Genealogy, public history, and cyber kinship
21 August 2015 – Regina Poertner
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. Regina Poertner is the third of these scholars. To read the two prior posts, see Paul Knevel, Sara Trevisan.
To date, historians’ debates on the impact of new technologies have focused primarily on the challenges to the academic profession, raising important questions about, for example, the future tools and methods of professional historical research, the visualisation and archiving of data, sharing of digital resources and research outputs, and more generally the ways in which the current digital revolution is changing our perception of who we are and what we do. The article by Jerome De Groot broadens this debate to encompass the public as the consumer and producer of a new brand of public history in the making: digital genealogical research has become a lucrative commercial venture–significantly, without clearly demarcated national borders–and is becoming the remit of the amateur historian who simultaneously is the object and author of the “curated self.”
However, as this essay will argue, this apparent empowerment comes at a price. For example, given the nature of the medium, and the inbuilt limitations of standardised, pre-formatted research tools and questions, the “self” that is thus constituted is arguably to a large extent de-personalised and exchangeable. Genealogy by its nature strives for comprehensiveness, and its pursuit inexorably draws the consequent follower to the limits of the known, merging her own fate with mankind’s, and connecting the unknown “before” with an equally unknowable future. The article cites research that reveals an ever-growing appetite for this kind of endeavour, making online genealogical research a rival contender to online shopping and consumption of pornography.
Secondly, as the evidence from Business Week in 2012 suggests (cited on pp. 19-20), there appears to be a core constituency of users, or perhaps we should say customers, who are defined by age (55+), gender (predominantly female), ethnicity (white), and, given that much of these services are commercial ventures and require surplus funds and leisure time, it seems plausible to assume that there is a class aspect as well. So whence this demand?
If we look back at the significance of genealogy in times past, genealogical study frequently originated in the need to produce proof of descent as a precondition for access to titles and honours, estates, and careers in the service of the church, court, and state. It was bound up closely with religious and ethnic identities, as was the case with the need to document “purity of blood” in post-Reconquest Iberia, where the concept underpinned a steeply hierarchical society and protected the interests of a narrow and exclusive “Old Christian” elite against competition from wealthy social risers. The gentleman amateur of Old Regime and early 19th-century Europe, in contrast, was likely to be comfortably ensconced in society; tracing his family’s rise and putting his ancestors’ feats on record gratified his pride alongside serving social and economic purposes.
With the rise of bourgeois society, such pursuits were more widely shared, documenting bourgeois pride in family achievement and challenging aristocratic exclusiveness. Nineteenth-century realistic novels document the trials and tribulations of the bourgeoisie in a Europe that was still in thrall to Old Regime values and continued to impose legal constraints on them, leaving aside the gender dimension that increasingly preoccupied the authors of such literature.
So, to summarise, and taking into account the global dimension of this practice, genealogy and its study was part of a toolkit that served to enforce social order and involved surveillance, regulation, and selection by whatever family, class, or caste prevailed in society, aided and supported by the institutions of the religion or cults that prevailed in the societies in question. But this does not exhaust the meaning of genealogy as a social practice. As such, it belongs in a spectrum of social practices that enmesh the individual in a network of relations that permanently connect the living and the dead. Genealogy needs to be seen in the context of practices of ancestor worship, attitudes towards death, codes of conduct defining family shame and honour, and occasionally a belief in the continuing spiritual presence of the deceased amongst the living.
One could speculate that the evidence for a growing appetite for genealogical research in our time is not a sign of individual empowerment and global connectedness but an attempt to prime the “all-knowing” Internet for answers that might help make sense of one’s own apparently random existence and position oneself within a supposed “wider plan of things.” The Internet has become the modern oracle, offering a vast array of truths and a pick-and-choose past. The effect is to create the delusion of participation and democracy where in fact there is a near unbridgeable chasm between the minority of makers of this virtual environment, and its “end-users,” many of whom have little stake in, and influence over, their own presence and future.
With the disintegration of actual social relations and networks and the surrogate “friendships” offered through social media like Facebook, there is the option of creating one’s own cyber kinship. In practice, most genuine genealogical trails stop after a few generations, given the lack or loss of documentation and the practical obstacles to validating existing evidence, not to mention the obliterating impact of migration and changes of names and identities, especially since World War II.
Against this background, the “curated self” is one that positions and roots itself within a–gratifyingly extensive–network of cyber kinship. The evidence from the previously quoted survey that ranks online genealogical searches the third most frequent activity after shopping and viewing of pornography is revealing: it is part of the world of consumption in which, funds permitting, the new “global citizen” (p. 25) can participate without limitation and inhibition. However, given the unresolved problems of long-term digital data preservation, it is as yet unlikely that coding the dead condemns them to eternal life in “the cold archive of the internet” (p. 26): in that respect our seventeenth-century ancestors who entrusted their genealogical searches to astonishingly durable material may yet have the edge over us.
~ Dr. Regina Poertner is Associate Professor in History, Department of History and Classics, Swansea University, Singleton Park, UK – SWANSEA SA2 8PP
Further information about the photo: From 1933, the National Socialist “Reich Genealogical Authority” enlisted the services of professional genealogists to “purge” the state of “non-Aryans.” The laws of 1933 and 1935 inaugurated the NS racial policy that was to result in the segregation, deportation, and murder of the Jewish population of Germany and occupied territories. See Eric Ehrenreich, The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2007).