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Conference asks 'what's the use of race?'

"What's the Use of Race?"--a conference exploring whether race and ethnicity can be used as analytic categories in law, medicine and government without calcifying the very divisions that research in these fields is supposed to erase--will be held April 25-26 in the MIT Faculty Club.

David Jones, director of MIT's Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine, is co-organizer of the upcoming event.

"Most social scientists agree that racial categories are arbitrary labels that we use to carve up human diversity into manageable chunks, and that race will always be much more of a social phenomena than a biological one," said Jones, an associate professor in the program in science, technology and society.

But tension pervades scholarship and advocacy about how or whether race should be used as a category at all, he notes.

"On the one hand, because of the invidious historic uses of racial differences, many scholars argue that we should stop using racial categories in research. Other scholars argue that as long as race is an active force in American society, we must study race to map disparities and suggest strategies to alleviate them," Jones said. "We hope to bring this tension into the open."

Researchers and journal editors in medicine, science, law and social science will explore competing interests and perspectives on the use of race in seven sessions during the two-day conference.

Topics to be presented in more than 20 individual papers include "Race, Genes and Justice;" "Biobanks and the Biopolitics of Inclusion" and "The Use of Racial/Ethnic Identity in Medical Evaluations and Treatments."

The conference is free and open to the public. Preregistration is requested. Please contact Ian Whitmarsh at

"What's the Use of Race?" is sponsored by the Center for the Study of Diversity in Science, Technology, and Medicine and by the Program in Science, Technology, and Society (STS). Previous conferences sponsored by the center and STS focused on race and pharmaceuticals and the commercialization of race.

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