Wednesday, October 26, 2011

"Genealogies Aren't Found -- They're Made"

For centuries in the West the genetic/biological description of family has been highly correlated with Western religious and political views of family. Each person has one sperm-supplying parent, and one egg-supplying parent, i.e., two parents of opposite sexes: exactly the type of couple able to marry in mainstream Judeo-Christian churches; and exactly the type of couple defined legally at the U.S. federal level by the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

But is this the only definition of “kinship”? A recent author notes:

Whatever the arrangement and whoever the people are, it is important to record the family unit “as is.” Therefore, when you record two individuals in a relationship portray it on a family group sheet… If there are children produced from a nontraditional pairing, show them as you normally would, as issue from the union.[1]

In the real world, a child’s parents might be parents through biology, parents through adoption, parents through egg or semen donation, parents through marriage, foster parents, or family members who are not biological parents to that particular child. The City of Boston even has a public housing unit set aside specifically for families in which children are being raised by grandparents.

The reality of a family can wander all over the place. It can be far more complex than one male parent and one female parent. My own daughter legally has one mother and one father. She has in reality one birth mother, one birth father, one adoptive mother, one adoptive father, and two stepmothers. The kid has six parents, two full-blood siblings, and seven half-blood siblings. When she was in kindergarten, local people “knew” she was my only child. When she told her classmates about her siblings, she was called a liar. Harsh words for a kid who was telling the truth to a bunch of other kids who didn’t know how complex families can be.

When we get into just who it is that we research, even more complexity can come into play. What are the dynamics of the family in which a child grew up? Was the focus on one social/cultural part of their extended kinship network?

When I first started doing genealogy, I filled in my pedigree chart. I did family group sheets for each couple in the pedigree chart. I was happy just so long as I could keep adding names to that chart. Then the second level of genealogy infected me. I wanted more than names and dates. I wanted the stories of the people. I remember exactly when I made this transition. I was reading my fourth great grandfather’s pension application – only in order to figure out his birth date for the chart – when I could hear his words, as if he was talking to me. From there, I had to learn about the battles in which he had fought and the life he had lived in the old hometown. I was hooked. Consequently, I get fewer names onto the pedigree chart, but I know far more about each person.

Recently Josh Rothman, a blogger for the Boston Globe under the blog name Brainiac, reviewed a book on genealogy. His opening blog paragraph caught my attention:

In recent years, interest in genealogy has become a globe-conquering phenomenon; now, with the rise of consumer genetics, we can expect them to become ever more detailed and far-reaching. In Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community, Eviatar Zerubavel, a sociologist at Rutgers, pulls back the curtain on the genealogical obsession. Genealogies, he argues, aren't the straightforward, objective accounts of our ancestries we often presume them to be. Instead, they're heavily curated social constructions, and are as much about our values as they are about the facts of who gave birth to whom.[2]

His newspaper presentation differs slightly (the Ideas & Books section has an editor who is perhaps responsible for the memorable ending to the paragraph):

In recent years, interest in genealogy has become a globe-conquering phenomenon – people everywhere are combing birth records, and even traveling abroad, to unearth the “real story” about their ancestral roots. What, though, are they really finding? In “Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community,” Eviatar Zerubavel, a sociologist at Rutger’s University, argues that genealogies aren’t really the straightforward, objective accounts we often presume them to be. Instead they’re heavily curated social constructions, which tell us as much about our own values as they do about our origins. Genealogies aren’t found – they’re made.[3]

The profound insight appears to be that we have complex families and that we apply presentism in some way to our understanding of the past. He is saying that what we say and what we focus on says more about us than about our ancestors. The bottom line is that we pick and choose the ancestors that interest us the most. Then we view them with our contemporary understandings and values.

I actually didn’t find this to be news. This put me in mind of a genealogy book review over twelves years old:

Although the author succeeded in treating the social changes of the twentieth century, the reviewer was left with a few questions – not about the book, but about how we write our own family histories. We print them on acid-free paper and bind them with library binding, clearly planning that they will still be on the shelves in four or five generations. How will society’s perceptions and understandings change in 150 years? One hundred years ago, an author might have seen alcoholism as moral degeneracy. Twenty years ago, it was seen as a disease. There are still some members of American society who see alcoholism as a habit from which sufferers can easily recover. What, really, will our great grandchildren see in the story of an alcoholic? We can surmise that they will read it with the eyes of people who know far more than we do about its possible genetic origins. In addition, they will also see the moral and cultural slant of the author who tells the story. Our own values will become visible through the voices with which we write.

Actually, this brings to mind a truism from interior decorating. What remains fresh the longest are designs which draw on classical and traditional influences. What become dated fast are designs which attempt to be fully contemporary, thus becoming immediately recognizable as those of a distinct, and limited, time period… How much should we reveal? And how much does what we tell reveal about ourselves?[4]

The photo above is one I took today at the local Barnes and Noble store. It shows the genealogy books available there. Because I was quoting George, I thought showing his book (and Megan's) on how to do genealogy might be fun. Online genealogy is certainly a big topic there.

[1] George C. Morgan, How to Do Everything: Genealogy, Second Edition (McGraw Hill Prof. Med./Tech., 2009), 64.
[2] Josh Rothman, “Are Genealogies Just Social Constructs?” Brainiac blog posting dated 19 Oct 2011, The Boston Globe; : viewed 25 Oct 2011.
[3] Josh Rothman, “Are Genealogies Just Social Constructs?” The Boston Sunday Globe, issue of 23 October 2011, section K, page 4.
[4] Barbara Jean Mathews, CG, book review, “A Dutch-English Odyssey: Stories of Brewer and Estey Families in North America,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 153 (April 1999): 244.