In the Journals

Special Issue: Sensing Race as a Ghost Variable in Science, Technology, and Medicine

The journal Science, Technology, and Human Values has released a special issue edited by Katrina Karkazis and Rebecca Jordan-Young that highlights the invisibility of race in different techno-scientific arenas.

Introduction: Sensing Race as a Ghost Variable in Science, Technology, and Medicine

Katrina Karkazis, Rebecca Jordan-Young

Ghost variables are variables in program languages that do not correspond to physical entities. This special issue, based on a panel on “Race as a Ghost Variable” at the 2017 Meeting of the Society for Social Studies of Science, traces ideas of “race” in particular niches of science, technology, and medicine where it is submerged and disavowed, yet wields power. Each paper is a case study exploring ghosts that emerge through the resonance among things as heterogeneous as hair patterns, hormone levels, food tastes, drug use, clinic locations, proximity to disaster, job classifications, and social belonging and suspicion, all of which vibrate with meanings accumulated over long racial histories. Together, the papers further elaborate methods and analytic models for identifying the operations of race—the relations and processes that make it, the effects that it has. A chief appeal of the metaphor of the ghost is that it brings the importance of history to the fore. Ghosts are simultaneously history and the present, not just an accretion of earlier experiences, but the palimpsest left when one tries to erase them. Sometimes faint and hard to discern, sometimes rambunctious and disruptive, ghosts refuse our attempts to simply move on.

Hair, Hormones, and Haunting: Race as a Ghost Variable in Polycystic Ovary Syndrome

Elizabeth Carlin, Brandon Kramer

In this paper, we examine how polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) is racialized in biomedical research. Drawing from Star’s seminal concept of triangulation, we analyze how the diagnostic criteria for PCOS combine two different biomarkers: body hair and testosterone. Hair and hormones are both haunted by their use in eugenic research, and as clinical measures, they can carry forward powerful narratives of biological difference. PCOS researchers circulate strong claims about racial difference in hirsutism (“male-pattern” hair growth in women) as if they were established knowledge, sometimes calling for race-specific diagnostic thresholds. Tracing the links between (1) race and hirsutism, (2) hirsutism and testosterone, and (3) testosterone and race, we find that these connections are all conceptualized in ambiguous and inconsistent ways. Through triangulation, the uncertainty clouding each link is mitigated by the apparent strength of the chain as a whole. The logic linking race to disease is attenuated, allowing race to persist as a ghost variable. As PCOS is increasingly reframed as a risk factor for other conditions, racial stratification is submerged, implicit but actionable, at every stage of the life course cascade of risk.

The Trouble with Race in Forensic Identification (open access)

Amade M’charek, Victor Toom, Lisette Jong

The capacity of contemporary forensic genetics has rendered “race” into an interesting tool to produce clues about the identity of an unknown suspect. Whereas the conventional use of DNA profiling was primarily aimed at the individual suspect, more recently a shift of interest in forensic genetics has taken place, in which the populationand the family to whom an unknown suspect allegedly belongs, has moved center stage. Making inferences about the phenotype or the family relations of this unknown suspect produces suspect populations and families. We discuss the criminal investigation following the Marianne Vaatstra murder case in the Netherlands and the use of forensic (genetic) technologies therein. It is in many ways an interesting case, but in this paper, we focus on how race surfaced in science and society. We show that race materializes neither in the technologies used nor in the bodies at stake. Rather, race emerges through a material semiotic relation that surfaces in the translation that occurs as humans and things move across sites. We argue that race is enacted, firstly, in the context of legislation as biology reduced to bodily characteristics; secondly, in the forensic analyses as patterns of absent presence; and, thirdly, in society as a process of phenotypic othering.

(De)Racializing Refugee Medicine

Michelle Munyikwa

Based on ethnographic research within refugee-serving institutions in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (USA), this paper examines the relationship between physicians and the knowledge they produce and consume about caring for refugees from around the world. I explore the “seething presence” of race in refugee medicine, a domain of medical practice whose entanglement with racial ideology and practice has been underexamined. I consider how knowledge about refugees from different groups—whether racially laden designations like “Asian” or “African” or national markers like Congolese or Burmese—circulates in clinical spaces as health-care teams diagnose and treat refugees using standards of “evidence-based” medicine. Assessing the primary literatures that refugee health-care providers use to justify varying care plans, I argue that race, while often unmentioned, structures the practice of refugee medicine. Additionally, the implicit use of race as an analytic, not racism or economic injustice, often disguises the impact of structural racism and inequality in refugee health disparities. I end with some reflections on how we might conduct a more just practice of refugee health care—and by extension, health care more generally—by shifting our gaze from the particularities of seemingly obvious cultural difference to social structure.

Race as a Ghost Variable in (White) Opioid Research

Helena Hansen, Caroline Parker, Jules Netherland

This paper traces the unspoken, implicit white racial logic of the brain disease model of addiction, which is based on seemingly universal, disembodied brains devoid of social or environmental influences. In the United States, this implicit white logic led to “context-free” neuroscience that made the social hierarchies of addiction and its consequences invisible to, and thus exacerbated by, national policies on opioids. The brain disease model of addiction was selectively deployed among the white middle-class population that had long accessed narcotics and pharmaceutical treatments for narcotics disorders from biomedical clinics, as opposed to from illegal sources subject to law enforcement. In turn, new treatments for opioid addiction were racially marketed to the same white clientele to which newly patented opioid analgesics were marketed, tapping into a circumscribed but highly lucrative consumer base that has long benefited from a legally protected, racially segregated safe space for white narcotics consumption. The connecting thread for the contemporary white opioid “crisis,” therefore, is white race as a ghost variable in addiction neuroscience and in its pharmaceutical and biotechnological translation.

Race in the Microbiome

Amber Benezra

Microbiome science asserts humans are made up of more microbial cells and genes than human ones, and that each person harbors their own unique microbial population. Human microbiome studies gesture toward the post-racial aspirations of personalized medicine—characterizing states of human health and illness microbially. By viewing humans as “supraorganisms” made up of millions of microbial partners, some microbiome science seems to disrupt binding historical categories often grounded in racist biology, allowing interspeciality to supersede race. But inevitably, unexamined categories of race and ethnicity surface in a myriad of studies on microbiota. This paper approaches race as a ghost variable across microbiome research and asks, what is race doing in studies of the microbiome? Why is it there, and how is it functioning? I examine this research to argue that social scientists must work with biological scientists to help put microbial differences into perspective—to investigate how microbiomes and race are entangled embodiments of the social, environmental, and biological. Ultimately, transdisciplinary collaboration is required to address racial health disparities in microbiome research without reifying race as a straightforward biological or social designation.

Bored Techies Being Casually Racist: Race as Algorithm

Sareeta Amrute

Connecting corporate software work in the United States and Germany, this essay tracks the racialization of mostly male Indian software engineers through the casualization of their labor. In doing so, I show the connections between overt, anti-immigrant violence today and the ongoing use of race to sediment divisions of labor in the industry as a whole. To explain racialization in the tech industry, I develop the concept of race-as-algorithm as a device to unpack how race is made productive within digital economies and to show the flexibility of race as it works to create orders of classification that are sensitive to context. Using evidence collected through observation in tech offices and through interviews with programmers over five years, I track race as an essential but continually disavowed variable within the construction of global tech economies. Historical racializations of casual labor in plantation economies illuminates how casualness marks laborers whose rights can be muted and allows corporations to deny their culpability in promoting discrimination within and outside of the tech industry. These denials occur across a political field that divides “good” from “bad” migrants. Using the ethnographic symptoms that Indian tech workers identify in their environments, this essay reads these signs as an antidote to these continued denials.

Postcarbon Amnesia: Toward a Recognition of Racial Grief in Renewable Energy Futures

Myles Lennon

Climate justice activists envision a “postcarbon” future that not only transforms energy infrastructures but also redresses the fossil fuel economy’s long-standing racial inequalities. Yet this anti-racist rebranding of the “zero emissions” telos does not tend to the racial grief that’s foundational to white supremacy. Accordingly, I ask: can we address racial oppression through a “just transition” to a “postcarbon” moment? In response, I connect today’s postcarbon imaginary with yesterday’s postcolonial imaginary. Drawing from research on US-based climate activism, I explore how the utopic rhetoric of a “just transition” is instantiated in practice. I argue that the racialized absences constitutive of what scholars call “postcolonial amnesia” are operative in the anti-racist move to a postcarbon moment. This postcarbon imaginary formulates the vulnerability of people of color to biophysical disasters as the raison d’être for infrastructural transformation. This, I argue, has the effect of overlooking the ways in which racial grief inheres in such vulnerability and the capacity of energy infrastructures to uphold racist hierarchies. I situate this “postcarbon amnesia” in Anne Cheng’s framework for differentiating “grief” from “grievance,” calling for renewable energy transitions that move away from enumerative grievances and toward a sobering recognition of racial grief.


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