Subversive Genes: Re(con)stituting Identity, Family and Human Rights in Argentina

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Harvard University, 2008 - 342 pages
This ethnographic dissertation examines DNA identification technologies and their relationship to political, social and familial reconstitution in post-dictatorship Argentina. In the wake of the widespread terror of the 1976-1983 dictatorship, Argentine mothers and grandmothers had the dubious honor of being the first group worldwide to organize around genetic technologies as tools for human rights. This dissertation focuses on these women, who now make up two major human rights groups: one organized around the recovery of their kidnapped grandchildren and the other organized around the identification of the bodies of the 30,000 disappeared. Drawing on rich personal narratives and interviews with scientists and family members affected by violence, I argue that DNA is a particularly powerful human rights technology because it is able to simultaneously work at various levels of social life. I thus focus on three interconnected social spaces--the interpersonal, the familial, and the national--tracing the mutability and movement of DNA quite literally from bodies, to labs, to courtrooms, to international halls of power. By examining the day-to-day reality of human rights advocacy, I document the ways in which DNA technologies figure in that project both discursively, as a powerful metaphor for family and disordered national identity, and practically, as a tool for criminal prosecution and the restitution of identity of both the living and the dead. My research suggests that forensic DNA identification technologies have emerged as core sites of identity formation for individuals and families affected by the terror of the dictatorship as well as for the Argentine nation-state as it tries to reckon with the legacies of repression.

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