Family history around the world

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Editor’s Note: This post concludes a two-part series exploring international family history that began last year. 

Manchester Central Library, UK. Photo credit: Gtosti via Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

In October 2017, we held the International Family History Workshop in Manchester, UK. This event was a way to explore the rich margins inhabited by scholars and practitioners of the burgeoning phenomenon of family history. Our workshop attracted a truly international group of genealogists, sociologists, humanists, psychologists, political scientists, anthropologists, and public historians. Scholars and practitioners shared an awareness of the ways in which family history methodologies complicate national narratives, especially in settler-colonial and settler-migrant nations. At the same time, the model of “family history” imposed upon local cultures by global information structures and systems often stresses Westernized, Anglophone models of historicity, identity, and family relationships. Hence it may work to occlude, forget, or ignore particular communities and to reify certain ways of thinking about the past and the present. Part of our investigation into family history as a “global” phenomenon within a public history framework must be to recognize the ethical, moral, and political assumptions that are at the heart of these practices.

To tease out the implications of these assumptions, we posed a set of questions to participants at the start of the day that we invited them to answer in “poster” format on tables throughout the room.

Their responses were important to us for various reasons. Family history is the most leveling, user-driven form of history available. The responses and discussions that we captured show the workings of a set of formidably skilled family historians working through problems and responding to provocations. These responses allowed us to think about the relationship between “academic” presentation and “public” response. As a consequence they are as important as documents of the intellectual work that went on that day as anything else. They show the way that an important, but relatively neglected, set of historians conceive of themselves and their craft. You can see the responses in our Flickr album, and they are freely available for use in scholarship or teaching.

In what follows we offer a brief selection of some of the responses and a reading of what is going on in the various discussions. We explore what they might suggest to us as scholars of family history and as public historians.

1. Family history and revelation

“Family secrets are something that was more common 2 generations ago. Modern families accept today what ancestors wouldn’t.” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

This is one of the key aspects of the historical work being done. There is a clear sense of a difference between contemporary and historical family structures. Indeed, this sense of different types of temporality in family structures was something that was discussed throughout the day. Family historians are very comfortable with different models of the family and other forms of historicity.

2. Family is a complex entity

“Family: Our current family vs historical family; Family historians outnumber all other historians; Large amounts of data; What is a family?” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

The discussion apparent here is complex and interesting in terms of the ways that the central term of the practice—“family”—is put under pressure. It also shows a growing awareness of practice, professional self-identification, but also the way that “family” and “data” might interrelate within a family historical context.

3. The ethics of investigating the past

The key here is both the way that information is presented—in a tree/mind map—and the fact that it proceeds by questioning. The important question that is achieved eventually is “Do people have ‘a right to know’?” as well as the acceptance of the fact that researchers “Have to be prepared to find bad things.” Family historians are keenly aware of the ethical consequences of their investigations and the possible disruptions this might cause. They are also aware that their own practice might not be morally unassailable.

4. Family history and democracy

“Family History less elitist (‘convict chic’); Hierarchy of evidence: documents, oral history; Who are the experts?” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

This response clearly outlines the key elements of family history—less elitist, concerned with experts, interested in evidence, and aware of types of evidence and ways it might be challenged.

“Experience & knowledge reached through the relationship between meaning and presence; Access to archives are changing driving by family genealogists; Family history and democratization of access to archives and historical discourse.” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

This discussion obviously engaged with the transformative power of family history on the purpose and focus of the archive. Family history is understood here as a democratizing, enfranchising challenge to archives and historical discourse.

“How does family history structure our knowledge about past & present? Jobs; Locations; Housing; Education; Illnesses; Migration; Emigration. What new knowledge can we create today?” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

Whilst difficult to read, this is one of the most complete responses we have. It outlines some of the ways in which family history allows people to know in the present, presenting its epistemological aspects. In particular it shows the enfranchisement mentioned above in terms of the way that family historians might feel themselves empowered or able to query and challenge accepted discourse and practice.

5. Family history as historiographical practice

“ American oriented; lack of explanation of what contributing documents are in new digitalised archives. The best known FH provider, but the most poorly indexed. Old way of doing FH: births/marriages/deaths vs new way: focus on censuses, access to newspapers” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

This response shows two things—self-awareness about the shift in practice (particularly that is brokered by new databases and websites)—and how this change in evidence also has a knock-on effect on what is known. The critique of is relatively common amongst family historians, despite the website being one of the most popular and well-used in the world.

“How to tell my cousins that my great grandfather had a whole other first family that none of us knew about? Discovered through Ancestry DNA test.” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

“Developing strategies for extracting ‘sensitive’ information whilst respecting indiv[idual] privacy/dignity.” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

“Enshrinement of the family in political contexts–is there room to exist outside or dissent from politicised structures of family? How do you keep the idea of the family open in your research?” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

These sections above dramatize the ethical complexity of family history. How does investigating the past change the present? Can it make problems in the contemporary world? Do we have a moral duty to the past, and to those in the present affected by it? How might we change our practice in doing this?

6. Family history and genetics

“Why don’t our DNA results match up to what we’ve discovered during our research?” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

This is one of the simplest, but most interesting responses. The disjunct between discourses —scientific and personal research—is important and it is experienced regularly by family historians. We will conclude with this final comment:

“Are we responsible for the actions of our ancestors?” Photo credit: Jerome DeGroot and Tanya Evans

There is a wealth of complicated discussion going on behind this comment, and given the ethical anxieties highlighted in a number of responses it is clear that the personalization of family history is a key aspect of it.

Race and ethnicity

Indigenous researchers in diverse nations across the globe are clearly using family history to trouble national narratives and to insert the stories of their families into national histories from which they are often excluded. Many of the scholarly participants in our workshop addressed these key issues. In the Australian context the discovery of mixed race relationships in the family tree and Aboriginal ancestry are also challenging people’s understandings of their family as well as their nation’s past. Ashley Barnwell revealed the ways in which Indigenous dispossession was being revealed in Australian family secrets among her research subjects. Marcelo Abreu talked about the politicized nature of public history in Brazil, and Indira Chowdhury used her work on post-Partition India to remind us that “national” histories are often contested and in conflict (bemoaning, along the way, the increasing “nuclearisation” of the Indian family). Public historians have to work hard with diverse sources—written, oral, and material—to bring marginalized stories about the past to notice. Andre Freixo reminded us that “What we choose to do with the past always resonates towards others.”

Education and Collaborative Practice

All researchers who undertake their intellectual work in archives and libraries around the world are aware that there is more likelihood of sitting alongside a genealogist or family historian than an academic historian while they work. These institutions have been dramatically reconceptualized and redesigned to meet the needs of this ever-growing client group. Both Henriette Roued-Cunliffe and Carolina Jonsson Malm told us about the ways in which archive buildings and services in Denmark and Sweden have been restructured to meet the needs of family historians: “the role of archivists as the neutral guardians of information has been challenged” (Roued-Cunliffe). Both scholars have positively embraced the possibilities of collaborating with family historians on cultural heritage and digital history projects. Roued-Cunliffe exhorted that all researchers need to reap the benefits of the “helpful information behaviour” of family historians. The educative function of family history is often unappreciated and more analysis is ripe as Ewa Jurczyk-Romanowska reminded us with her research on the elderly in Poland. Family history can have significant social and political functions and it can empower researchers, linking the past to the present in powerful ways, transforming individuals’ understandings of themselves and the wider world.

Jerome de Groot teaches at the University of Manchester. He is the author of Consuming History (2008/ 2016), The Historical Novel (2009), and Remaking History (2015).

Tanya Evans teaches public history at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia where she is Director of the Centre for Applied History and President of the History Council of New South Wales. Her books include Fractured Families: Life on the Margins in Colonial New South Wales (2015), (with Pat Thane), Sinners, Scroungers, Saints: Unmarried Motherhood in Modern England (2012), and Swimming with the Spit (2016). She has worked as a historical consultant for charities in Britain and Australia and for the television series, Who Do You Think You Are?.

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