It is quite difficult not to notice that parts of British society are in the midst of a fascination with genealogy. The success and endurance of this current phase of genealogical interest is rooted in the packaging and selling of family history, as your family, your history, sustained by increasing body of primary records being readily available at a relatively cheap cost. This is highly effective commercialisation, resulting in a relateable product; it creates a relatively cheap accessible entry point for people to engage with history and has supported the investment in digitization of records. Unfortunately it remains structured around ill-defined concepts of family and households that were designed for bureaucratic measurements, such as how old was the population, how many men could fight, and to gain an understanding of what work people did.
The archivist Hannah Little has said ‘genealogy can be seen as a narrative form, as a way of telling a story about the self’, which exposes the continuing tensions between the historians with proper research goals, insights and theories and the sleuthing popular genealogists finding, crafting and honing their own personal-familial stories. Kramer of Warwick University told the Guardian in 2010 ‘”Genealogy allows people to personalise the past, genealogists have told me: ‘I hated history at school. It was just a series of dates with no connection to my life.’ But then they’ve discovered that their great uncle won a medal during the First World War, and the place where he fought immediately becomes more than just another battlefield.”
Rodriguez writing for Time Magazine in 2014 talked both about a multi-billion dollar cottage industry and a fascination that for the US context now stretched far away from previous generations’ elitist and racist motivations. This is an important observation as previous waves of genealogical interest have been shown to be about both binding new high status families i.e. those with new money into old power networks and were used to draw distinctions about those who properly belong and those who don’t.
In modern Britain it is possible to see the tensions and changes on our televisions throughout the year courtesy of ‘Heir Hunters’, ‘Who do you think you are?’ and during this past spring (2016) John Bullman brought us the ‘secret history of the family’. All featuring people whether celebrity or woman of the street reflecting upon the missed opportunities to connect with a recently dead cousin or the passage of attributes of a great great grandfather with an intense backstory passing through the blood to the latest generation. In a drive to be helpful and relevant the genealogical companies offer resources such as ‘Family Group Sheet – Each piece of information concerning a pedigree ancestor and his/her family is placed on a worksheet. Since the end result of your research efforts will be to compile complete, correct and connected families, the use of family group sheets from the beginning will make the compilation much easier.’ Which is redolent with loaded terms that set and potentially limit expectation, for instance ‘pedigree‘ which speaks of bloodlines, which in a society still pre-loaded with patriarchy directs attention to male lineages and suggests that Rodriguez was too optimistic.
Whilst genealogical efforts remain paired with personal identity and constrained by nuclear family constructs the true potential of the data-processing being under-taken from countless armchairs will be under-used; instead an approach that co-opts Euro-Global models of kinship analysis into the British context is required. Kinship collation by assembling reconstructed genealogies from official data, of the otherwise unrecorded as well as recorded captures at the gross-level indicators of past peoples decision outcomes about their life and choices regarding personal relationships. In the weeks ahead this blog will begin to look at both the practice of kinship collation and the insights that emerge when it is used to query the data-processing exercise that modern genealogical interest has produced.