You are being studied

Genealogists are more used to doing the studying, rather than themselves being studied as a community or group.  So it might surprise you to know that there are a number of academic social anthropologists who are studying us genealogists.  Dr Fenella Cannell of the London School of Economics, published a very interesting paper in 2011 following her research into hobby genealogists.  English ancestors: the moral possibilities of popular genealogy.  It is unfortunately behind a paywall, although if you have access to JSTOR you may be able to get it.  This is the abstract:

“This article considers the meanings of ordinary genealogy for English practitioners in East Anglia, and in the popular BBC television series Who do you think you are? It argues against the view, most forcibly expressed by Segalen, that genealogy is a ‘narcissistic‘ pursuit which compensates for individual or collective deracination in modernity. Contra Schneider, it draws attention to family history as a form of care for the dead, and a moral terrain on which the English living and dead are mutually constituted as relatives. This permits a reconsideration of the analysis of ‘self’ in the anthropology of kinship, and its relation to the categories of religion and secularity.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute (N.S.) 17, 462-480

Dr Cannell’s arguments are couched in the academic language of social anthropology because she is writing for other anthropologists.  Nevertheless, we can take some interesting points away for our own discussions.  Some anthropologists think we are engaged in a narcissistic pursuit, which seeks to reassure us about our identity.  This is best expressed by people who talk about the search for ‘my roots’.  But Dr Cannell argues that family historians are actually undertaking a form of ‘care for the dead’.  She says that we are re-making kinship relations with the departed by treating both the living and the dead as kin. Furthermore, our discoveries open up so much more by actually being able to re-envision the past and thus they enable our ancestors to become real people again.   That is a fascinating insight, and I feel the truth of it in my own relationship to my ‘dead people’ whom I study and get to know.  Family historians often discover that the present is a more secure and stable place than the past and are brought up against the social injustices of the past.  Thus by the collecting and recording of information about our ancestors, we are engaging in a form of tribute to those ancestors, the ordinary folk whom perhaps were so little regarded in their own lifetimes.

As I was thinking about how seriously we take genealogy, or not, I was prompted to re-read Dr Cannell’s article and to think more about what genealogy or family history actually is and whether or not it is worthwhile.  Naturally, the answers to these questions will depend on who is doing the asking.  However, if just one of the things that genealogists are doing is changing how social anthropologists see the modern ‘self’, then that is all to the good, as well as surprising.  But anthropologists would not be interested in us if family history had not become so popular world-wide.  The fact of the matter is that family historians are relating to the past en-masse in a way that has never happened before and that is truly exceptional.  By attempting to understand our ancestors’ lives, we are finding stories that would never otherwise have come to light. Through publishing family trees, creating our own websites and blogging we are also creating history in a way that would never have happened without us. I would argue that this is why the genealogy community, hobbyist or professional is so much more than just a bunch of enthusiasts putting names into trees.  

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