Science as a Structure of Violence

The study of human diversity and subsequent racialisation of people has been examined and critiqued but has escaped interrogation as an institution by which structural violence is enacted. Works such as Is Science Racist? (2017) by Jonathan Marks have evaluated science as a means of reproducing culturally held racist beliefs and justifying subordination through cultural violence, but fail to examine the various types of harm actually produced by science. While this difference appears subtle, it is necessary to treat science as an institution through which structural violence is carried out. Institutions such as healthcare and education have been scrutinised as structures of power that structural violence can act through, but these are merely actors reproducing ideas made through scientific inquiry and given power through scientific authority. Furthermore, the adoption and implementation these of scientific ideas by other social institutions not only justifies, but maintains social class hierarchy.

Science can be thought of as three related entities: as a method by which we produce knowledge about the natural world, as a pool of knowledge concerning the natural world, and as a social institution with the goal of producing knowledge about the natural world. In its institutional form, it is treated as disinterested and its only purpose is to uncover truth and disseminate that to institutions that can put the research to work. Therefore, the products of science are seen as objective. However, science is highly biopolitical, that is, it grants social and political power over life—in this case, Black bodies. The fetishisation of science allows hegemonic ideas of White supremacy to be reproduced, justified, and adopted by other social institutions in a nearly unquestioning manner.

Books such as The Bell Curve (1994) and the ‘genohype’ surrounding the Human Genome Project’s ‘pronouncement of genetic destiny’41 presented one’s genotype—the genetic makeup of a person—as their true self. This portrayal goes beyond the structural level to the very ontology of people. There was hope that the Human Genome Project could elucidate a more scientific conception of race that did not merely rely on skin colour but could be seen in our genetic code (Patrinos 2004). While it failed to do so, the commodification of genomes through for-profit genetics testing services like 23andMe and continue to rely on the belief that our very being- who we are—is located in our genetic sequence.42 The scientific rhetoric in every case serves to set people apart from one another and into categories that we already hold as culturally relevant—races.

Throughout science, there has been a shift in ideology as theory and practice incorporate the social components of race and de-essentialise genetics as the determinant cause of socioeconomic inequality. Research across many fields, including anthropology, sociology, education, and psychology, are demonstrating that much of the data used to argue for intrinsic differences between Black and White people can be accounted for by merely incorporating socioeconomic class in the equation. However, centuries of racialised science have had lingering effects on the kinds of questions asked and still colours much of the assumptions during research. Despite understanding race as a biocultural construction, scientists insist on continuing to use race as a framework for understanding education and health disparities in lieu of a more intersectional approach, incorporating class, gender, etc.

Furthermore, the colonisation of the Black genome—which is itself constructed in opposition to the White genome—is internalised as genes are valued as predictors and determinants of nearly all aspects of one’s life. For instance, among those surveyed by Shostak et al.,43 both Blacks and Whites believed that genetics were either very important or somewhat important for intelligence, personality, and success in life at >60 per cent. This indicates that cultural beliefs concerning race and genetics, when reproduced with scientific authority, are primed to be adopted into the public psyche. Althusser introduces the concept interpellation to describe the way by which ideology recruits or transforms subjects.44 Cultural ideology, given power through structural legitimisation, ‘recruits subjects’ and the hegemonic notion of intrinsic difference results in asymmetrical social value which is then internalised. The subsequent internalisation of inscribed value, and thus relative place in society, is an avenue by which racism can act, thus maintaining a race-divided class structure by equivalating race to ability and ability to class. This can explain why the survey data of Shostak et al. demonstrates pervasive belief among Americans of the efficacy of genetic determinism. With so many adhering to this notion, White-dominated power is supported by its purported intrinsic superiority.


While science has shaped social institutions such as healthcare and education, it also has direct influence on society and thus is able to enact structural violence through the legitimisation of racist, culturally pervasive beliefs. These beliefs and subsequent validity- conferred by science- then becomes internalised, that is, the belief that there are demonstrable differences in ability between Blacks and Whites become incorporated into the self of individuals belonging to these groups. This serves as a tool for maintaining hegemonic control without needing to utilise direct violence; people are expected more willingly accept their lot in life if it is out of their control. It alleviates responsibility from the state and instead places it on the individual.

As genetics gained legitimacy in the scientific community, new avenues were open to justifying socioeconomic inequality that is unduly drawn along racial boundaries. This is not to say that all White people occupy a place higher on the socioeconomic hierarchy but that a trend exists, and it is supported by over a century of scientific authority. However, this contributes to the creation of a ‘new bio-underclass’;45 a class predominantly occupied by Black Americans, whose membership is claimed to be the result of an inferior genetic makeup. Furthermore, any attempt to correct this by addressing structural ills will fail because the real cause is seen as innate.46, 47

What is occurring is geno-colonisation: the process by which value and meaning are projected on to the genome of another group for the purpose of reifying political power. Here, colonise refers to the process by which structures of power establish political control over an ‘othered’ group. Historically, Black bodies have been colonised; Africans were enslaved and used as mere machines for the economic benefit of the ruling class—robbed of their Humanity and consideration as members of society. Beyond the literal colonisation of Black bodies, they were also colonised by the hegemonic ideology of the ruling class. This can be seen best seen in the racist scientific research since Blumenbach first introduced race as a unit of inquiry. Throughout the period of racialised science—which still somewhat continues today- a central goal was to demonstrate that Blacks and Whites were fundamentally different biologically and these differences served as a ready explanation of why Whites dominated the highest levels of class hierarchy while Blacks were generally relegated to the lowest.

Black bodies were ideologically colonised by science by researchers such as Samuel Morton and Louis Agassiz. They used craniometry as the primary tool to demonstrate the natural differences between the races. Morton argues that skulls of Whites had an average cranial capacity of 148 cubic centimeters greater than that of those from Black people.48 This result was used to explain the relative difference between Whites and Blacks in intelligence, treating brain size among humans as an indicator of intelligence. Despite this dubious claim, Stephen J. Gould and later, Michael Weisberg further called into question Morton’s work as an example of racist beliefs tainting the science.49, 50 They argue that Morton mismeasured the skulls of Blacks to corroborate the belief that Whites were naturally of a greater intelligence.

While this exemplifies of the utilisation of the institution of science to support White beliefs of their superiority over the Blacks—the colonisation of Black bodies by White ideas—craniometry eventually fell out of favour with the introduction of genetics into the exploration of human difference. The study of genetics purported to unlock the very essence of who we are, what makes us us. Our character traits and limitations on our abilities could all be found within our genetic code. Arthur R. Jensen observes that Blacks perform worse on I.Q. tests than do Whites and, despite special programs to address this issue, continue to underperform. He then argues that intelligence is highly heritable and therefore, there’s no use in trying to correct the disparities through special educational programs because it is primarily of genetic cause. Furthermore, abilities that Blacks are biologically adapted to excel in should be cultivated in lieu of intelligence.51

The parable of Jensen demonstrates geno-colonialism. It is no longer bodies that are of interest- but instead, what is being sold as the very essence of being—genes. White conceptions of Black value are being projected onto the genome of Black people and together serve as a reifying agent for socioeconomic inequality. Due to the social power and authority of science, these beliefs become pervasive and are adopted as ‘obvious’ truths and grounded in ‘objective’ science. This requires three primary assumptions: race functions as a tenable biological category; intelligence is heritable, that is, not a product of social circumstances; and these heritable traits are asymmetrically distributed between races.

The internalisation of these reductive beliefs have a profound effect on those colonised. As Speight describes, ‘racism is a process, a condition, a relationship that violates its victims physically, socially, spiritually, materially, and psychologically’.52 Institutional racism, given legitimacy through genetic science, cuts to the very core of self. These arguments preclude any hope of social mobility, liberation, or power because they are inhibited by the very nature of existence. To remove any semblance of hope is to create an environment in which unimpeded domination can occur.


Historically, the creation of race has been used to justify, maintain, and enforce social hierarchy. Race and class are inextricable—race exists as a means of domination. The science of humans, since its onset, has carried on this trope, ceding legitimacy to a social structure where one defined racial group can dominate another. Despite the abundance of research demonstrating the nature of race as a biocultural construction in anthropology,53 sociology,54 and psychology,55 the reductive beliefs concerning the biological ontology of race persists. While intrinsic differences by constructed racial categories are emphasised less frequently today, it has had a spanning effect on American society. Through science, race and class have been naturalised and the ideological colonisation of genes has essentialised inequality, treating it as an insurmountable barrier to social mobility.

Through the essentialisation of inequality and its subsequent internalisation, science is carrying out structural violence. Blacks experience harm as their place in the socioeconomic hierarchy is treated as the result of their genes- their essence, and so it is in their nature to constitute the bio-underclass. This has great economic implications because it precludes any structural changes that may alleviate the consequences of vast socioeconomic inequality such as access to resources, pay, education, and healthcare. By examining science through a lens of structural violence, we can elucidate the mechanisms by which science itself is enacting harm on certain groups of people and then make necessary changes that could have cascading effects. Since science is a foundational institution—that is—much of our beliefs come from or are supported by science, explicitly eliminating race as a biological unit of inquiry and, instead, focusing on the social implications of race and its intersection with other identities (i.e. class, gender, etc.) can facilitate further social change in society.

However, it is important to note that this is likely insufficient for complete liberation as the neo-liberal Capitalistic structure of American society comes with its own attacks on Black-ness. The expropriation of Black labour for the financial gains of the upper class and the pitting of members of the working class against one another under the guise of racial or ethnic differences also contravenes motion towards fairness and justice.56, 57 Interrogation of the science’s role in the Capitalist scheme for the extraction of surplus from its constituents by framing it as a social institution through which structural violence works may both eliminate the hegemonic colonisation of the constructed Black genome and free science from use as a tool for social domination.


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