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.

The comments that the previous post on this blog generated (Who are the serious genealogists?) prompted me 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.

Helen Osborn

 

 

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4 Responses to You are being studied

  1. My goodness, genealogists have finally made it to the pinnacle of research – we can now be known as lab rats too. I could understand if we were the subjects of a psychiatric study, being the obsessive/compulsive types many of us become, but I had not thought we yet deserved to be the focus of anthropologists who mainly study the evolution of society and customs of mankind (Oxford dictionary).

    I agree with Helen that studying the past, and especially our ancestors, gives us a more personal knowledge of history. Unravelling family history also allows us to gain a perspective about ourselves as well as a sense of where we fit in a succession of lives. But I hope we don’t take ourselves quite as seriously as Dr Cannell does. Finding past relationships is fun, not quite in the realm of caring for the dead, which sounds a bit morose.

    I also don’t think one can remake kinship relations. You are related by blood to your ancestors (kinship). If the people you are researching do not have that relationship then they were not your ancestors! We are merely learning about them: where they lived, what they did, who their families were and what they thought (if we are really lucky enough to find documents in which they expressed themselves).

    I do find myself looking for similarities in the past lives of my family members with my own. I guess that is a way of finding whether there are genetic traits that get passed down – good or bad. It’s not really paying tribute but satisfying curiosity.

    • Gail Roger says:

      I fully agree that family history can strengthen interest in history as a whole. When I watch a documentary or even a costume drama, I now have a personal interest, thinking about the contemporary relatives living at that time or within the geographical area. I find myself imagining how the depicted events would have affected them.

      However, I also feel a greater connection with those who have gone before me and I don’t find this morose at all! Every time I find a new fact about an established ancestor, or discover the name of another one, I feel that they have been “named” again and that I am helping “rescue” them, if you will, from nameless obscurity. This may make me a narcissist at worst, or sadly delusional at best, but I don’t think it makes me morose or morbid.

      • helenosborn says:

        I am with Gail on this one. Gail, I like the description of how you feel you are re-naming or rescuing your ancestors. It is definitely not morose, and it does not make you narcissistic. The anthropologists (and others) who say genealogists are narcissists (surprising difficult to spell and say quickly!) take the view that we do it only to discover ourselves, our place in the world, and of course there is a snobbery element if we hope to discover connections to the rich and famous.

  2. Jayne says:

    For me, researching my family history has made history itself ‘come alive’. Yes, it’s fascinating to find out ‘where you’ve come from’ so to speak – but it makes no difference to me whether my ancestors were rich or poor. On the one hand I have ancestors who were affected by the Lancashire cotton famine, and others who probably came to England to escape violence and poverty in Ireland. I also have ancestors who were lords of the manor – one ancestor fought at Crecy, at least two were at Agincourt, another started the Banastre rebellion and was beheaded – yet another ancestor beheaded (sigh). So, I’ve learned things I never knew about before and (historically as well as personally), I find it fascinating. It makes no difference to me whether they were rich or poor, knowing that, if just one of them was missing – I wouldn’t be here.

    With such a mixed bag, it can’t ‘reassure me about my identity’, nor does it help me ‘discover myself’. What it does do, is help me connect with events in history in general, and how those events influenced my ancestor’s lives and brought me to where I am today. I agree, “the genealogy community,…..is SO much more than just a bunch of enthusiasts putting names into trees” and that “we are finding stories that would never otherwise have come to light”. For those who research seriously, it’s an enriching experience. Love costume dramas by the way!

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