Centre for Disability Studies

Centre for Disability Studies

In the shadow of genetics: an analysis of eugenic influences on twentieth century social policy for disabled people in European and North American societies

Dr Bill Armer

For more information please contact Bill Armer


This thesis takes the form of an investigation into the joint role of eugenics and genetics in informing social policy directed at disabled people during the twentieth century. The major geographical locus is the ‘transatlantic belt’ stretching from northwest Europe to the United States. Drawing on several of the works of Pierre Bourdieu, an analytical tool is used here which relies upon the concept of intellectual and cultural fields, as a means of seeking understanding of the complex processes which underlie the conversion of thought, of ideology, into action in the form of social policy.

The discussion is broad-ranging and cross-disciplinary, but is influenced by the author’s academic background in social policy and allegiance to disability studies. This is not, however, a study which necessarily conforms strictly to disability studies traditions in its analysis of the situation of disabled people within contemporary western society. The major difference is a relative disregard of material, economic and institutional explanations, and a corresponding emphasis on the realm of thought – the ‘intellectual fields’ of Bourdieu. This is not to say that materialism is absent, for the pervading social atmosphere is seen as being that of modernity and its constant companion capitalism. Both of these have strong materialist connections.

Modernity is not purely about materialism however, and emphasis is placed here upon two particular strands of thought within that societal form: normality and a search for order. A major argument within this work is that these two strands, or power lines within the cultural field, lead to a society which eschews and perhaps fears ‘difference’. When combined with expanding knowledge about the genetic basis of life and the growth of diagnostic mechanisms associated largely with the accomplishments of the Human Genome Project, it is suggested here, these power lines are inimicable towards people who are ‘different’. This is analysed in the terms of ‘heterophobia’, a concept drawn here from the work of Bauman (1989).

The increasing use of pre-natal genetic testing is explored, and assayed alongside an apparent trend towards eugenic abortion following a ‘positive’ test result. In the case of post-natal testing, the implications for those with a ‘defective’ genetic endowment are considered within the context of a social policy regime which is tending towards insurance-based welfare provision. It is speculated that a ‘genetic underclass’ of those who are disadvantaged in terms of access to employment and to insurance products is becoming evident. Ultimately it is proposed that the western world is entering into an era of eugenetics – the practice of human genetics within a societal atmosphere, or cultural field, which is informed by eugenic ideology.


Available as a University of Leeds PhD thesis from the University library catalogue.

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