On Genealogy

The keynote lecture delivered by Jerome De Groot was quite an energetic kick-off to the IFPH 2014 conference on ‘Public history in a digital world’. De Groot focused on the topic of genealogy to unlock a broad field of themes relating to historical practices outside academia. In this blog, we want to elaborate on three topics that seem the most relevant to us.

De Groot started his contribution by noting that ‘genealogy’, as one of the biggest participatory activities on earth, is largely undertheorised. By referring to online-databases such as ‘Ancestry.com’ and TV-series like ‘Who do you think you are’ he stressed its popularity (though mainly as ‘Western’ phenomenon). According to De Groot, people doing history at home, often independently on their own, refers to a way of thinking about history, time and historical research that differs strongly from academic history. He called it a ‘shift in epistemology’. Later on in his talk, De Groot elaborated on this shift by focusing on the impact of DNA-research in the form of a sense of ‘deep time’ that challenges the partial understanding of academic historical research (cf. the contribution of Charles Romney to the session ‘Telling history in print and in digital form’, where he focused on the topic of multiple chronologies). Apart from this contribution of natural science, De Groot also stressed the danger of DNA-research (and the whole industry surrounding it) to strengthen the linear structuralist view upon the past as a sort of ‘master family tree’ with no place for complexity and contextualisation.

The second issue De Groot drew attention to relates to the phenomenon of crowd-sourcing (cf. lecture of Mia Ridge in the session of ‘Citizen and community history’). A company such as ‘Ancestry.com’ makes profit out of the voluntary shared contribution of its users, and especially out of the ‘commodification’ of that information. By its voluntariness, genealogy as ‘serious leisure’ is something like what Adam Arvidsson calls social labour. It contributes to a genealogical community-building that shapes a public sphere beyond national boundaries (cf. Manuel Castells). De Groot stressed the quality of family history as stateless history that shapes a family identity that is not ‘national’. Here again, a field of tension is being revealed between the community-building potentiality of crowd-sourcing and its commercialisation by transnational corporations. These are topics De Groot has elaborated on in his ‘Consuming history: historians and heritage in contemporary popular culture’. As some players on the public history-field tend to reduce history to a matter of transactions, markets, value and profit, history is becoming more and more commodified. According to De Groot, these phenomena have to be theorized by academic historians. This brings up questions about the privatisation of history, as Mia Ridge tweeted: ‘Great to hear critique of genealogy sties retrospectively privatising the lives of private individuals’.

De Groot’s lecture built up to the paradox between the structuralist uniformity of the family tree that is central to the popular ‘Who do you think you are’-like understanding of genealogy and the inverse understanding of genealogy by Foucault. ‘On genealogy’ is a critique of linearity. In this respect, it can be understood as a critique of the genealogical tree; as a pleading for complexity. De Groot emphasized this point by contrasting the popularity of genealogy with the upheaval of Britishness-feelings nowadays. In this context, Claire Hayward tweeted: ‘Now I’m wondering if UKIP are against genealogy and all that tracing the reality of migration over thousands of years’. De Groot could have elaborated on this paradox – which felt like the culmination of his keynote-lecture – more extensively.

To conclude, we refer to a recent ‘apology’ of family history by Alison Light in The Guardian (http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/oct/11/genealogy-not-historys-poor-relation-family). The article led to a lively discussion about family history. Interesting comments questioned topics such as how people handle the discovery of the revealing fact that most of us have criminality in our lines. Some comments dealt with questions like: ‘If you discovered that your 18th century forebears were slave traders, would you see that played out before you too?’. Above all, family history has the potential to stress the contingency of history. Historical consciousness builds upon the awareness that history could have been different. It calls attention to the complexity in the sense of Foucault’s understanding of genealogy.

Blog by Jonas Heirbrant and Dieter Bruneel (Ghent university)