrate other (non-biomedical) models of relatedness.” And studying these demands an understanding of inheritance, the routes of transmission, the blood, the substance, where the whole idea of blood demands a cross-cultural resonance where it varies and has a certain similarity across the globe. In India, while the blood is associated with purity and pollution, in South Wales, they talk of bad blood and good blood in terms of the diseases associated with the blood which often lead to the blame, mutual surveillance, and a range of practical and ethical issues. These are mainly related to the disclosure of the information to the kindred group and risks associated with it, where risks could be physical and emotional both. It could also be the risks associated with future, the fate of the upcoming generations, the extent to which they impact and finding ways to lessen and avoid it through changes in lifestyle etc.
The book doesn’t limit to the mutual surveillance, it discusses at great length the whole concept of the surveillance and self-surveillance. The authors describe the lay beliefs of inheritance and how the specific genetic conditions lead to the surveillance of one’s self and other family members. And how family members seek for the patterns within their kinship (past, contemporary and future generations) and identifying the certain members as the carriers of the condition, around which blame, diverse narratives are underplayed and how families become sites of mutual surveillance.
Practical Ethics: a Case study of a family affected by the degenerative condition
While all of the above mention concepts are important, the authors describe us with a case study incorporating all the concepts we have discussed before. They argue how surveillance is linked to beliefs about who is at risk of developing or transmitting a condition and how it can affect decisions about the disclosure of the information about who and when. Followed by the case study of the Veronica, and others with a mitochondrial disorder, they explain the intricacies involving the complex issues faced by the individuals at risk drawing upon the practical ethics and practical psychology and practical kinship. It is not always the straight affair, there are so many essentials involved like the one who is at risk of developing the genetic disease, the reasons for her to develop that disease, and whom to disclose that genetic information, and how to disclose, when and what and which ways. But what was really interesting the way they took one extended kindred and tried to make an ethnographical account of their everyday beliefs about inheritance, their process of surveillance and their appropriate approaches to disclosure which they called practical and ethical approaches.
The book concludes with the reflection on the clinical practice, and how the new biomedical knowledge is transforming the ordinary social actors and their social actions, how they understand themselves and their bodies, their potential risks and their relationships. In this, the author argues about the way the genetics influence the other aspects of our everyday lives (the politics, class, region, nation, and race) through the notions of pedigree and inheritance. Also, how it impacts the social policies, but here, they did not discuss in detail, how the genetics shape the political identity of the individual, how the technologies around kinship, impacts the discourse about race? How much is the linearity and how much is the cross-cultural inclusion of the kinship studies through the medical anthropology. These are few of the unanswered questions which authors could have looked into much detail. Since they have focused on only specific aspects which they have reiterated also for more than once, however, the inclusion of the ambivalence of race, caste, class, and makings sense of political identity could have brought a very interesting argument and diversity to the whole thesis.
I liked the way the book has been structured, the theoretical introduction to set the ground for the empirical investigation and then bringing the methodologies and ethnographies in account to elaborate the whole picture of the argument. The best part was the fine and careful details from the ethnographic account. It was enough to substantiate the whole argument and theorize and comprehend the outcomes of those empirical inquiries. I also liked the way they have balanced the approach, it was not very theoretical, nor it was very empirical and they have included sociological perspective and medical genetics perspective in a balanced way. They have also reiterated the emphasis on their methods to avoid the misunderstanding of biological determinism. They keep on reminding us throughout the book, that the biology is social and cultural and vary cross-culturally. No doubt, I have enjoyed reading the book and it would be a good inclusion in the subsets of medical anthropological studies and also for the students like me who are interested in genetics to understand the nature-culture aspects. Since they accept the cross-cultural variations but they didn’t bring any comparative study from the different culture, it would have been very useful if they had brought out the comparative perspective. Because for a student like me, who have been taught to understand kinship studies in comparative perspective, and which has been emphasized by Srinivas also, it would have provided me with a broad understanding on writing and doing ethnographic investigation through the diverse lens.