Professor Elise Burton Awarded the Derek Price/Rod Webster Prize from HSS for the best article published in Isis in the previous three years.

November 23, 2021 by Adriana Leviston

DEREK PRICE/ROD WEBSTER PRIZE: The Price/Webster Prize is awarded annually to the best article published in Isis in the previous three years. It recognizes “original research of the highest standard” and represents the finest our field has to offer. It is a pleasure to award the 2021 Price/Webster Prize to Elise K. Burton for the article “Red Crescents: Race, Genetics, and Sickle Cell Disease in the Middle East.”

This article offers an illuminating, detailed, and bold new treatment of a topic—the study of sickle cell disease—that has been extensively explored in the sciences of heredity and history of racialized science. It sets up an exciting and important puzzle by asking what can be learned by moving an almost paradigmatic case from the context in which it has been conventionally studied—largely the modern US, as well as parts of the African continent—into the transnational scientific networks of the 1950s Middle East region. Burton shows how the work of elite researchers studying sickle cell among marginalized Arab-speaking communities served to hardened otherwise flexible, complex, and locally-specific histories and practices into seemingly natural categories of race. In doing so, Burton exposes—and transcends—the American bias in history and historiography of sickle cell in particular, and of race concepts generally, which focus on a distinctively US-based anti-Black racism. The article gives fresh insight into the mechanisms through which global geopolitics played out in specific communities and structured seemingly timeless and universal scientific categories—to insist upon a more capacious, global history of racial formation.

The empirical research is stunning. Burton draws upon material from an impressive number of languages and dialects while simultaneously guiding the reader deftly through the details of post-war genetics. The article provides a sophisticated study of Arab and Turkish political history, demonstrating in detail the ways that such histories and local contexts served as specific resources for scientific ideas and, in turn, how scientific data were put towards social and political ends. The article persuasively documents how the boundaries of scientific categories realigned to fit nationalist movements, decolonial projects, and contests over Cold War politics of belonging—and thus the political fabrication of racial classifications. 

The article is relevant and accessible to anyone interested in the politics of classification, the history of race science, the history of genetics, and the history of the modern Middle East. Along with its empirical sagacity, careful analysis, and impressive creativity, Burton’s research marks—and enacts—opportunities to work for greater social justice in the sciences, in our communities, and in our own field.

 PDF iconHSS Awards Program 2021.pdf