Am I being socially-responsible?

I received an email I found alarming last weekend. I knew when I began my research that I was touching upon very charged topics. My aim was, and has always been, to try and look at how contemporary genetics research does/might engage with notions of equity in a country that divides its citizens along race and class lines. The email lauded me for my work on ‘intelligence research’ and asked whether I felt at any point I might become ‘another Charles Murray.’

Reading that email I was horrified–is my work being interpreted this way? Would some accuse me of being racist? Ignorant? Or, an enabler?

When I began this project, I found that the only way I could get behavior genetics researchers to talk to me was if I had a thorough understanding of the field, the terminology, their methods, and research findings. Granted, there may have been times that I was used as a pawn to help some researchers promote their progressiveness or openness to discussion; as a person of color I know that there are those who want to be seen talking with me about these charged concepts so as to make themselves look not racist.

At the beginning of my career, I was more naive about this and looking back there are instances in which I should have been more perceptive in the moment. In a previous blog post I talked about who I do my work for, who inspired me to transition from medical anthropology to the sociology of education. If there are those who think I am unequivocally in support of genetics research on intelligence, then I have failed those communities I aim to help.

My research explores the ethical and social implications of behavior genetics research on education outcomes, with particular regard to the ways in which it might impact teacher understandings of student ability and achievement in the racist and classist US context. I began this project out of an interest in assessing how behavior genetics research might be interpreted by ‘laypeople’ and whether this posed a risk to the idea of equity. At the same time, I have felt it important to speak with those who conduct this research, to move past the critique in a way and towards identifying constructive steps forward that protect marginalized and vulnerable communities.

Have I potentially make mistakes along the way? Of course. And, they most certainly because that much clearer when you’re engaging with a topic as sensitive as my own. Will everyone agree with my work? Absolutely not. However, I hope that those who consider themselves to be inequality scholars, scholars of resistance, that they see the intention behind my work. I hope that those in behavior genetics also see this intention, because it is important we talk about the ugly history behind this field of scientific research and the ways in which that legacy endures today. As Dorothy Roberts says, conducting socially neutral research is impossible (see full piece here). Conducting socially responsible work, however, is not.

I hope that at the end of this journey that is my PhD, the work I produce will be viewed as socially responsible. I hope it drives the conversation forward on what we can/should/NEED to do when it comes to safeguarding against the (mis)use of genetics-infused research in education.

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