Family Matters: Testing Paternity in the Twentieth Century


Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowships for Recently Tenured Scholars




For residence at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress during academic year 2014-2015


Today genetic parentage testing is widely used in a variety of social and legal contexts. This project asks how the history of these tests has shaped their present uses and meanings. Tracing paternity testing from its origins in the early twentieth century, it explores how and why identity and descent were first figured as scientific problems and what consequences testing had for men, women, and children, as well as states and societies. First heralded as a tool for identifying errant fathers and adulterous wives, testing soon exercised an influence far beyond family law. Absorbed into welfare policies and cultural imaginaries, it promised to revolutionize sexual mores, gender relations, and children’s rights. Incorporated into immigration proceedings, such techniques assessed not only kinship but citizenship. This cross-cultural history shows that even as parentage testing purports to deliver incontrovertible truths, its cultural meanings, social uses, and public regulation have always varied markedly across global societies.