Edge Prize 2020: Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan

The winner of the 2020 David Edge prize is Aaron Panofsky and Joan Donovan’s, Genetic ancestry testing among white nationalists: From identity repair to citizen science, published in 2019 by Social Studies of Science.

Panofsky and Donovan perform a beautiful analysis of the strategies used by white nationalists, on the website Stormfront, to deal with ‘bad’ or ‘upsetting’ news from their genetic ancestry tests. Their article brings together several themes very relevant to STS scholars, namely, race, genetics and identity, politics, and citizen science. What makes their approach unique and superb are the ways in which they weave together and disentangle these issues to make visible the multiple strategies used by white nationalists to maintain their whiteness in the face of ‘bad news’ or upsetting results.

Panofsky and Donovan show that the way in which ‘damaging’ GAT (Genetic Ancestry Tests) results are presented is of the utmost importance, and often determine the community’s reaction and their attempt to either repair the revealer’s white identity, or to deliver its rejection. The authors also show us how the discourses of white nationalists are linked to other violent and oppressive discourses. Not surprisingly, for instance, white nationalists mobilize the figure of ‘women’ and in particular, the figure of the ‘sister’, to define, reject or repair whiteness: A person is accepted as white if/when other members of the community agree with their sisters marrying him.

The article concludes with a fascinating reflection on the dark side of citizen science: When it comes to GAT discussions in Stormfront, white nationalists engage in ‘citizen science’ that, while fomenting debate, works mainly to reify notions of race and racism. In so doing, Panofsky and Donovan’s article works to make us uncomfortable, challenging STS’ instincts about the democratization of science.

Panofsky and Donovan’s article was selected among a very large pool of 43 nominees, and is a well timed article, a brilliant read and a remarkable example of the breadth and scope of STS research. Importantly, at a time when much of the world clamors for (racial) justice, and many of us are struggling to find ways to use our scholarly work to contribute to this effort, Panofsky and Donovan provide us with a remarkable example of how STS research can make important political contributions to our world.

2020 Edge Prize Committee: Pablo Kreimer, CONICET-STS Center, Maimonides University, Argentina (Council Member, Chair), Ana Viseu, Universidade Europeia and CIUHCT, Portugal (Council Member, Co-Chair), and Roopali Phadke, Macalester College, USA (Council Member)

Acceptance statement

We are thrilled and honored to win the 2020 David Edge Prize and would like to thank the prize committee for their work and 4S for its support of STS scholars and transdisciplinary research. This project would not have been possible without the help of the Participation Lab at UCLA and our benevolent collaborator, Chris Kelty. We are indebted to landmark studies by Alondra Nelson, Kim Tallbear, Wendy Roth, Ruha Benjamin, Jennifer Reardon, Troy Duster, and others about the role of genetic ancestry tests in the production and transformation of biosocial identities. We continue to be inspired by the long traditions of research into public participation and the democratization of science, infrastructure studies, and feminist approaches to science and technology, especially work by Martha Lampland, Steven Epstein, Brian Wynne, Alan Irwin, Joan Fujimura, Sheila Jasanoff, Kim Fortun, Adele Clarke, Lisa Nakamura, and Tom Boellstorff.

White nationalism posed an ironic collision of these traditions. On the one hand, what happens when a group with a strongly determinist and exclusionary ideologies of racial identity, confronts genetic evidence of less than pure genetic ancestry? And on the other, what does a citizen science movement look like whose politics are inherently anti-democratic and exclusionary? And along the way we draw from the diverse STS toolkit that has explored lay expertise, boundary work, coproduction, and relationships between race, identity, technology, and cognition.

The data upon which the article was based were collected by a team of undergraduate and graduate student researchers at UCLA who gained training in the methods and frameworks of STS research. Through the project, the research team saw themselves as being able to confront one of the most frightening political developments of recent years through the production of new knowledge. The project began before white nationalism thrust itself into the center of political life. But it touched a nerve in August 2017 as members of the public sought to understand white nationalism in the wake of white supremacists’ violence in Charlottesville VA, which occurred the same weekend as the American Sociology Association’s annual meeting where we presented this work for the first time. We are proud that the media coverage our project received allowed a broader audience to see how the field of STS can address contemporary social problems and drive public interest in scientific controversies.

We know there is much more research needed to demystify how science and technology make up our social worlds, particularly to deconstruct the role they play in maintaining racial hierarchies. By studying whiteness, we endeavored to illustrate how racial orders persist even as science and technology companies crown themselves great equalizers. We hope more scholars will join us to take on these challenging issues as new technologies emerge and become socially and culturally influential. Though, we understand that conducting politically engaged research is not an easy choice because the standards and risks are always much higher. To that we say: be brave and rigorous!


Aaron Panofsky is Associate Professor at UCLA’s Institute for Society & Genetics and Departments of Public Policy and Sociology. His work concerns the social dimensions of research on genetics and behavior; genetics, race, and racism; the application of genetics and economics to education; and the reproducibility crisis and metascientific expertise. He is the author of Misbehaving Science: Controversy and the Development of Behavior Genetics and is hard at work on a second book, Unjust Malaise: Race in the Fog of Genetics.

Joan Donovan, PhD, is Research Director at Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and Director of the Technology and Social Change Research Project, where she researches media manipulation and disinformation campaigns. She is also an adjunct faculty member at Harvard Kennedy School and an affiliate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society. She received her PhD in Sociology and Science Studies from the University of California San Diego, and was a postdoctoral fellow at the UCLA Institute for Society and Genetics, where she studied white supremacists’ use of DNA ancestry tests, social movements, and technology.