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.

Facebook information and privacy: enticing or overwhelming?

There are a lot of users of Facebook and similar sites. One of the primary concerns of users is privacy: who can see their personal information and how it might be used. Two commentators talk about how users respond to this issue:

Sociologist Nathan Jurgenson has an interesting post about Facebook and his skepticism about proclamations of the end of privacy and anonymity. He deploys the postmodernist/poststructuralist insight that each piece of information shared raises more questions about what hasn’t been said, and thus strategic sharing can create different realms of personal privacy and public mystery.

We know that knowledge, including what we post on social media, indeed follows the logic of the fan dance: we always enact a game of reveal and conceal, never showing too much else we have given it all away. It is better to entice by strategically concealing the right “bits” at the right time. For every status update there is much that is not posted. And we know this. What is hidden entices us.

I think this is missing the point. I feel like I need to use all caps to stress this: LOTS OF PEOPLE DON’T WANT ATTENTION. They don’t want to be enticing. Privacy is not about hiding the truth. It’s about being able to avoid the spotlight…

Social media confronts us with how little control we have over our public identity, which is put into play and reinterpreted and tossed around while we watch—while all the distortions and gossip gets fed back to us by the automated feedback channels. Some people find this thrilling. Others find it terrible. It’s always been true that we don’t control how we are seen, but at least we could control how much we had to know about it. It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.

Jurgenson seems to be referring to the impression management work done by users who are able to craft their image. Most users know that certain pieces of information can hurt them, such as unpleasant photos, so they don’t include that information. Even more so, users try to present a positive image of themselves with generally happy pictures and an acceptable set of interests and activities. And there is a lot that is hidden: I would guess that a majority of users post pretty infrequently. This impression management, reminiscent of Goffman’s front-stage/back-stage dichotomy, has been well established by researchers.

Rob Horning, responding to Jurgenson, suggests that Facebook exposes “how little control we have over our public identity.” This may be true: even small pieces of information might present problems. Additionally, I think he is right in saying that a lot of users don’t want attention: they simply want a low-maintenance way to connect with current and past friends.

But, I would argue that users have a good amount of control over their “public identity” on the Internet. To start, they don’t have to participate and a sizable minority does not. It seems like the easiest way to lose control over what is available on the Internet is to post it yourself, whether on Facebook or a blog or Twitter feed or somewhere else. Second, even if one does participate, Jurgenson suggests that much still remains hidden. There are few people who are willing to reveal everything and few who actually want to. (I’ve always wondered if Facebook users are mostly annoyed with those people who do seem to present everything, good and bad, through their profiles.) Third, one can be friends who they want, limiting who is going to see and possibly use this information. I think a lot of the genius of Facebook is that users feel like they are in control of these aspects and generally resist efforts that use their information in ways that they may not desire. In the end, there are ways in which one can participate without doing much or exposing much.

Horning’s conclusion is interesting: “It’s harder now to be aloof, to be less aware of our inevitable performativity. We are forced instead to fight for the integrity of our manufactured personal brand.” Perhaps this is the real issue, not privacy: since we know that there are others crafting their personal image, we now have the choice to keep up or not. It is not quite a competition but rather mediated social interaction where we can see how others (and they can see how we) “put ourselves together” online. The SNS realm is now another social realm to worry about and it is hard to get away from: did I post a witty enough comment? Is that picture flattering of me? Should I be Facebook friends with that person I never really talked to? These decisions may be consequential…or they may not.