From Calipers to Sequencers

This study explores how physical anthropology and human genetic variation research have influenced the construction of racial and national identity in Greece from the 1950s and on.

About the project

From its establishment in the late-19th century, Greek physical anthropology strove to answer the question of the origins of Greek populations in line with the dominant view of a lineal continuity between ancient and modern Greeks. During the following decades, and as the overarching questions and aims remained relatively unchanged, new research settings emerged.

By discussing shifts in scientific narratives and methods, along with changing institutional settings, political ideologies and cultural understandings, the research emphasizes the close entanglement between science, the public and the state in the conceptualization of race and ethnicity in Greece.

Background

The current project builds upon my PhD research, which explored the emergence of Greek physical anthropology in late 19th century, the efforts of physical anthropologists to reformulate –and disseminate- scientific theories of race, as well as how these worked as new devices to substantiate the national ideology of a lineal (or biological) continuity between ancient and modern Greeks.

Set against a backdrop of immense political instability and ideological struggle, my research underscored the importance of simultaneously considering the interactions between scientific and societal processes, and the effects of historical circumstance, and national and international context in the formation of racial thought.

The study draws on recent work in the historiography of physical anthropology, which emphasizes how research on human diversity has been inextricably intertwined with political, ethical and normative questions and looks at different national contexts to uncover both points of convergence and divergence. In line with this research, my project does not reiterate a simplistic constructivist account, which understands either the old racial categories or the new genetic data as mere projections of social/political influences. Symmetrically, the project does not succumb to an unproblematic acceptance of scientific results as objective, value-free natural representations.

Instead, it takes the issue of the interactions between scientific and societal processes very seriously, and is largely influenced by the synthesis of intellectual, cultural and social historiographical approaches. Hence, it is inclusive of the voices and perspectives of historical actors, but also highlights the mixture of institutional, research and professional practices and the effects of historical circumstance and local context in the formation of ideas about human biological variation.

Objectives

By contributing a longue durée history of the development of physical anthropology studies in Greece, the project does not simply aim to provide a case study from a national context, which indeed is only sparingly considered from a history of science perspective, but will engage with a set of issues lying at the heart of current academic discussions.

One such question has to do with the relationship between physical/biological anthropology and cultural anthropology or ethnography. For example, my research will discuss how the complete separation of physical and social anthropology influenced the research practices, questions, affiliations and development of both disciplines.

The project will also contribute to the discussion about the importance of international disciplinary affiliations for small communities of researchers and how these often shape research practices and aims. But it will go even further to suggest that such relationships may equally importantly influence institutional changes and how successfully a scientific discipline manages to penetrate social and political life.

A number of recent studies in the history of physical anthropology have also emphasized the complexities associated with the work of anthropologists on the classifications of minorities and the interactions of such classifications with cultural and political discourses. By turning to the case of the Muslim minority in Thrace, my research will help throw comparative light on cases like the Ainu people of Japan or the Sami Scandinavians, especially by showing how research in the humanities has begun to challenge the construction of national time as a whole.

Last and certainly not least, by bringing the Greek case closer to the Scandinavian, and especially Norwegian, academic community and public, new and exciting possibilities for comparative research emerge as up to now such research has been confined to geographically related regions. Indeed, the very few studies that have discussed physical anthropology in Greece have done so either in the context of South-Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean.

However, in light of the above, there are at least three challenging lines of comparison with the Scandinavian case, which are associated with:

a) the key role of physical anthropology in building notions of nationhood and thus appropriating, interpreting or even combining significant pasts,

b) the question of how the relatively small national communities of physical anthropologists received and dealt with influences from the broader international disciplinary community, while at the same engaged in crucial dialogue with history, archaeology, linguistics and literary studies within the national scientific community, and relatedly

c) how human biological variation research has been associated with debates over conceptualizations of ethnic or religious minorities and their relationship to national, political and cultural narratives.

Financing

Norwegian Research Council’s SAMKUL-program (Cultural conditions underlying social change).

Cooperation

This is a subproject of the project From racial typology to DNA sequencing

Start - Finish

2014 - 2017

Published Sep. 29, 2014 12:42 PM - Last modified Oct. 2, 2014 1:19 PM