Not the nation (as family) once again

I’ve been thinking about ideas of nationhood, ancestry and belonging for quite a while. In my paper just published in Ethnic and Racial Studies I explore these ideas again, this time thinking through the models of ethnic difference and genealogical similarity that underpin the refusal of the Irish government to officially recognise Irish Travellers as an indigenous, nomadic, ethnic minority, and the implications of genetic studies of Traveller origins.

Not all politicians agree with this refusal. As I began a drive from Dublin airport to Co. Waterford a few weeks ago the first item on the RTÉ Radio 1 lunchtime news was a report that the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission’s Chief Commissioner, Emily Logan, condemns the government’s failure to act on a cross parliamentary recommendation for the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

The second item was the announcement of a new Irish life science start up called Genomics Medicine Ireland which aims ‘to build the largest, most comprehensive population-scale, disease-specific genomic study ever created’, an Irish genomic project effectively. This is human genomics as biomedicine rather than as the anthropological science of origins and ancestry but it still raises the question of who counts as the ‘people of Ireland’.

These two news items appearing together – one about the distinctiveness of an indigenous group within a county, the other about a genomic study of the people of country – are thus entangled strands of current ways of categorizing and measuring cultural and genetic difference. Both matter to imaginative and legal categories of identity and belonging. It is these entanglements of ethnicity, genomics and nationhood that I have been pursuing, most recently in addressing recent attempts to explore the origins of Irish Travellers as a distinctive group through genetic studies. I do this in the Ethnic and Racial Studies paper through a focus on the research that featured in the documentary Blood of the Travellers made by Liam McGrath and broadcast on RTÉ in 2011.

My paper is definitely not a critique of that documentary which it is strongly pro-Traveller and deeply critical of anti-Traveller attitudes and discrimination. But it is critical of the science within it and the wider turn to genetic models of identity and difference. Even though shared ancestry is an important dimension of group identity, interpretations of patterns of genetic variation should not override the significance of other sources of knowledge, in stories, song and folklore, for example. There are also dangers that people may feel that their sense of belonging in a group is undermined if they  found to be genetically ‘mixed’ because of intermarriage in their family. Studies of genetic variation are not helpful ways to address cultural questions of origins and belonging.

In this case it is argued that the genetic study showed that Irish Travellers are genetically distinctive but also share broader genetic similarity with the rest of the settled population and so don’t have origins outside Ireland. But this similarity can be used by those opposed to granting Travellers ethnic recognition to suggest that there is no basis to their claims to be ethnically distinctive. This seems to be based on an idea that ethnicity cannot just be cultural but also must have some genealogical and genetic basis. Saying that Irish Travellers are part of the national family tree might sound inclusive but can be used to deny of ethnic difference e.g. by saying that Travellers are just Irish rather than Irish and ethnically distinctive as Travellers.

And defining national belonging through shared ancestry can imply that others those who don’t have genealogical roots in Ireland (e.g. those of immigrant origin) have no natural place in the nation.  Discovering shared ancestry is often taken to be a positive way of understanding cultural and historical interconnections, and this can be the case in personal family histories, or in relation to adjacent countries and their national categories, English and Irish for example. But those who have more distant origins, and so aren’t seen as ‘close relatives’, can be excluded from the model of the nation as a genealogical family. These are the divisive effects of what I call the idea of genealogical incorporation.

 

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…