This is the first week I’ve written this blog, although the Double Helix History project began on the 1 September. I’ve mainly been working things out like websites, Twitter feeds, and various bits of admin. I’ve written a blog for Ancestry about forthcoming events, and I’m just writing pieces for History Today on data preservation and History@work on international family history.

Mainly I loved the fact that DNA testing is now so prevalent it is worthy of parody.

Research thoughts and writing

I spent a day a the British Library reading some of the key books on genealogy and kinship. In particular I spent some time thinking about kinship in relation to Anthropology, as outlined by in the edited collection that Sandra Bamford and James Leach put together, Kinship and Beyond: The Genealogical Model Reconsidered (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 2009). This is a great resource for those who are interested in the ways in which Anthropologists have theorised ‘genealogy’. The book has chapters on Icelandic genetic databases, horsebreeding, and anthropology around the world.

In particular the book thinks about the ways that genealogy, and in particular the ‘family tree’ model, querying ‘the seemingly natural place that a genealogical paradigm occupies in Euro-American thought’ (p. 2). They’re really interested in

how the concept of genealogy has influenced Euro-American understandings of race, personhood, ethnicity, property relations, and the relationship between human beings and nonhuman species […] a genealogical paradigm not only figures centrally in organizing knowledge about the world alone but is also implicit in structuring those social institutions and relations that give our social world its form and meaning (pp. 2-3).

I have written about this a lot, particularly in relation to the Royal Oak in British history, so this was very interesting to me. I’m really interested in how the idea of ‘genealogy’ is something that affects the way we think and understand the world beyond the practice of family history and the like. I am pretty certain this is a Western set of concepts, too, as the understanding of family, genealogy, and the like is significantly different in different areas of the world (for instance, I am thinking about South Korea at present).

In response to the reading about anthropology I wrote a little paragraph about the ‘sense’ of family history:

The scientific-epistemological assumptions of family tree relation are too imprecise to incorporate what anthropologists have called ‘relatedness’ (B&L, p. 14). Critique of ‘kinship’ models in anthropology led researchers to attempt to be more circumspect when discussing concepts of kinship within cultures, and indeed to adopt models of kinship as ‘process’. This involves understanding kinship ‘to be a varied and locally constituted process, not dependent on Western notions of procreation as the defining element relating persons to one another’ (B&L, p. 10). In contrast the use of a family tree model necessitates an inflexibly ‘genealogical’ sense of relationships in the past. This sense is firmly ‘biological’, insofar as it is predicated upon family relationships – as they were reported to various authorities. This sense is also administrative, as it rests upon an understanding of the past that is largely derived from records and official archives. This sense is largely developed online, and hence is networked – so the connections between nodes in the network are virtual, multi-temporal, multi-dimensional, but still ‘genealogical’ and hence concretised.

Other things

I had a great meeting at the Central Library with John Marsden and Leslie Turner from the Manchester and Lancashire Family History Society. We are running two events at the library this week – the Alison Light Lecture and the International Family History Workshop, both sponsored by Ancestry.com.