Genealogy and the problem of biological essentialism

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Space-filling model animation of B-DNA, made with qutemol. Image courtesy Jahobr, Wikimedia Commons

Space-filling model animation of B-DNA, made with qutemol. Photo credit:   Jahobr, Wikimedia Commons

Editor’s note: In “On Genealogy,” a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of mass amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might “investigate, theorize, and interrogate” the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion. Carolina Jonsson Malm is the fourth of these scholars.  To read the three prior posts, see Paul Knevel, Sara Trevisan. and Regina Poertner

There are many possible explanations as to why genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in our time. The last decades’ growing interest in local history and life stories could be one. The increasing public awareness of genetics and the potential of genetic engineering another. People’s sense of rootlessness and lack of social relations in a rapidly changing world yet another. Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that genealogy has become almost a social movement, involving millions of people around the world. In his article, “On Genealogy,” Jerome de Groot suggests that genealogy in many ways can be described as “a democratization of access to the past.”   As a result of the new digital technology and the improved accessibility of public records, anyone with time and inclination can search for their ancestors in databases and online. People whose lives and fates are not part of the traditional academic historiography are uncovered. Everyone gets their fifteen minutes–at least in the family historian’s genealogical tree.

Genealogy is a peculiar pastime. It is a form of historical research without a clear and answerable research question. What is the family historian trying to do when following the lineage through space and time? To track down distant relatives and reunite lost family members? To find information about dead ancestors? To discover profound truths about him or herself? The title of the popular television program Who Do You Think You Are? is revealing. The search for roots is existential and self-actualizing. We are defined by heritage, by blood, by our genes.

When scrutinizing the underlying assumption, researching one’s family roots is not just an innocent and innocuous act. Michael S. Sweeney is calling this “the genealogical assumption,” which is the notion that who you are is tied to who your ancestors were.1 It is not difficult to see why this kind of biological essentialism is problematic. What would it mean, then, if there among the ancestors were criminals, prostitutes, paupers, and mental defectives (which is not at all unlikely) or people with a lifestyle that would be hard to relate to or even approve of? How would that be incorporated into the self-concept? Genealogy as a quest for self-knowledge is a risky business.

As a public historian often collaborating with archivists and archival educators, I am actively involved in discussions on how to develop guidance and tools for visitors, the majority being family historians. What we don’t talk about is the implications of family history and what the family historians do. Not how they conduct their research, but what motivates them, what they are looking for, and what they do with the findings. And perhaps most importantly, how their endeavors might affect them and others. We don’t challenge the genealogical assumptions and the essentialist ideas that lie behind them. Mostly we are just happy that the archives have visitors at all. What they actually do there and why seems almost irrelevant.

Neither do we talk about the issue that lies at the very heart of their practice–the concept of family. The family has been a source of considerable ideological and theoretical debate, not least from a feminist perspective.2 Family in its simplest forms can be described as a small community where legal, financial, emotional, social and/or biological ties are what unite the members–the living and the dead. However, what constitutes a family varies across cultures and time periods but also between different individuals within the same group. In today’s modern society, there is a wide diversity of household arrangements creating alternative family forms and kinship relations. We don’t know all that much about how the definitions of family shape genealogical practice. How do family historians with different backgrounds, beliefs and values undertake research and how do they perceive their object of study? Do they use the resources that are provided to them differently, and if so, how can we better cater to that?

I will give one brief example to illustrate this:  I recently visited Anbytarforum, which is the online forum of the Federation of Swedish Genealogical Societies, where members can discuss topics related to genealogical research and share their experiences.3 Among other things, there were quite a few conversations on illegitimate children. For the most part, these were technical discussions on how to track down the father, which some viewed as an exciting challenge, while others seemed to think of it as a nuisance. But there were also discussions on whether and how to include these children and their fathers in the family tree. Some argued that they (just the child or both) should be considered part of the family, others didn’t believe so. For some, biology seemed to take precedence over social ties, for others the way people actually lived their lives mattered the most.

Similar arguments can be found regarding adopted children. As an adoptee myself, I discovered a couple of years ago that my family (not my parents, but other relatives) had chosen not to include me or my adopted brothers in the family tree. It was an unpleasant experience, but also thought-provoking, and it got me started thinking about how genealogical research in many aspects preserves traditional notions about blood and kinship, and I wanted to explore this further. I hope that public historians can start talking about these issues and that we can develop tools for archivists and archival educators to engage their visitors in a critical discussion on the genealogical practice. If genealogy is “a democratization of access to the past,” people should not feel uncomfortable and excluded by it.

~ Dr Carolina Jonsson Malm is currently a postdoc at Linnaeus University and Kalmar County Museum, Sweden. She is the research coordinator of the project “Applied Heritage” on how to use cultural heritage to strengthen democracy and social development.


1 Michael S. Sweeney, Ancestors, Avotaynu, Roots: An Inquiry to American Genealogy Discourse (PhD Diss., University of Kansas, 2010)

2 Hilde Lindemann Nelson (ed.), Feminism and Families (London: Routledge, 1997)

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