DNA Testing for Family Reunification and the Limits of Biological Truth

September 16, 2019

Sociologists Catherine Lee (Rutgers University) and Torsten Voigt (RWTH Aachen University) have published a new article, “DNA Testing for Family Reunification and the Limits of Biological Truth” in the journal, Science, Technology, & Human Values. Catherine Lee was a visiting scholar at RSF during the 2009-2010 academic year. Lee is the author of the RSF book, Fictive Kinship: Family Reunification and the Meaning of Race and Nation in American Immigration. Lee’s new research builds upon her longstanding interest in family reunification; with it she asks new questions about emergent immigration policies and procedures in the United States and abroad.

RSF asked Catherine Lee about the connections between her past research and her current scholarship. Lee wrote: “While researching the book (Fictive Kinship), I discovered that some applicants for family reunification were denied entry based on government officials' belief that DNA testing had failed to demonstrate a legitimate tie between individuals. In addition, some applicants were encouraged to submit themselves to DNA testing, because their documents were considered suspect. Not long after the book was published, Joan Fujimura (a former RSF visiting scholar) introduced me to my co-author Torsten Voigt, a science studies scholar who had just co-authored a book about the use of DNA testing in family reunification in Europe. When we met, we realized that there were important comparative, immigration policy, and science studies questions that needed to be explored. Specifically, we wanted to understand how the meaning of family (an important focus of Fictive Kinship) and the validity of science were held in tension with one another. In the paper, we show that the meaning of DNA testing, like the meaning of family, is constructed. Even as its scientific validity is not challenged (i.e., the test may demonstrate two people are biologically related or not), what we call ‘social validity’ of DNA testing is negotiated by immigrants, their lawyers, and immigration officials. We show that DNA testing is not conclusive in its ability to adjudicate family reunification claims. Instead immigration officials try to make sense of what characteristics determine a ‘real’ family—one that is worthy of inclusion into the nation. The question of who can lay a claim to the nation (in this case through family reunification) is not new while the technology for determining it may be. In the end, DNA testing is a scientific tool that can't answer the question, which is at its core a social and political one.”

Lee and Voigt’s article examines the use of DNA testing for family reunification in immigration cases in Finland, Germany, and the United States—the first transatlantic analysis of such cases to explore the relationship between technology, the meaning of family, and immigration. The authors analyze archival records, government documents, and interviews with immigration stakeholders. While DNA technology may facilitate decision making for both would-be immigrants and state officials, their study shows hesitancy among the latter to let DNA testing make the final determination. Voigt and Lee introduce the concept of social validity—whether the interpretation of test results matches social or political meanings in a given local context—in order to make sense of the complexities and challenges of DNA testing in practice. The authors cite a study of African immigrants where only 20 percent of people whose DNA was tested were shown to have “valid” family relations. They also present the case of a Burmese family whose DNA testing showed that one of the older children wasn’t related to his mother, unearthing a long-buried story of the death of the husband’s first wife. 

The authors show that DNA testing is not just a technology of belonging or a way to claim citizenship rights. It may also enable exclusion and denial of rights. 



RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


The Russell Sage Foundation offers grants and positions in our Visiting Scholars program for research.


Join our mailing list for email updates.