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Confronting the stigma of perfection: genetic demography, diversity and the quest for a democratic eugenics in the post-war United States


  • Ramsden, Edmund


Eugenics has played an important role in the relations between social and biological scientists of population through time. Having served as a site for the sharing of data and methods between disciplines in the early twentieth century, scientists and historians have tended to view its legacy in terms of reduction and division - contributing distrust, even antipathy, between communities in the social and the biological sciences. Following the work of Erving Goffman, this paper will explore how eugenics has, as the epitome of “bad” or “abnormal” science, served as a “stigma symbol” in the politics of boundary work. In the immediate post-war era, demographers often denigrated the contributions of biologists to population problems as embodying eugenicist’s earlier extra-scientific excesses. Yet in the 1960s, a reformed and revitalized eugenics movement helped reunite social and biological scientists within an interdisciplinary programme of “genetic demography”. The paper will argue that leading geneticists and demographers were attracted to this programme because they believed it allowed for eugenic improvement in ways that were consistent with the ideals of the welfare democracy. In doing so, it provided them with an alternative, and a challenge, to more radical programmes to realise an optimal genotype and an optimum population, programmes they believed to threaten population science and policy with the stigma of typological thinking. The processes of stigma attribution and management are, however, ongoing, and with the rise of the nature-nurture controversy in the 1970s, the use of eugenics as a tool of demarcation has prevailed.

Suggested Citation

  • Ramsden, Edmund, 2006. "Confronting the stigma of perfection: genetic demography, diversity and the quest for a democratic eugenics in the post-war United States," Economic History Working Papers 22536, London School of Economics and Political Science, Department of Economic History.
  • Handle: RePEc:ehl:wpaper:22536

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein, 2003. "Libertarian Paternalism," American Economic Review, American Economic Association, vol. 93(2), pages 175-179, May.
    2. Cass R. Sunstein & Richard H. Thaler, 2003. "Libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron," Conference Series ; [Proceedings], Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, vol. 48(Jun).
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    JEL classification:

    • Z10 - Other Special Topics - - Cultural Economics - - - General
    • O51 - Economic Development, Innovation, Technological Change, and Growth - - Economywide Country Studies - - - U.S.; Canada
    • Q57 - Agricultural and Natural Resource Economics; Environmental and Ecological Economics - - Environmental Economics - - - Ecological Economics
    • B2 - Schools of Economic Thought and Methodology - - History of Economic Thought since 1925


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