Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2016

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/03/2020

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Women's Studies

First Advisor

Lewin, Ellen

First Committee Member

Depew, David J.

Second Committee Member

Khandelwal, Meena

Third Committee Member

Prussing, Erica

Fourth Committee Member

Schwalm, Leslie A.


This dissertation is a feminist study of conceptualizations of race on one Midwestern university campus. It was inspired by biomedical and population genetic research that seemed to suggest that the consensus that race is a social construction was unravelling in the face of the avalanche of data unleashed by the mapping of the human genome. It draws from feminist theory, science studies, critical race theory, and, importantly, on my many years of teaching to investigate how and for what purposes race is being reconfigured in genetic terms as it is envisioned in research and taught to students. This study deploys a number of methodological approaches, including participant observation, face-to-face interviews with biologists, biological anthropologists and sociologists, discourse analysis and a student survey. I also situate the perspectives I describe on race in the historical context of the particular discipline and paradigm within which they arose.

What I ultimately conclude is that race emerges from a deep and abiding belief that despite living in the same country, sharing a common set of traditions, and participating in what to an outsider is a recognizably American culture, black and white Americans are fundamentally different. Whether that difference is framed in terms of biology or culture, the legacy of slavery and segregation is a deep and unbridgeable gulf that in the minds of many white Americans separates them from their black countrymen.

More specifically, I argue that the thick concept of culture that was circulating in the US around the middle of the twentieth century and which intellectuals of all stripes hoped could banish racism from American life has mostly disappeared. Culture no longer has the deep, holistic and relativistic meaning given to it in the middle of the last century, and still held by anthropologists today. This is why, contrary to the hopes of the founders of the modern evolutionary synthesis who held a more anthropological concept of culture, the population genetics framework, with its language of ancestry, populations and alleles, cannot contain race in the way that contemporary biologists would like. It involves references to statistical means, averages and variations that blur race at the edges and shift the categories around but ultimately leave them intact. What wins out in translations of statistical thinking, in other words, is the relevance of difference and the importance of averages, and this is as true for discussions of racism and inequality in the social sciences as it is for discussions of the biological basis of race.

Unsurprisingly, race and gender continue to be deeply entangled. The bearing, raising and teaching of children is still primarily the province of women and so the politics of race is always also a politics of gender. What is perhaps more surprising is that most approaches to teaching about race or gender, even in the social sciences, continue try to keep them separate. This is despite years of work by feminists, particularly black feminists, that demonstrates this is not possible.


Culture, Feminism, Gender, Genetics, Higher Education, Race


ix, 319 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 301-319).


Copyright © 2016 Deirdre Egan

Available for download on Friday, July 03, 2020