Phenotypic Personhood: Epigenetics and the Biolegality of Processing Asylum

  • Zsuzsanna Dominika IharEmail author
Part of the Biolegalities book series (BIOGA)


This chapter analyzes the uptake of epigenetics as a border apparatus, and its capacity to generate forms of bio-legal personhood, alongside putative risk loci and commodifiable health profiles. It will trace the tangible ways in which phenotypical markers and genomic changes have been mobilized to contest claims made, as well as personal accounts provided, by refugee subjects. Indeed, the once promising features of epigenetic language—incorporating ideas of environmental porosity, expanded temporality, and the open potential for modification—will be seen as factors which have become methodologically useful for governance and administrative processing, opening up a wider field of traceability and mapping. The chapter will focus on two recent instances of biocentric, epigenetic jurisprudence in particular: the Hildesheim case, which involved the utilization of an epigenetic clock to verify age, and the incorporation of mitochondrial DNA (mDNA) and Y chromosome testing by the United Kingdom (UK) Border Agency, to verify migrant claims of nationality. Through these two narratives, I will attest to the operationalization of environmentally-responsive genes, turning phenotypical modifications into calculable, quantifiable, and ultimately depoliticized characteristics.


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© The Author(s) 2020

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Sociology and Social PolicyUniversity of SydneySydneyAustralia

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