Genetic Governance

Bunton, Robin and Petersen, Alan (eds.)
Routledge, London
2004
0415354072 (pb)

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Cover of book For post-modern 'biopolitics', genetics holds a promise of both helping individuals to actively manage the uncertainties associated with health and of governing the risks of biological variation in populations. In this timely book, authors from seven different countries provide a rich analysis of the complex social phenomena associated with the current developments in biosciences. The introductory article by Bunton and Petersen lays the foundation for the analysis of 'genetic governance'. The argument is that it poses a tool for neo-liberal government to individualize health. Thus the maintenance of 'public' health is associated with the conduct of the individual. At the centre of the new mode of government is the notion of responsible citizenship that legitimates the use of genetic knowledge as political and moral technologies of governance.

The book is divided in three parts, first of which includes articles by Piia Jallinoja, Ilpo Helén, Seppo Poutanen and Jessica Polzer. They highlight ethical concerns related to risk management associated with genetic knowledge. Risk management emerges as a central site of government in which individuals come to accept the cause for the ill health as located in their genes rather than in the social relations that they engage in. Choice rather than determinism is emphasized, as citizens govern themselves through 'informed consent'.

In part two Thomas Lemke, Elizabeth Ettorre, Linda Ward and Susan E. Kelly discuss the rise of new identities associated with stigma and marginalization produced by the management of risks at the level of population. The argument is that in the era of genetic governance, the relation between biology and society is changed, as the identification of genetic risks creates a privileged field of intervention. This imperative of intervention makes our societies inescapably eugenic as everybody is affected by the necessity to monitor genetic risks.

The third part that includes articles by Evan Willis, Martha H. Herbert and Herbert Gottweiss, highlights the specific conditions of the 'knowledge-rich' societies, in which genetic knowledge and associated technologies offer new means of disciplining individuals. The powerful metaphors and dreams associated with the project of new genetics to 'learn the language of God' direct both society and science as both public health and biology are geneticized. The section also points at the challenges that globalisation poses for the regulation of genetics.

In this book biopolitics is approached as liberal government that is conceptualized with the metaphor of multilevel networks of (global) governance, in which the state actors have lost their pivotal place. 'Genetic governance' as examined here deals with the government of 'life itself' through the self-regulation of the modern subject. The book thus addresses the fundaments of our view of life. In pre-secular societies a human being was made in God's image. In post-genomic societies, this conviction is lost and substituted with a sinister biomedical framework in which moral responsibility for health determines the way risk management becomes a system of discipline.

Furthermore, this book calls for reflection upon the basic concepts in the field of health. For instance, is the new public health 'public' at all? In future discussions on genetic governance it would be useful to develop the analysis of citizenship. Now the role of 'active citizenship' is underlined but what is the future of citizenship in an era when state policies loose privilege and commercialism increases in welfare systems that traditionally were based on social rights?

Sirpa Wrede
University of Helsinki