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Disa Helander

PhD in gender studies. My research interests include borders, migration control, nation, body and family, as well as postcolonial, queer and feminist theory.




Works at

Doctoral student (on leave) at Umeå Centre for Gender Studies (UCGS)
Samhällsvetarhuset, Plan 4

I defended my PhD thesis in 2023 with the title Bordering through genetics: DNA testing, family reunification and Swedish migration control. The thesis focuses on the use of DNA-tests in migration control in Sweden. When applying for family (re)unification, some applicants have to prove their relationships through DNA-analysis. This transforms ’family’ as to include only genetic parent-child relationships and couples who have children that are genetically related to both parties. This is a stark contrast to more varied delimitations of family in other contexts, not least in relation to queer family and kinship practices.

In my thesis, I analysed this limited and reduced doing of family as, on the one hand, shaped by racialised and sexualised constructions of family and nation, and on the other hand, as shaped by DNA-analyses being perceived as providing clear cut and reliable answers as to who is family. I explored the use of DNA-tests in migration control in Sweden through an ethnographic study consisting of interviews, observations and text material. The study involved civil servants at the Swedish Migration Agency, the Migration Courts, staff in laboratories analysing DNA, representatives from migrant rights organisations and lawyers, as well as people who have applied for family reunification.

My material shows that DNA-analyses come to function as the ’truth’ about family, despite a common understanding of family practices as considerably more complex and varied. Against this backdrop I drew on feminist science studies to explore the processes of analysing DNA in laboratories, raising issues such as how this knowledge comes to be constructed as certain. Further, as this knowledge moves from the laboratories to the migration authorities, I explored how it overrules other knowledges, discourses and constructions of family. In summary, the thesis brings together queer kinship studies, feminist critical border studies, postcolonial theory and feminist science studies to argue – through the empirical example of the use of DNA-tests – that constructions and mobilisations of scientific knowledge, in combination with racialised and sexualised discourses, function to legitimise and naturalise migration control.

Feminist ethnographies: methodological reflections in gender research, Umeå: Umeå University 2023 : 27-42
Helander, Disa
Fronesis, Malmö:: 2020, (66-67) : 163-176
Helander, Disa

I teach on several courses in gender studies at both undergraduate and advanced level, among others: Gender Studies A and B; Gender, Sex, Bodies; Feminist Theory and Intersectional Analysis; as well as Gender, Nation and Migration. I also supervise undergraduate dissertations.