Ancestry: How researchers use it and what they mean by it

Bege Dauda, Santiago J. Molina, Danielle S. Allen, Agustin Fuentes, Nayanika Ghosh, Madelyn Mauro, Benjamin M. Neale, Aaron Panofsky, Mashaal Sohail, Sarah R. Zhang, Anna C.F. Lewis

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

    8 Scopus citations


    Background: Ancestry is often viewed as a more objective and less objectionable population descriptor than race or ethnicity. Perhaps reflecting this, usage of the term “ancestry” is rapidly growing in genetics research, with ancestry groups referenced in many situations. The appropriate usage of population descriptors in genetics research is an ongoing source of debate. Sound normative guidance should rest on an empirical understanding of current usage; in the case of ancestry, questions about how researchers use the concept, and what they mean by it, remain unanswered. Methods: Systematic literature analysis of 205 articles at least tangentially related to human health from diverse disciplines that use the concept of ancestry, and semi-structured interviews with 44 lead authors of some of those articles. Results: Ancestry is relied on to structure research questions and key methodological approaches. Yet researchers struggle to define it, and/or offer diverse definitions. For some ancestry is a genetic concept, but for many—including geneticists—ancestry is only tangentially related to genetics. For some interviewees, ancestry is explicitly equated to ethnicity; for others it is explicitly distanced from it. Ancestry is operationalized using multiple data types (including genetic variation and self-reported identities), though for a large fraction of articles (26%) it is impossible to tell which data types were used. Across the literature and interviews there is no consistent understanding of how ancestry relates to genetic concepts (including genetic ancestry and population structure), nor how these genetic concepts relate to each other. Beyond this conceptual confusion, practices related to summarizing patterns of genetic variation often rest on uninterrogated conventions. Continental labels are by far the most common type of label applied to ancestry groups. We observed many instances of slippage between reference to ancestry groups and racial groups. Conclusion: Ancestry is in practice a highly ambiguous concept, and far from an objective counterpart to race or ethnicity. It is not uniquely a “biological” construct, and it does not represent a “safe haven” for researchers seeking to avoid evoking race or ethnicity in their work. Distinguishing genetic ancestry from ancestry more broadly will be a necessary part of providing conceptual clarity.

    Original languageEnglish (US)
    Article number1044555
    JournalFrontiers in Genetics
    StatePublished - Jan 23 2023

    All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

    • Genetics(clinical)
    • Genetics
    • Molecular Medicine


    • ancestry
    • ethnicity
    • genetic ancestry
    • population descriptors
    • population labeling
    • race


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