IAS-STS / Fellows and Alumni / Alumni / Andrea zur Nieden

Andrea zur Nieden


Andrea zur Nieden has submitted her doctoral thesis at the department of Sociology at the Albert-Ludwigs-University in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany, titled 'Becoming Subject of the Genes. Ways of Subjectification in the Age of Genetification of Breast Cancer: a Qualitative Analysis'.

During and after her master degree in sociology, political science, and political economics in Freiburg, she had worked within a subproject of the DFG-Sonderforschungsbereich 'Identities and Othernes Uni Freiburg.

Besides that, she worked as a journalist in a free local radio station where she also took responsibility for public relations. While her sociological master thesis concentrated on representations of biotechnological changes in the body and cyborgism in popular culture, especially in the tv-show 'Star Trek', in her phd-project her research focus shifted to the 'real medicine'. The question persued was how the practice of predictive genetic testing in medicine conceives man as an active subject of his genes and imposes a new responsibility: Whoever is 'genetically at risk' is supposed to take appropriate action to prevent the actual onset of the disease. The specific case that Andrea analysed by the use of qualitative interviews and discoursive analysis was genetic testing for breast and ovarian cancer (BRCA). The aim was to critically reconstruct in which way the gene is established as the main cause of illness so that the appeal to conceive oneself as 'genetically predisposed' and act accordingly is working. It was shown which contradictions and impositions are implied in the request to become subject of one’s genes and to manage oneself on the basis of a risk estimate. For the writing of her thesis, Andrea was granted a scholarship by the DFG Postgraduate College 'Technology and Society', in Darmstadt, Germany. Graduiertenkolleg TU Darmstadt

Besides Science and Technology Studies, Andrea's research interests are social philosophy and popular culture. During her stay at the IAS-STS, she works on an explorative study:

Race/Ethnicity in the New Genetics. A Case Study about the German and Austrian Discourse about Breast Cancer Susceptability Genes (BRCA) and the 'Ashkenazi Jewish' Population

In medical literature about the BRCA genes, a higher risk in the 'Ashkenazi Jewish population' is stated like a commonplace that does not have to be further explained. Generally, there are two positions in contemporary genetics: some scientists say that race is an outdated category because most genetic differences are not found between geographic populations but inside of them, supporting the view that race is a social construction. The other position wants to deploy new forms of racial categories and promises great benefits by ethnically specified medication. One of the most debated examples was the development of BiDil, a drug to treat congestive heart failure only for the African-American population. While BiDil was not developed on the basis of genetical findings, the new line of research called pharmacogenetics wants to explore the genetic background of variations in diseases and drug responses. Population genetic databases are another field in which categories of race or ethnicity are used. These tendencies are supported by some minority communities e. g. in the US who perceive themselves as being discriminated against by traditional 'white' medicine, in contrast to the concern about new stigmatisations that may be caused by associating ethnically defined communities with specific genetic make-ups and diseases. Among scientists, the basis of referal of these categories is being debated: in clinical trials, ethnic differentiation is mostly gained by self-identification of the participants, so cultural backgrounds intermingle with supposed biological or genetic specifity.

The linkage between biopolitics and racism described by Michel Foucault, specifically the segmentation of populations along racial categories, seems to have a revival in the light of New Genetics. In her research, Andrea will – based on a critique of the notion of 'ethnicities' as discrete biosocial entities - focus on the representation and construction of 'Ashkenazi Jews' in scientific medical discourse and practice concerning BRCA: How is a both culturally and biologically diverse group of people defined as 'Ashkenazi Jewish'? Andrea is particularily interested in the German and Austrian discourse because of the NS past. In the Nazi „war on cancer“ (Proctor 1999), 'Jews' and 'Cancer' were used as synonymous metaphers of degeneration. With ideological and practical support of doctors and race biologists, antisemitism was driven to its culmination in the extinction of a great part of the European Jews. Is this in any way reflected in the discourse on BRCA-risk?

Selected publications

"If there is a risk inside of me, I am the first person who should know about it." Images of 'genetic risks' as anticipation of the future. In: Heil, Kaminsky, Stippak, Unger, Ziegler: Tensions and Convergences. Technological and Aesthetic Transformations of Society. Bielefeld (Transcript Verlag) 2007

„If there is a risk inside of me, I am the first person who should know it.“ Neoliberal concepts of genetic risk management and their failure. Paper given on the conference "Vital Politics II. Health, Medicine and Bio-Economics into the Twenty-First Century", 7th-9th September 2006 in London (BIOS, LSE)

Wie werde ich zum Subjekt meiner Gene? Ausstellungskatalog: Put on Your Blue Genes. BioTech-Kunst und die Verheißungen der Biotechnologie, 24.9.-23.10 2005 im NGBK, Berlin, 101-110

GeBorgte Identität. Star Trek als kulturindustrielle Selbstversicherung des technisierten Subjekts. Freiburg (Ҫa ira) 2003

"Schönheit ist irrelevant"? Die Sexualisierung von Cyborgs in Star Trek. In: Karin Giselbrecht,

Michaela Hafner: Data / Body / Sex / Maschine. Technoscience und Science Fiction aus feministischer Sicht. Wien 2001 (Turia und Kant), 97-124

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