By Dr. Michelle Moyd
Dr. Alondra Nelson’s visit to IU to deliver the Branigin Lecture in September 2017 kicked off an exciting year for the Center for Research on Race and Ethnicity in Society (CRRES). This annual lecture, generously sponsored by the Institute for Advanced Study, brings to campus “distinguished interdisciplinary scholars, artists, and public figures from all fields whose work contributes to the scholarly and creative vitality of the university community.” CRRES was delighted to be able to work with the IAS to cosponsor her lecture as the first in its 2017–2018 Speaker Series. The College of Arts and Sciences Themester on Diversity, Difference, Otherness also co-sponsored Dr. Nelson’s visit to Bloomington.
Dr. Nelson, Professor of Sociology at Columbia University, perfectly embodies the spirit of the Branigin Lecture and the CRRES Speaker Series. Her lecture, “Reconciliation Projects: The Vexed Racial Politics of Genetic Ancestry Testing,” drew from the path-breaking research that grounded her widely acclaimed 2016 book, The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations and Reconciliation after the Genome. Her work sits at the intersection of science and technology studies, the history and sociology of race and ethnicity, and gender studies. More specifically, she studies how the increased availability of new technologies for researching genetic ancestries have been adopted by African American communities in search of connection to pasts obscured by the violence and displacement of slavery. Their engagement with this technology has allowed these communities to engage with the politics of race and social justice in new ways. Nelson’s research deftly blends clear explanation of complex genetic science and the rise of consumer DNA testing with ethnographies of African American communities who began using this new technology well before others in the United States. They did so as a way of recovering lost family histories, as well as a way of gathering evidence to bolster narratives of belonging and connection to Africa, and reparations claims in the United States. Nelson’s talk was punctuated with compelling stories and riveting images drawn from her observations and interviews with industry leaders, scholars, and ordinary African Americans who have used DNA ancestry test kits since they became widely available for purchase. Nelson’s talk argued that the social and natural sciences can serve as an ally to activism, but she also sounded a cautionary note—that science alone can never repair the social damages caused by the United States’s history of slavery and racial subjugation. A rich discussion with the audience followed, as well as a book signing.
In addition to her outstanding reputation as an interdisciplinary scholar, Dr. Nelson is a formidable public intellectual and skilled administrator. Dr. Nelson’s commentary has appeared in numerous media outlets, including NPR, PBS, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, and The Nation. In 2017, Dr. Nelson became the President of the Social Science Research Council (SSRC), a leading US nonprofit that “fosters innovative research, nurtures new generations of social scientists, deepens how inquiry is practiced within and across disciplines, and mobilizes necessary knowledge on important public issues.” In these roles, Dr. Nelson leads by example, showing the relevance and centrality of social science and humanities research to humanity’s most pressing problems.
During her visit to Bloomington, Dr. Nelson also met formally and informally with graduate students, undergraduates, faculty, and administrators. She also gave an interview for Indiana Public Media. Her visit to IU was highly anticipated, and rightly so. Her visit afforded many at IU and the wider Bloomington community the opportunity to interact with a scholar at the forefront of interdisciplinary work that captures the tremendous promise and complexity of research at the intersection of science, social science, and the humanities. CRRES is grateful to the IAS for recognizing the tremendous societal and academic value of Dr. Nelson’s work and achievements through the Branigin Lectureship, and looks forward to future collaborations on this model.