Ancestors and relatives

My review of Eviatar Zerubavel’s Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity and Community, Oxford University Press, 2012 will shortly be coming out in the British Journal of Sociology.

This book is a clear, accessible and interesting engagement with what Evitar Zerubavel describes as ‘foundational pillars of the human condition’: ancestors and relatives.  As I discuss in my review (see below for the full version), its message is that genealogical relatedness is culturally produced, is critically important to how people categorise themselves and others and has deep consequences for boundaries of inclusion and difference. This is familiar to those already well versed in new kinship studies, and this book does not theorise, document or imagine alternatives models of relatedness.  But it certainly astutely surveys the regular work of making ancestors and relatives.

There are some, perhaps relatively minor, asides that sometimes jar with the broader spirit of the book – the figuring of animals as beyond a genealogical imagination, ideas of genealogical proximity as proportional to our obligations to others – and these certainly deserve more careful consideration.  But the strength of book is its success in setting out the different ways in which genealogies and made to make social relations with great lucidity.

My full review:

“It is rare but not completely impossible to find accounts in the media of people who are not interested in finding out about their biological parents having been adopted as children. When they occasionally appear they are newsworthy because they standout within a wider culture that is super-saturated with accounts of the deep and fundamental significance of ancestry, whether recent parentage or ancestors long ago and far away, with its thriving commercial sector serving genealogical research in conventional and new genetic ways. The right to knowledge of genetic and biological ancestry that is so deeply part of the governance of adoption and new reproductive technologies in the UK and more widely, reflects a widespread agreement on the absolute centrality of knowledge of ancestry to psychological wholeness. It is worth considering, however, whether that centrality reflects a universal human mode of understanding selfhood and relatedness or whether the current hyper-interest in origins and ancestry is more of its time and place.

Eviatar Zerubavel’s lively, engaging and timely book Ancestors and Relatives, is more attentive to the historical continuities and universal occurrence of a genealogical imagination than to the specificities of its mobilization. This is intentional. Though the book is full of illustrative instances of genealogy’s principles and the social negotiation of the ‘natural’ facts of genealogical relatedness, the aim is openly broad. It is to explore concepts of ancestry and relatives as ‘foundational pillars of the human condition’ (p. 131). His goal is to ‘uncover the general (that is, transcultural as well as transhistorical) principles underlying the way we envision genealogical relatedness’ (p. 11), thus downplaying the singularity of the historical and cultural contexts he addresses to explore the underlying commonality of ideas of genealogical connectivity across differently scaled social collectives of family, ethno-nation, race and species, and the embeddedness of ideas of descent in all sorts of social relations and in the genealogical ordering of all sorts of things: languages, species, commodities, traditions, honorary positions.

Though this breath of vision can be disconcerting in light of the more familiar scholarly emphasis on attending to historical and geographical particularity, it is this breath which is the value of this book. Much of what he argues is already familiar to those who have pursued or been inspired by revived kinship studies in anthropology or who have already been tracking the science and culture of relatedness in genealogy and human population genetics. However, the value of the book also lies in the lucidity through which he presents both the principles of genealogical relatedness and the practices through which genealogies are made to fit social priorities, cutting through the complexities and contextual detail of the scholarship he draws together and draws on, for the sake of clarity. This makes the book important both as a resource for teaching across the social sciences and humanities and important as an engaging, accessible and for some, a challenging, intervention into public debate.

In this short and highly readable book, Eviatar Zerubavel successfully applies the classificatory logic he identifies at work in kinship, to describe the ways in which genealogical relatedness is socially delineated by manipulating genealogies which are at the same time commonly imagined as a biologically given rather than produced set of relations; he identifies and aptly names the social and cultural ‘stretching’, ‘cutting and pasting’, ‘clipping’, ‘braiding’, ‘lumping’, ‘marginalizing’, ‘splitting’, and ‘pruning’ of genealogies and reflects on their implications for models of inclusivity, distinction and difference. He is both attentive to the retrospective making of genealogies, and thus contemporary relations, and the prospective protection or production of categories of relatedness through the prohibition or purposeful making of relations through reproduction.

At the heart of this book then is an effort to address genealogical relatedness as a model for understanding relationships between people, that is universal but not natural. Despite its basis in ‘natural’, genetic or biological ties of ancestry and co-descent, ancestors and relatives are, he insists, socially and culturally defined and differentiated. But ideas of the natural are not undone in this book. The description of lack of personal knowledge of ancestry as deep psychological lack, here and much more widely, may reflect how this is experienced by many. But at the same time this emphasis on the significance of genetic or biological relatedness may help produce or intensify that sense of incompleteness. The idea of genetic or biological ancestry and relatedness being fundamental to personal or collective identity contributes to the deeply painful ways in which the practice of care and relatedness is deemed secondary to biological parentage and existing family relationships are profoundly damaged when they are found not to correspond to assumed genetic parentage, paternity especially.

More troubling is the statement, mid-way through his carefully constructed and subtle challenge to the truths of genealogy, that ‘it is probably nature that determines our obligations to others to be proportional to our genealogical proximity to them’ (p. 72). This is an unproblematised reference to the claim of evolutionary psychologists which simply naturalises antagonisms and antipathies between groups that are imagined, as he argues, as genealogically connected and genetically distinct – tribes, ethnic groups, nations, races – as well as the ‘natural’ depth of ‘natural’ biological closeness within the family. Hopefully, that lapse of critical attention that will not override the broader and important message of a book that deserves to be widely read. It is that genealogical relatedness is culturally produced, is critically important to how people categorise themselves and others and has deep consequences for boundaries of inclusion and difference. This book does not theorise, document or imagine alternatives models of relatedness but it certainly astutely surveys the regular work of making ancestors and relatives”.

See the British Journal of Sociology for how to reference the published version.