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Centre of Latin American Studies

Sarah Abel

Dr. Sarah Abel

PhD in Social Anthropology and Ethnology, EHESS Paris

MPhil in Latin American Studies, University of Cambridge

BA (Hons) in Modern and Medieval Languages (Spanish and French), University of Cambridge



I am a cultural anthropologist with an interdisciplinary background, and my research specialises in dynamics of race and racism in American societies. As a British Academy postdoctoral fellow (2019-2022), my current project looks at how skin colour has been represented and given social meaning through art, science and politics in Mexico. From analogue photography to facial recognition algorithms, I am interested in understanding how visual technologies have been used over the past century to portray and problematise skin colour as a cultural signifier, in relation to concepts such as race, culture, class, and national belonging. At a time when techniques for measuring skin colour are returning as a means of highlighting societal inequalities, how far can such initiatives succeed in making societies see skin colour differently – even ‘objectively’ – without ultimately objectifying it?

Broadly speaking, my work is concerned with how ancestry and identity become inscribed in and on bodies through biocultural processes and biopolitical regimes, and the ways in which contemporary anti-racist programmes seek to challenge these legacies. In previous research, I have focused on how genomic technologies are created and implemented in ways that reflect and interact with local preoccupations about race, ethnicity, and national identity. My doctoral thesis compared how personalised DNA ancestry tests have been mobilised in Brazil and the United States in the past two decades, in particular as a means of redressing the legacies of slavery by reconstructing genealogical links between African-American and African populations. I am currently preparing a monograph about the relationship between DNA and identities, under the working title Permanent Markers: Race, Ancestry, and the Body after the Genome.

I have been a member of two major interdisciplinary European networks (EUROTAST and CitiGen), and my research has received funding from the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions programme and Humanities in the European Research Area. I have conducted fieldwork in the US, Brazil, Iceland, Cuba and Mexico, and would be interested in hearing from students who are working on topics relating to race, ethnicity, and scientific regimes of knowledge in American societies.

Research interests

  • Comparative studies of racisms and anti-racisms
  • Representations of skin colour in ‘mestizo’ societies
  • Impacts of genetics and anthropology on knowledge production about race, ethnicity, human origins
  • DNA ancestry testing and genealogy
  • Anthropology of naming practices



In the 2019/2020 academic year I will be convening and teaching on the CLAS MPhil module Perspectives on Race in Latin America.