Over the past decade, direct-to-consumer genetic testing (DTCGT) services, more commonly called consumer DNA tests, have exploded in popularity. Companies like AncestryDNA and 23andMe now boast databases with the genetic data of at least 26 million individuals who have eagerly mailed in spit samples to unravel biological clues about their identity and health.
On the surface, this seems like a tremendous achievement of science and capitalism. Access to one’s genetic makeup must be empowering – an opportunity to illuminate the complex tapestry of biological kinship and predispositions that make us who we are. But ethical concerns lurk below these services’ glossy promises and genetic essentialism. From lack of proper consent and concerns about data and privacy to ethnically ambiguous results devoid of a cultural connection, consumer DNA tests raise ethical concerns. Yet, consumers perceive these tests to offer great value (Artz, 2018).
This raises an intriguing paradox wherein consumers exchange hope, money, and DNA with testing services in return for personal meaning and identity value, brushing aside ethical concerns and risks.
Identity as Commodity
To appreciate why DNA tests are so popular, let’s talk about identity and its commodification. The modern notions of identity took shape in the 20th century with theorists like Erik Erikson, who defined it simply as how people view themselves in relation to those around them.
Since then, anthropologists and other social scientists have, not surprisingly, complicated that definition. We have been calling attention to how identity is often fluid and multidimensional, incorporating gender, class, politics, religion, nationality, ethnicity, and culture. Expanding the scope of the conversation even further, the concept of intersectionality was put forward to highlight how these dimensions of identity can intersect and amplify experiences of privilege or oppression.
Other scholars have looked at the process of identity formation and how it is navigated and continually reconstituted through practices such as group engagement, consumption, performance, embodiment, and the use of digital media, all of which are arguably related to the act of taking a DNA test.
The main takeaway: people investigate and shape their personal identity narratives within the context of their ever-changing lived experience. As part of this process, experiences of genocide, slavery, war, climate-related migration, globalization, the dissolution of traditional communities, urbanization, isolation, and the nuclearization of family units have progressively eroded bonds of kinship and other traditional anchors of cultural identity.
Consumer DNA tests cater to our fragmented sense of self and existential curiosities. With bold claims promising to illuminate our past through our DNA, consumer testing companies claim to help us discover our identities and give us purpose. Identity becomes a commodity that can be bought and sold through the exchange of DNA and money with testing companies.
23andMe Twitter (now X) Post from Feb 18, 2018.
The Allure of Promissory Marketing
While the commodification of identity creates demand for consumer DNA testing, the market is further enabled by a business tactic known as promissory marketing.
Promissory marketing, sometimes contextualized within a broader frame of promissory capitalism, is a common practice involving companies making bold claims about the future benefits or outcomes of a product or technology that have yet to be realized. It is a common technique used in the private market to generate demand, often predicated on the need of consumers to act now before it is too late.
For example, genetic testing firms entice potential buyers with taglines like “discover your origins,” “learn what makes you unique,” and “find new relatives with our DNA test.” Visuals often depict diverse, smiling people who have uncovered their identity and potential.
The fundamental premise is that incredible discoveries allegedly lie a test tube away if you are only willing to invest in these companies’ services and future promises. By taking a test, you too can join the ranks of enlightened bio-consumers who have benefited from unlocking their identity-shaping family secrets and dodging potential diseases.
Better yet, you are promised that you will discover ever more insight each year as the predictive powers of these platforms improve based on the aggregation of more genetic data and advancements in science and technology. And to enable this, all you need to do is exchange your biocapital – your DNA with its inherent economic biovalue – which, depending on the terms of service or your account settings, may be monetized to the benefit of the testing platforms and its partners.
This was the case when 23andMe sold exclusive access to its data for $300 million to GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), which it intends to use to produce drugs, for which there will be no backward compensation to consumers, despite the potential upside to GSK.
But despite these arguably questionable marketing practices and financial inequalities, the consumers I interviewed feel they get value from these tests. So, regardless of whether these tests should or can influence someone’s identity, the reality is that people believe they do, and this belief impacts their sense of self in meaningful ways.
This is often particularly true for individuals who have had their past ripped from them, whether through historical atrocities or even sperm bank and adoption scenarios. In one my past studies, a participant explained:
“I wanted to understand more of my ethnicity because, African Americans, our history was lost. It’s been decimated. And some part of me wants to know where I came from and where my ancestors been. Just because as an African American during the slave period, our history was ripped from us. We don’t have that, that sense of legacy and so understanding where we’ve been gives, I guess gives a little bit of piece of my journey. My ancestors previous journey throughout the years. And so having that understanding that sense of self-worth and that we’re more than just slaves.”
This participant’s perspective represents just one of many voices that have described receiving a sense of personal value and connection from consumer genetic testing.
While we may be urged to critique their notion of value, especially in light of the well-documented ethical trade-offs consumers often unknowingly make, we can’t dismiss the perceived significance: consumers receive a sense of meaning through the symbolic power of genetic heritage.
And it is precisely this dissonance that brings us back to the value-ethics paradox.
The Value-Ethics Paradox
The juxtaposition is stark: on one side, there are pressing concerns such as informed consent, the commercialization of genetic data, the validity of ancestry results, and potential unintended consequences for individuals and communities. On the other hand, tens of millions of customers find meaning and enjoyment and do, in fact, get a sense of personal empowerment through these services, contrary to the promissory capitalist trope.
This leads us to ponder: how can we critically assess the risks associated with consumer DNA testing while acknowledging the personal value these newfound identities bring to consumers? How can scholars move beyond critique to collaborate across differences and co-create solutions with companies, policymakers, and public to address the increasingly numerous messy capitalist problems we face?
Wrestling sincerely with the value-ethics paradox is a promising start to bridging divides and co-creating a future we all want to be a part of, including one that addresses the commodification of self in the neoliberal age.
Artz, M., Henry, D., & Severiche Mena, C. (2023). Consumer Genetics- What About Informed Consent?. Human Organization 82(4): 394–404; https://doi.org/10.17730/1938-3525-82.4.394.
Artz, M. (2018). An Ethnography of Direct-To-Consumer Genomics (DTCG): Design Anthropology Insights for the Product Management of a Disruptive Innovation. Master’s Thesis, University of North Texas, 1-160; https://digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc1248393/.
Erikson, Erik. 1950. Childhood and Society. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.