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.

Ancestry, what’s the trouble?

Having use ‘the trouble with ancestry’ as the subtitle of my recent book, Genetic Geographies: The Trouble with Ancestry, 2015, it is worth setting out what I mean by this.

It is well known that thousands of people spend a lot of time and money trying to find out about their ancestors. Interests in family history has grown and grown over the last decades as has genealogy has gone digital with huge amounts of data available online for free or for a fee. It has also gone genetic. Over the last fifteen years more and more companies offer on-line tests to provide information to customers about distant ancestry and places of origin.

This is paralleled, and often underpinned, by scientific efforts to know the timing and geography of human origins and early migration though studying patterns of human genetic variation across the world and in specific regions. Sometimes the focus is on a global family tree or the histories of settlement of specific places and the ancestral relationships between particular groups of people.

So what’s the problem? One response to this might be to simply say that there are better things for individuals or research institutes to spend time and money doing – paying attention to living people rather than the dead, addressing pressing issues about human welfare, inequality and the future of all living things on the planet. Of course one key argument for studying human genetic variation is its potential usefulness to biomedicine. The other is the value of collective self-understanding, of ‘knowing where we came from’. But with some exceptions, the medical benefits are all unfulfilled promises so far. So a lot rests then on the significance of knowing ‘our’ past.

And knowing about the past matters to people. Most people would agree about the value of historical knowledge in helping individuals and societies understand themselves. Ancestral knowledge also matters particularly to people who have lost that knowledge through the displacement or enslavement of their ancestors, or when ancestry is linked to political claims about rights to land and the survival of livelihoods for indigenous groups.

The trouble with ancestry is not about the focus on ancestors itself. It is about the particular models of ancestry and relatedness that are often at work in the ordinary genealogy, and that are routinely at work in genetic genealogy. These versions of relatedness are also found in the science of human genetic diversity that underpins these tests for ancestry and accounts of the origins and migration of early humans.

Genealogy, as a historical practice based on documents, involves compiling family trees that are as detailed and as accurate as possible. Family history is close and overlapping but allows more for stories, memories, interpretation, imagination and selectivity about emphasis and focus. Though this is often part of genealogy too, and these terms overlap, perhaps the rules of who and who is not a relative are more flexible in family stories than in family trees. The practice of relatedness is also much more flexible than rigid kinship categories: people who are unrelated in a conventional sense can be valued as relatives. Real relatives can fail to act like relatives or not be included in who counts as family. Families in practice are complex and variable social units.

But relatedness has to be genetic in genetic genealogy and human population genetics. This is logical since the focus is on patterns of genetic variation, similarity and difference that are shaped by human reproduction rather than relatedness as a social practice. But this matters given the way in which knowledge of personal and collective ancestry is given so much significance to ideas collective identity in the presentation of human population genetics and genetic genealogy.

What might seem to be a benign idea – that ancestry is a central to relatedness – has more troubling implications. If ancestry is meant to mean so much, does that imply that not sharing ancestry naturally differentiates people – that social closeness somehow naturally correlates with genetic closeness? If genealogical connections between people are meant to mean so much, does this suggest that there is no natural basis for senses of care between those who are not related or for people far away geographically, genealogically and genetically.

Of course an idea of humanity as a single family, sharing ancestors and ancient origins, can counter divisive ideas of difference especially race. But studies of human genetic variation are about variation not global sameness, about degrees and differentiated patterns of relatedness rather than generalised relatedness. If shared ancestry is figured as such a positive thing in terms of collective identity, could is not sharing much, or only very distantly in the past, be used as a natural explanation for antipathy or antagonism between groups?

It is rare for dangerous claims like this to be made directly but they are the logical implications of celebratory accounts of the discovery of shared ancestry between people or suggestions that collective identities have some basis in shared ancestry and genetic similarity. Ethnic and national groups are traditionally understood as being in some sense communities of shared descent but in practice are more flexible, dynamic and fluid than strictly genealogical.

Furthermore, genetic tests for ancestry, and the science that underpins them, depend on a process of producing human groups as ‘genetic clusters’ out of the tiny and geographically continuous pattern of genetic variation between people. They depend on naming those groups as if they are both natural units of genetic variation and cultural units – the Irish, or the European for example. This has the potential to suggest that collective identities and senses of belonging at different scales – local, regional or national, or continental – are based on shared ancestry. Issues of race, nation and ethnicity are all entangled here.

So in contrast to those who claim that human population genetics and genetic ancestry tests have the potential to undermine ideas of race, or exclusive versions of ethnicity of nation, my argument here and in Genetic Geographies is they are not the places to look for complex, subtle and simply better understandings of ancestry and relatedness.

the Irish, or the European for example. This has the potential to suggest that collective identities and senses of belonging at different scales – local, regional or national, or continental – are based on shared ancestry. Issues of race, nation and ethnicity are all entangled here.

So in contrast to those who claim that human population genetics and genetic ancestry tests have the potential to undermine ideas of race, or exclusive versions of ethnicity of nation, my argument here and in Genetic Geographies is they are not the places to look for complex, subtle and simply better understandings of ancestry and relatedness.

welcome to my new website

Inspired by the possibilities of having a personal space online, I have set this website up be more of a digital public geographer and to share reflections on kinship of different kinds. A new format will open up possibilities of working with words and images in new ways. This is just the beginning…