This line of research explores the ways in which the influence of racial idioms persists in scientific contexts, being more or less informed by wider social, political or economic processes. Contemporary biomolecular research, artificial reproduction techniques, genetic genealogical studies, biobanking, biotech products, public health research and policy-making, and sociological research are instances where we can find the presence of conceptualizations of human difference. In each of these, the idioms of race and ethnicity are consistently used for bounding human diversity and conforming it to particular needs and understandings, making it comprehensible, scrutinized, regulated, or marketed. Within the fields of scientific practice that intersect or coalesce across some of these domains, working along the racial idiom and through categories of differentiation produces a systematic contribution to the remaking of an arena of discourse and knowledge that maintains and domesticates the perception of human populations variability within the scope of scientific reasoning, redelivering, once again, those imaginaries of difference to the spheres of identity, politics and market economy that first gave them wide currency.
Biological collections used in medical research are becoming a common tool to address the question of human diversity. Racial idioms are being reconfigured in the emergence of a new biopolitical context informed by a molecular concept of life and the “new genetics” sciences. Through the study of biomedical research practices performed around collections of human tissues, a privileged insight is taken on how human biological diversity is being recreated in scientific contexts. Concepts such as those of “race” and “ethnicity” are still being taken to address the question of human difference and population variability, thus simplifying at the level of racial classification a well-known presence of complex biological and genetic variation. As an alias of individual identity, a few categories of difference are taken to address the pragmatic needs of research in working through artificially homogenous populations. The fundamental questions remain such as what do these «race» and «ethnic» notions hold in the scientific inquiries, and how can we understand their use, as concepts of human variability, in contemporary research and scientific led innovations and policies?
The question that drives my research on the history of race and ethnicity in Latin America is: How is racial hierarchy, and the discrimination that typically accompanies it, maintained in intellectual systems that explicitly reject that concept? Considering the answer to this question allows me to reflect on a number of issues that not only resonate with different fields such as the history of science and medicine, religious studies, critical race theory, and Global South studies, it also helps to contextualize how racism continues to have relevance in modern democratic nations who celebrate and actively try to support multiculturalism in the abstract but often fail to properly execute these aims. As a member of the Colour of Labour project, I have addressed this question by examining the development of eugenics and racial theory in early-twentieth-century Chile. Chile is an especially good site to study the ideological tension in Latin American ideas regarding eugenic theory’s preference for hierarchy on the one hand and the supposed tolerance of racial fluidity on the other. Chilean eugenicists were committed to contrasting their racial lineage to the rest of Latin America by claiming racial superiority due to widespread racial homogeneity. My book, The Religion of Life, and a number of recent articles illustrate how Chilean eugenic concepts of racial plasticity, popular throughout the region, still relied on racial hierarchy as a fact of nature. And indeed regional preference to discuss a nation’s racial homogeneity functioned much like white supremacy in other contexts.
Moreira, Ricardo. 2018. “Time and politics in the scientific ice age.” Social Anthropology 26(4): 570-573.
Walsh, Sarah. 2018. “The executioner’s shadow: Coerced sterilization and the creation of ‘Latin’ eugenics in Chile.”History of Science April: 1–23
Conferences and seminars
Moreira, Ricardo Gomes. “Genetic Temporalities: history and narrative in the production of imaginaries of belonging and biological diversity“, paper presentation, Panel 176 “Engaged anthropology at times of nationalistic enhancement in the XX century”, 16th EASA Biennial Conference, 23 July 2020