Ethnicity is a sensitive issue, so sensitive that one might want to remain silent about it.

Anna Lydia Svalastog at CRB recently published an article about genetic research on the Sámi people in Sweden. She highlights ethical problems associated with the fact that the Sámi focus in these studies is not made transparent.

Svalastog was surprised to discover that 50 years of genetic research on the Sámi people was invisible in the biobank register at the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare. The reason, she guesses, is that ethnicity is considered unacceptable as a basis for creating registers and biobanks.

Still, some registers and biobanks are in practice Sámi, since data collection was carried out in traditional Sámi areas like Karesuando. When Svalastog studied the way research was carried out she found further tendencies to downplay ethnicity, although it was central in practice.

The Sámi focus of the research was downplayed by a more neutral vocabulary of people living in certain geographic areas. Also the questionnaires downplayed ethnicity. Questions could instead concern livelihood, which, however, can function as an indicator of Sámi ethnicity, since reindeer herding is an exclusively Sámi occupation.

Ethnicity can be reconstructed from the answers, then, but in a manner that risks reinforcing old stereotypes, since many see themselves as Sámi without being reindeer herders.

I don’t think that Svalastog is opposed to biobank research about the Sámi people, but her point is that ethnicity, and the fact that the Sámi is a native people, must be made transparent. Otherwise it becomes difficult to discuss and handle the ethical problems that ethnicity can imply.

The article is published in New Genetics and Society. Svalastog highlights the importance of talking about ethnicity, because it is sensitive.

Pär Segerdahl

Minding our language - the Ethics Blog