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FRIAS Project Group: Roma, A Genetically Isolated Population?!

Since 100 years, Roma have been a prominent example for "isolated populations" in human population genetics. Dozens of studies have explored the genetic structure and history of the so called Roma population. The aim of this interdisciplinary project is to analyse selected genetic studies of Roma with regard to their overall design (sampling strategies, data analysis, interpretation), their underlying assumptions, their ethical and societal implications and their impact in the public sphere. Our team brings together researchers from the life sciences, mathematics, medicine and the humanities for exploring alternative ways of approaching and interpreting Romarelated genetic data. This critical but constructive project aims to make a significant contribution to the debate on "genetically isolated" human populations, as well as to the multidisciplinary debate about the ethnic categories in biomedicine and the resulting problematic reifications of vulnerable populations.

Organisers of the Project Group

DFG-funded Research Project: The Genetic Construction of Roma Groupness and its Interdisciplinary Entanglements

Prof. Dr. Veronika Lipphardt, Dr. Mihai Surdu

The project aims at a constructive dialogue with scientists on current genetic research on Roma in its historical context. It assesses the conceptual premises, sampling strategies and interdisciplinary methodologies of genetic studies on Roma. Those studies rely on sampling practices, classifications and narrations of endogamy, partly created in the social sciences and humanities.

Since 1921, Roma have been addressed in ca. 200 genetic publications. Neglecting anthropometry after WWII, researchers adopted genetic methods to investigate Roma, such as serology and protein analysis, family pedigrees, and later, DNA analysis. Currently, geneticists agree on the evolutionary coherence of Roma, their endogamy and genetic-reproductive isolation, and India as their place of origin. Controversy prevails in the social sciences and humanities: Researchers either reject or agree on essentialist notions of Roma groupness.

The project analyses mutual borrowings and collaborations of geneticists with social scientists. We employ methods from history of science, science studies, and social anthropology. The project heightens the sensitivity for issues of categorization across scienti­fic and political fields; it highlights ethical and social implications of genetic research and integrates both geneticists and Roma activists in the discussion.

Prof. Veronika Lipphardt is a trained biologist and historian and has worked on the history of human population genetics in the 20th century.

Dr. Mihai Surdu is a sociologist with academic and policy relevant experience. He worked as a consultant for non-governmental and international organizations addressing Roma inclusion. His recent book with CEU Press analyses the expert discourse on Roma and its consequences.


Current Research – Dr. Nicholas Buchanan

Dr. Nicholas Buchanan's current research focuses on the tensions between genomic identity and genetic disease, as well as the negotiations over expertise between people with genetic conditions, caregivers, doctors, and scientists. A second, parallel, research project explores the relationship between environmental politics and environmental modeling.


PhD Research Project: Anthropology and Metric Ancestry Estimation. A Critical Examination of FORDISC and CRANID

Sarah Fründt

This project takes the on-going debate on the existence or non-existence of race in the disciplines of forensic and physical anthropology as a starting point. It seeks to understand how this debate has informed practices of ancestry estimation in the anthropological disciplines and what role it played in the emergence of concepts such as 'social race' or 'geographic/biological ancestry'.

A research focus will be placed on two computer programmes (FORDISC and CRANID), which were developed in the 1990s to support and simplify the estimation of ancestry from the human skull. These programmes serve as an ideal point of departure as they form prime condensation points for the debate: while both their underlying principles and the usefulness of their results have been questioned, they are also used and supported by many anthropologists around the world and are employed in various contexts (such as forensics, archaeology, or repatriation).

This research will look at the social, political, and historical contexts in which these tools were developed and are used today and the role of ancestry estimation in anthropology more broadly. It thus seeks to add to the understanding of the relationship between social and scientific debate and technological development as well as of the relationship between science and society more general.