Nara Milanich

Associate Professor, Department of History

Barnard University

Heyman Center Fellow 2016-17

Project Description:

According to Nara Milanich, the Heyman Fellows program was instrumental in helping her bring her book, The Birth of Uncertainty: Testing Paternity in the Twentieth Century, to a conclusion. Milanich’s book is the first to explore the development of tests of biological parentage over the course of the twentieth century and their consequences for men, women, and children, states and societies. For millenia, the principle pater semper incertus est (“the father is always uncertain”) seemed an immutable law of nature. But in the 1920s, new advances in the science of heredity appeared poised to overthrow that assumption. Adopting a cross-cultural, comparative perspective, her research shows that even as parentage testing has purported to reveal essential biological truths, its social uses, public regulation, and cultural meanings have varied widely over time and across global societies. Paternity testing was first heralded as a tool for identifying errant fathers and adulterous wives but was soon incorporated into welfare policies and immigration proceedings, where it assessed not only kinship but also citizenship. Thus, a technology to ascertain the tie of parent and child has also served, from its inception, to draw the boundaries of race and nation. Today, DNA testing can establish genealogical descent with virtual certainty. But while science destabilized older social and legal constructions of paternity, it never fully displaced them. The result is that, in the age of modern biomedicine, definitions of kinship, identity, and belonging are as “uncertain” as ever.  

Nara Milanich, Associate Professor of History, joined the faculty of Barnard in 2004. Her scholarly interests include modern Latin America, Chile, and the comparative histories of family, gender, childhood, reproduction, law, and social inequality. Professor Milanich teaches courses ranging from the Modern Latin American History survey to a comparative seminar on the "Global Politics of Reproduction." She works closely with PhD students in Latin American History at Columbia. Professor Milanich has also taught in and directed the Masters in Latin American Studies (MARSLAC) based in the Institute for Latin American Studies.Her research and scholarship have been supported by the Fulbright Commission for Educational Exchange, the Social Science Research Council, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Unesco, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Professor Milanich writes and publishes in both Spanish and English. She is the author of The Chile Reader: History, Culture, Politics (co-edited with Elizabeth Quay Hutchison, Thomas Miller Klubock, and Peter Winn) (Duke University Press,2013), and Children of Fate: Childhood, Class, and the State in Chile, 1850-1930 (Duke University Press, 2009) Spanish edition in progress: Los hijos del azar. Infancia, clase y estado en Chile. 1850-1930. Translated by Ana María Velasco. Forthcoming, 2017.