Catherine Bliss’ Race Decoded

Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice

by Catherine Bliss

Stanford University Press, 2012. 280 pp., US$24.95 (paperback)


In Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice, Catherine Bliss explores how arguments against biological race after the discovery of the genome eventually fell back upon older discourses of racial difference. In her book, Bliss “…analyzes genomics’ rapid shift from a science uninterested in race to one devoted to its understanding” (2). The author situates her engagement in a political economy of scientific knowledge production and its intersections with larger systems of racial inequality. Despite initial declarations from the National Human Genome Center that race has no biological basis in fact, Bliss questions why racial biology persists and why scientists’ continue to work within its categorical confines.  She extends her inquiry to the effect of discourses about racial biology and the application of the resultant research in the social and scientific realms (4).

Bliss’ research methodology examined  “the views and habits of” of what she terms “the genomic professional elite,” to create a frame for analyzing group epistemes animating the shift toward racialized genomics. She triangulated interviews from this group with others conducted among critics and policymakers, as well as participant observation and archival work. Using Weber, Merton, and Rabinow, Bliss argues for an interrogation of racial science as an interpretive project rooted in the pragmatics of normative structures that ascribe value and biosocialize difference.

Bliss locates in the “genomic racial expert” the embodiment of this biosocialized difference, whom she calls “the biosocial scientist par excellence.” He/she conducts research in and attracts funding for, genomics projects targeting health disparities in minority communities while actively seeking to reshape social attitudes about racial difference. The biosocial scientist is an ethical researcher working toward universal justice while co-constructing the contours of racial difference. Bliss sees this as a project in accumulating social and material capital that ostensibly reconfigures notions of race within and without the research field (13).

In following the development of these new forms of knowledge, research pragmatics, and embodied expertise, Bliss divides her book into seven chapters. Chapter One examines the history of racial categories used in scientific research and the ways they have informed genomics. Chapter Two explores how and when racial categorization became normalized in genomics research. Chapter Three links these new research norms with public conversations enabling genomics’ ascension as the new racial science. Chapter Four examines subjective researcher attitudes and experiences about race, while Chapter Five explores their translation in the laboratory. Chapter Six engages the ways the biosocial scientist/genomic racial expert has come to argue for genomics as the field best suited to arbiter questions of racial difference. Returning to her concern with the political economy of knowledge production about race, Bliss concludes by seeking to contextualize racialism and biosocial expertise within normative structures of power in science and politics.

In this ambitious undertaking, Bliss expertly navigates these themes in her seven chapters. Linking NIH mandated reporting of genomic data through racial categories with the mobilization of research funding in authorizing new forms of research inclusion and participation, Bliss illustrates how actors such as the Black Medical Association were enrolled in projects of subsequently dubious value, such as the endorsement of BiDil for use among African Americans. She attributes this research expansion to the redefinition and revitalization of notions of “diversity” as a contested biological and political resource.

Bliss seeks to disentangle older discourses and research rationales based on phenotype from newer genomic articulations of difference and belonging. This, while genomics experts from traditionally under-represented groups argue for research conscious of older phenotypical groupings, which they see as vital matters in ongoing struggles for social and medical justice. Therefore, she finds in the genomic racial expert a personal ethos rooted in both biology and history that informs a research activism mediated between expertise and social justice.

I assigned the book as one of two main texts for the upper-division “(Con)Sequential Genealogies of Difference: Anthropology and Genomics” course I taught at UC Berkeley in Spring 2013. Bliss’ work provided an excellent teaching opportunity to explore the jagged edges between STS and anthropology, as well as between historiography and ethnography. In that respect, the book served to stimulate lively classroom debate about the epistemic and methodological orientations shaping different disciplinary narratives of the technoscientific field.

Given its broad interdisciplinary scope, I would recommend “Race Decoded: The Genomic Fight for Social Justice” to students in the social sciences, public health, the medical humanities, and critical race studies.


James Battle is a University of California President’s Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. He is currently working on a book manuscript examining genomic “Africa” and its intersections with older parallel discourses about race and gender in anthropology and sociology. His larger research concern focuses on how categories mobilize differential practices, resources, and forms of care.