Scientific and Lifeworld Concepts of Heredity

(Last modified 2000)

In recent years, both academic journals and the mass media have been quick to publicize reports on each newly discovered gene, such as those allegedly leading to obesity or homosexuality. Equally newsworthy is the deployment of new diagnostic procedures which supposedly reveal which individuals are more likely to develop breast cancer or other severe diseases in the course of their lives. As the decoding of the human genome progresses, statements about inherited variations are increasingly perceived as determining an individual's future health, career possibilities, or even social position.

One factor which will presumably play a significant role in shaping the reactions of individuals and societies faced with the expanding possibilities of genetic diagnosis and intervention is the way in which the biomedical theories and the expanding agenda of the new genetics coincide with or diverge from popular concepts of heredity. To date, most of the (as yet quite limited) research touching on this question has portrayed such lay notions as deficient genetic knowledge and the frequent cause of laypeople's unwarranted skepticism towards new genetic diagnostic procedures.

In contrast to this deficit model, the assumption behind this project is that both lay and professional discourses on heredity are culturally-shaped and negotiated forms of creating meaning which are influenced by some of the same social interactions and interpretations. Neither discourse can be adequately characterized as based exclusively on scientific facts or the product of mere misinformation and superstition. The aim of this research project is to uncover similarities and differences in genetics discourses and their conceivable consequences for practical action through the analysis of popular and scientific texts and interviews with laypeople. The exploration of laypeople's concepts of genetics will, it is hoped, throw light on the meaning attributed to heredity with regard to an individual's identity, experience of and explanations for illness and behavior, or his/her understanding of kinship and social relations. The stories told by people from a range of regional and social origins may also reveal whether the often postulated »genetification« of society has left its traces in the self-images and explanatory models of those who may soon become the clients of the new genetics.

(completed in December 2000; the project will be continued outside of the Institute)