About the project


Ethnicity, Citizenship, Family: Identity after the Human Genome is a a multi-center research project funded by a grant from the National Institutes of Health. This project, which began in the fall of 2000, addresses the following central question: How might new ways of mapping genetic variation change the way that an individual or a group conceptualizes its identity?

Historically, a person's genetic constitution has played an important role in the construction of various political structures, many of which are still in place. The one-drop rule in the Jim Crow South; the fact that many countries still base citizenship on "blood"; the issue of who is allowed membership in tribal bands of aboriginal peoples; who is allowed access to affirmative action: all these questions have been subject to a kind of informal genetic assessment, which new techniques of gene mapping have the potential to alter, undermine or reinforce.

Gene mapping also has the potential to alter conceptions of identity beyond the political. It might alter conceptions of ethnic identity (who counts as African American or American Indian) or religious identity (who counts as Jewish) or family identity (who counts as a legitimate descendant of Thomas Jefferson). These aspects of identity may overlap in complicated ways, and genetics is clearly only one part of a complex mix.

But there is obvious potential for conflict when new knowledge of genetic markers contradict other markers of group membership, such as a shared culture, religious belief, or historical narrative. Is a person any more authentic a Jew, a Cherokee or a Jefferson if his or her identity is corroborated by a genetic marker? If not, then what role should genetics play in the construction of ethnic, national or family identity?

For further information, please read the project's original NIH grant proposal, which provides a more detailed account of the project's background and goals. This proposal is available in two formats:


The Genetics and Identity Group brings together notable scholars from genetics, philosophy, medicine, law, religious studies, sociology, cultural anthropology, and history, as well as scholars whose work is intimately tied to questions of race and ethnicity, such as those working in African-American Studies, Jewish Studies, and Native American Studies.

A full list of group members, with brief biosketches, is available here (opens new browser window).

The group's leaders are:

  • Carl Elliott, M.D., Ph.D. (University of Minnesota, Center for Bioethics), principal investigator
  • Laurie Zoloth, Ph.D. (San Francisco State University), co-investigator
  • Paul Brodwin, Ph.D. (University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee), co-investigator