Monday, April 1, 2013

Book Review: Ancestors & Relatives

Title: Ancestors & Relatives; Genealogy, Identity & Community
Author: Eviatar Zerubavel
Publication: 2012 Oxford University Press

I stumbled upon this book at the NGS Conference last year in Cincinnati. It was prominently displayed by one of the book vendors, and I have to admit, I am a sucker for a pretty or intriguing cover. Is it wrong for a librarian to admit she is influenced by book covers? Perhaps, but I'm just being honest - I am highly attracted to visually aesthetic things - including books. After getting this one home, I was eager to delve right in....and I did....more than once, because the first read had me a tad outraged. I have since re-read the book while trying to remember its intended audience - but that is where I get a bit uncomfortable.

Let's talk about intended audience to bring you up to speed. As already stated, I found this at the National Genealogical Society conference....not endorsed by said organization, but automatically included in a major book vendor's booth because of the book jacket's natural appeal to genealogists. The title itself hearkens to the genealogist and family historian - we are a complex, yet analytical group. We love uncovering the layers of family history, and I suspect, also enjoy learning more about the human nature behind our desire to research said ancestors. The inside book jacket panel includes the tag line: "Genealogy has long been one of humanity's greatest obsessions." I certainly will never argue with that summation - he has us pegged so far. The next paragraph talks about the current popularity of genealogy and the national TV shows that demonstrate the recent surge. All of this is enough to "market" any book to present-day genealogists. The rest of the jacket talks about the biological need behind our wanting to know where we come from, and the various strategies we use when dealing with sticky or shady branches of our trees. The back of the book is where things get more honest. Each quote of endorsement comes from an academic authority: UC Berkeley, Princeton, Harvard. That combined with some of the terms used in the endorsements and I had to slap myself on the forehead. I should have known from the publisher that this was not a title meant for the masses. It is an academic treatise on how we take biological fact and "create" or "formulate" genealogies from it in order to make sense of our origins.

With all of that in mind, the book is a much easier read. My early outrage with this book centered on the analysis he consistently gives concerning genealogies and how we "construct" them based on our own arbitrary selection of ancestors due to religious and racial preferences. In short, he spends much of the book explaining why we prune or shape our tree into what we prefer - not what the genealogical or documentary evidence proves. For clarity from the author himself, on page 11, we are given the book's actual purpose:

"This book is and attempt to uncover the normally taken-for-granted and therefore mostly ignored cognitive underpinnings of genealogy by examining the way we - experts as well as laypersons - envision ancestry, descent, and other forms of relatedness....I thus set out to explore here "the genealogical imagination"...My main goal throughout the book is to uncover the general (that is, transcultural as well as transhistorical) principles underlying the way we envision genealogical relatedness."

Ok, let's get into the good about this book:
I certainly learned a new word - progonoplexia - which means obsession with one's ancestry - very handy word to throw out at genea-parties! Beyond that, this is a truly deep read on the anthropological and sociological influences behind our notions of relatedness and/or kinship. From a historical perspective, it is fascinating to look back at how these biological aspects shaped our earliest pursuit of genealogy. He goes back to Biblical times and Darwinism to demonstrate our selective nature when it comes to feeling connected to past individuals. He reminds us that there is no such thing as a pure origin (European, African, Asian, etc.), and therefore debunks any use of DNA as a means of connecting to your past. Without any significant elements of origin, it is apparent that we are all related to each other, regardless of our attempts to ignore or embrace the origin that we prefer - Thank you, Mr. Obvious.

Taking all of this into account, he uses it to explain the idiocy of Hitler's Jewish ancestry rules, and the US's one drop rule in relation to slavery, and even the current blood degrees among present-day Native American tribes. I have to admit that some of the exploration of branch/ancestor selection (defined as "braiding, clipping, pasting, lumping, splitting, stretching, and pruning") had me cringing - not from current practices, but due to some of the widely accepted and practiced methods of genealogical research of the past. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief as some of his theories really explained many of the older published family histories that line our shelves. Why did we choose that branch of the family to document and claim as a prominent line? Why are some lines ignored? Why are many racially prejudiced in one area, while ready to embrace that Cherokee Indian Princess they are convinced lurks in the family tree? I will also concede, that not all of these "selective" genealogical practices are from methods of the past. There are many folks out there today (more than I really care to admit) that are very selective about their research, and refuse to talk about the branches they are ashamed of.....

But that is where I begin to find fault with his research. Despite his acknowledgement of the current phenomenal interest in genealogy, he fails to address current methods of research, and does not differentiate between past horrific practices versus today's focus of responsible research methods. There is not one exploration or description of a current genealogist - I am certain he has NEVER conversed with an accredited genealogist. He does not address any of our strides in citation/primary source focused research. I also found it troubling that when he addresses our ignoring of certain branches (such as the ancestry of aunts and uncles), he explains this as intentional pruning usually based on some undesirable aspect of the line - he never once concedes that sometimes a branch is left behind in research simply because of outside factors - such as time limitations and proximity to available records. Unfortunately, he paints a grim picture of our selective biological nature, pruning off the undesirable. For today's genealogist, that could not be farther from the truth, and for many of us, the more colorful the branch, the deeper we dig and the more likely we are to brag about it! It is clear by the end of the book that he has defined the genealogist as a magician or charlatan of sorts, creating ancestral lines based on "imagination" and selective "genealogical apartheid" (pg.99) On the last page he concludes that "Genealogy, in short, is first and foremost, a way of thinking." (pg.131)

Clearly, if you are interested in the sociological and anthropological forces behind humanity's development of genealogical practice and yes, "thought" all means, it is a great read for that. Just remember, this is an academic book, with some academic principles, and if you are easily offended by an emphasis on evolution, a lumping together of past mistakes with current practices, you might want to check it out of the library instead of purchasing said treatise. I have also read others' impressions of this book, and some have complained that the hardback book at $24.95 is 225 pages, with only 131 being actual writing....the remaining pages are made up of end notes and an index. He also takes up quite a few pages with diagrams trying to demonstrate relationship, which really seemed superfluous to me. The overwhelming agreement seems to be - get the e-book, do not waste your money on the hardback print edition. At the end of the day, I felt a bit like a sucker....he wrote this grandiose, yet incomplete analysis of genealogical principles for a tenure requirement and tried to package it under the popular guise of present-day genealogy interest to sell more copies...if this had been a complete picture of the history of genealogical practice, I would have loved it....but the glaring omission and collective insults heaped at the genealogist greatly reduce my score:
Rating: 3.0 Quills
Happy reading!



Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Designed by Simply Fabulous Blogger Templates