Monthly Archives: October 2017

Population genetics and the making of genetic belonging

Genetic roots are not discovered, they are made. This is the central argument of my book Population Genetics and Belonging, recently published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book is the final outcome of my postdoc project (2011-2016), funded by the Academy of Finland and Kone Foundation, which set out to explore how population genetics has changed ideas of nation, national origins and destinies, and structures of belonging. I had the privilege to finish the book in the interdisciplinary research community of the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies.

Population geneticists study genetic differences within and between populations. Such differences are often invisible, that is, they are molecular variation that doesn’t direct visible physiological characteristics. My project started with a simple observation: population genetics has refashioned the relations between populations in ways that don’t match the idea of nations as clearly defined entities – patterns of genetic variation don’t follow national borders. Yet the ways in which population genetics reached into the past beyond the historical roots of nation-states clearly appealed to those wishing to imagine nations as foundational units of social existence. Understanding this contradiction was the initial motivation for my project: How do national narratives establish nations as rooted in foundational moments of human evolutionary history without ending up dismissing the nation as a recent historical development?

In the course of the project, and through various intellectual detours and dead ends, this question began to take a new shape. While population genetics indeed provided a narrative resource for national imaginaries (which structure enterprises such as national genomic initiatives), it also acted as an important narrative resource for other forms of belonging, such as regional, continental, ethnic and personal belonging.

My book explores tensions and resonances between these alternative forms of belonging. It argues that what makes population genetics appealing is precisely the ambiguity of genetic belonging. This ambiguity arises from the relationality of population genetic knowledge. In population genetics, sameness and difference are not fixed. Sameness and difference are produced through technological choices (such as the use of mitochondrial, Y-chromosome or genome-wide techniques), methodological decisions (such as genetic markers chosen for analysis), and points of comparison (such as genetic databases or cell lines available for analysis).

Population Genetics and Belonging traces how this relationality enables population genetics to become entangled with discourses and practices of national, regional, ethnic and personal belonging from the late 1980s until today. The book focuses on selected case studies, including the theory of Mitochondrial Eve (the most recent common maternal ancestor) in the late 1980s and Y-Chromosome Adam (the most recent common paternal ancestor) in the mid-1990s; the use of DNA analysis in the study of two ancient human remains known as Kennewick Man and Cheddar Man; the ontological multiplicity of roots in commercial genetic ancestry tests; tensions between national and continental genetic belonging in the case of “Finnish genes”; and the uses of genetic ancestry in debates about immigration in contemporary societies. Throughout the book, I argue that the alternative forms of belonging that population genetics has engendered are entangled with ideas of gender, sexuality, race and class, and that the affective structures of genetic belonging reflect those intersecting differences.

I hope that the book helps us make some sense of the complex political, social and cultural implications of population genetic knowledges in contemporary societies.

Link to the book:


Venla Oikkonen


Venla Oikkonen (PhD in Gender Studies, 2010) is Research Fellow at the Helsinki Collegium for Advanced Studies. Her research interests include evolution, genetics, vaccine debates, epidemics, affect and intersectionality. Her first book Gender, Sexuality and Reproduction in Evolutionary Narratives was published by Routledge in 2013.