ELSIcon2022 • Paper • June 1, 2022
Anna Lewis, Bege Dauda, Santiago Molina
As the ways in which race is used in biomedicine have come under scrutiny, including for contribution to race-based health disparities, genetic ancestry is increasingly appealed to as the legitimate way to understand human biological difference. The stakes are hence high to ensure that concepts originating in genetics do not result in repetition of past mistakes stemming from the categorization of humans into a small number of biological types. Complicating matters, genetics is a field that sits at the intersection of multiple disciplines; researchers across these multiple disciplines all employ the concept of “ancestry”. Here we present results from a qualitative literature analysis of articles (N=212) that employ ancestry as a concept, and of semi-structured interviews (N=44) with a subsample of the authors from these articles. We present a typology for what researchers mean when they refer to ancestry, demonstrating a high degree of heterogeneity not only across but also within disciplines. We hence identify some of the most common sources of confusion in the deployment of ancestry and related concepts. We also synthesize the diverse ways in which researchers use the concept of ancestry, and how they operationalize the concept of ancestry through these use cases. We demonstrate that ethical arguments are often presented in conjunction with the deployment of ancestry. Through this descriptive analysis we lay the groundwork needed for normative recommendations on how ancestry and genetic ancestry should be used across the broad range of disciplines that draw on these concepts.