Geneologies as “heavily curated social constructions”

Tracking genealogies is both a popular hobby and big business. A sociologist argues that these genealogies are actually social constructions of our past:

In Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community, Eviatar Zerubavel, a sociologist at Rutgers, pulls back the curtain on the genealogical obsession. Genealogies, he argues, aren’t the straightforward, objective accounts of our ancestries we often presume them to be. Instead, they’re heavily curated social constructions, and are as much about our values as they are about the facts of who gave birth to whom…

“No other animals have ‘second cousins once removed,'” Zerubavel points out, “or are aware of having had great-great-great-grandparents”; only people have the more abstract sorts of relatives necessary for a real genealogy. In the meantime, as categories for relatives proliferate and family trees expand, we accrue large numbers of ‘optional’ relatives. We construct our genealogies by choosing, out of a nearly endless array of possibly important or interesting ancestors, the ones who matter to us.

Those choices are highly motivated, and often obviously artificial. Because we want to stretch our family lines far into the past, we often “cut and paste” different branches, claiming, for example, a great-great-grandmother’s stepfather as one of our own ancestors, and following his line into the past. We “braid” ancestral identities together, emphasizing, as President Obama has, that we come from two distinct lines of descent (“a mother from Kansas and a father from Kenya”). Sometimes, though, the opposite impulses take hold. We might deliberately “lump” our diverse ancestries together, aiming to consolidate them, using a label like “Eurasian,” to lower the contrast (as Tiger Woods does when he refers to himself as “Cablinasian” — a combination of Caucasian, black, American Indian, and Asian). Or we might “clip” our family trees, obscuring their origins so as to preserve coherence and purity. That, Zerubavel writes, is what the Nazis did with Jewish genealogies: “Going only two generations back when formally defining Jewishness… helped the Nazis avoid realizing how many ‘Aryan’ Germans actually also had Jewish ancestors.”…

The point, Zerubavel writes, is that genealogies don’t all follow the same rules. Depending on what you’re trying to emphasize, you accept, reject, combine, or contrast individuals, families, and even whole ethnic identities. The most objective point of view, as Richard Dawkins has written, would probably hold that “all living creatures are cousins.” But genealogies are partial, selective, subjective, and social. They are as much about the present as they are about the past.

This isn’t too surprising: humans commonly pick and choose what we want to believe and then display to others. Could we argue that genealogies are simply another tool of impression management where we show our best (past) side to others and cover up the people we aren’t as proud of? This doesn’t seem that different than communities that cover up infamous parts of their histories or patriotic narratives that emphasize only the positives.

This reminds me of a high school history project I had to do. For my American History class, we had to make a poster out of our genealogies and there was a prize handed out to the person who could go the farthest back. Several of my family lines didn’t go more than four or five generations back but one of them had been extensively researched back to 46 generations and Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxons in the late 800s. Several things struck me then as odd:

1. I ended up losing out to a girl who could trace her family back 47 generations. Is this a prize-worthy objective anyway?

2. Who has the time and money to spend on tracing one’s family back 46 generations? Perhaps this doesn’t require to many resources these days with online resources plus what is often available at libraries but it still requires time.

3. Some of the family line was strange as I think one time it went through a cousin and another time for a daughter rather than a son. It seemed clearly set up to get back to people like Sir Francis Bacon and Alfred the Great.

But, for the day or two that my poster was up in the classroom, I could say that I could trace my family back 46 generations when most people could not.

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