Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Why Genealogy?

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Why, indeed! What is it that motivates people to research their ancestors? I am reminded of when I began my course of study at the University of Utah many years ago. For a number of what seem to me now complex reasons, as a new freshman, I enrolled in the Reserve Officers Training Corps or ROTC. At the time, the Vietnam War was just beginning to become news in the United States. Most of the young men my age were staring at the prospect of being drafted into the Army. I soon found out that by enrolling in ROTC, I had made a commitment and that I would be drafted immediately if I chose to quit the program. Of course, if I completed the program, I would also have to serve in the Army.

As a result of my decision, I had classes in military history and strategy for four years. I am very sure that absent the incentive of being drafted into the Army as a private rather than serving as an officer, I would not have taken that many classes on the history of warfare. As a result of all of these hours and hours of learning about history from ancient times to the present, I began to understand the connection between the two. I could see that decisions made many thousands of years ago could have a real impact on modern events. As I have mentioned in previous posts, all of this study of history kindled an interest in the cause and effect relationship of the past to the present.

This idea of a connection to the past was reinforced by my later legal training. In law school, we not only studied the connection of the past with the present, we used the principle of stare decisis or legal precedent to resolve current controversies by reference to historical court decisions.

These very intense and specific experiences in using history in a very practical and currently relevant way has helped to motivate me into the more personal investigation of my own family stretching back into the past.

If you know or can guess more about my background, you might attribute my interest in genealogy to my religious beliefs. You would be right in a sense, but it would be extremely simplistic to automatically equate my religious background as the entire basis for an interest in researching my ancestors. If there were such a direct connection, then members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, individually, would be much more inclined to involvement in genealogy than the rest of the population. It is true that there are individuals in the Church whose interest in family history stems entirely from a religious orientation, but by and large, genealogists both inside and outside the Church draw on other, more complex, motivations.

Investigation into the motivation of genealogists generally is almost entirely absent. One recent attempt is the following book,

Zerubavel, Eviatar. Ancestors and Relatives Genealogy, Identity, and Community. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Eviatar Zerubavel is the Board of Governors Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. One of the interesting things about this book is that a prominent genealogist, Megan Smolenyak,  dismisses the book with the comment that the author had neglected to speak to any genealogists. I would have to agree with Megan. However, my question would be, why would we suppose that genealogists would understand why they are genealogists? On the other hand, I would assume if you were writing a book about attorneys, you might want to know something about them and talk to a few. I think the same thing about genealogists.

The author points out early in the book that "our ancestral background affects not only how others see us but even how we experience ourselves." See page 5. I see much more to genealogy than simply a voyage of self discovery. As I learn more about my ancestors, I can become more closely connected to the present. The ramifications of investigating the past can be much more than simply opening a path to self-awareness, as Zerubaval points out, it can also be a way to construct a set of relationships. Unfortunately, his examples of how genealogy reacts with society are almost uniformly negative and are aimed at how genealogy has been used as a tool of political, cultural, and social repression. Perhaps this is a reflection of his lack of involvement in the actual process of genealogy. Contrary to the examples of the negative uses of genealogy in establishing social orders, clans and caste systems, genealogy can be and generally is a way to open the past and make it personal. It is one thing to learn about great military battles, it is similar but more relevant to learn about the struggles and conquests of our own ancestors.

I did not become interested in genealogy because of any of the bad uses that have been made of genealogy in the past. Genealogy opens history and history opens your world. Why genealogy? Because it is one of the few things I became interested in that was not age or time dependent. I can no longer ski down the face of High Rustler at Alta. I can no longer crawl through miles of caves or free climb cliffs, but I can delve into a fascinating world where my own ancestors come alive.

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