The movement of racial ideas through time and technology: The case of Malaysia

Sandra Manickam (Erasmus University Rotterdam)

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, novel ways of measuring human beings were brought from Europe to the colonized world. Anthropologists, medical practitioners and government officials employed what was then cutting-edge technology such as anthropometrics, the study of humans through measuring their physical characteristics, in order to learn more about the differences between “civilized” and “primitive” peoples, to find scientific bases for that difference, and to feed that produced knowledge back into racial science in Europe and colonial government locally. However, the periphery was never just a laboratory which did not effect the production of knowledge on race. Knowledge on race was formed through interactions with local intermediaries and knowledge, by absorbing of colonial social norms and was shaped by its reliance on institutional support for the production of that knowledge.  

Through time, the technological capacity for studying humans has evolved along with its rationale. Within biomedicine, studying human difference is frequently used to explore contrasting susceptibility to disease with the long-term goal of better and more inclusive treatments. Humans might no longer be studied today under simplistic notions of bounded biological groups known as races in the nineteenth century, but an idea of inherent and bounded biological difference persists in research that focuses on people according to “populations”, “ethnicities”, or “continents of origin”, particularly in interpreting genome-wide association studies which try to identify genetic markers that link to specific diseases within a large number of genomes. How do these earlier ideas of race shape the questions asked from data produced through new technologies that allow the sequencing of the entire genome? What role do the specific circumstances of post-colonial states like Malaysia, whose laws and social fabric are based on a legal acknowledgement of “racial groups”, and the international community of genomics research play in the production and analysis of this new data on human difference? This talk brings together some initial findings based on research into the local and international dimensions of race and genomics.