Monday, November 20, 2006

Ancestor worship? Is genealogy research worthwhile?

An interesting and disturbing article was published in The Guardian (UK) newspaper on 8 November, titled "Ancestor worship" by Zoe Williams.

Her central point is:
A genealogist speaking to the Times at the weekend commented: "It is not just about collecting names. It is about understanding who you are, and how you came to be who you are today. It is about knowing yourself." Superficially that doesn't mean much - in the furthest reaches of the nature/nurture debate, nobody has ever suggested one's distant second cousin could be anything more than a curiosity. And yet that tells you all you need to know about the kind of person who family-trees for a hobby - who thinks that's time well spent, getting to "know yourself, understand who you are". If therapy is for people with more money than sense, genealogy is for those with more time than either.

Read the whole article for more invective and satire(?). Frankly, I hope that Zoe meets a nice young royal with a family tree as tall as a redwood who brags about it.

Is she right? Or is she misguided? What value does genealogy research have for you and me? Why do you and I do this? The questions need to be answered.

7 comments:

Tim Agazio said...

Randy,

Like you, one reason I do it is because it's fun...the chase and the successes. I think the main reason I try to find out about my ancestors is because everyone deserves to be remembered by somebody no matter how poor and nameless they are. People come into this world and struggle for their whole lives...then they die and most are forgotten. Genealogy is my attempt to make sure that doesn't happen in my family.

cathy said...

First off, I'm not in my 60s, way below that as a matter of fact and have been enjoying genealogy since my late 20's. When I tell someone that I enjoy genealogy they usually say it is something that they wished they had started or are meaning to do in the future.

Understanding my ancestors has given me a better sense of history in general, it has been the missing connection for what history means to me that most school lessons seem to miss. They are worthing knowing, learning about and documenting. Without their footsteps in the past, there would have been none for me in the future.

Ms Zoe seems to be a rather narrow minded person who finds thinking out of the box a bit of a stretch.

James said...

Hi Randy, It's a typical Zoe Williams - Guardian type article! I'd imagine people do genealogy for different reasons. I have written a bit about this on my blog. For some, it's an entry to a unique social history; for others it's finding out about families that they never knew; for others it just gets addictive and enjoyable. For me it's all of the above!

With regard to the identity issue. I thought initially that I would know more about my 'identity' as I knew more about my ancestors. For me, as I started to find 100s of ancestors, this became less important. I just wanted to find out about the lives of these people.

Dana Huff said...

Randy, I was thinking about this article and was about to write a response to it, but then, surfing through my own blog and looking for typos and mistakes (something I do when I have a moment), I noticed I already had a response of sorts: http://genealogy.danahuff.net/?p=140. Oh, and I'm 35! Like Cathy, I feel blessed that I engaged in this hobby at a young age. It is so fulfilling, interesting, and enjoyable. I'm glad I didn't wait until retirement to try it. Lots of people say they don't have time. Well, my response is that if it is important, you make the time! A producer from All Things Considered contacted me via my genealogy blog trying to get in touch with my distant cousin, who is a general serving in Iraq. He said that he ished someone in his family would do something like I had done with my blog. I didn't say this to him, but my first thought was, why don' YOU do it?

I feel that learning about my ancestors has personalized history in a way that reading about aristocrats in a book never did. I asked Chris from the Genealogue to share some thoughts with my students about the Salem Witch Trials, and they were astonished to realize for the first time that those accused witches actually left descendants. Aren't you also a descendant of accused witches? Anyway, I noticed that moment made history alive for them. I also asked them to do their own family timelines to share with the class so we could compare their family's journey in America to the corresponding literature of the time. They were so excited as they told me about their families, and such amazing stories! And we're talking about sixteen-year-old students. Everyone has the capacity to be intrigued by their origins it seems... except Zoe Williams.

Miriam said...

Randy,

I have an essay on my website called "The Story Tellers." It explains why I do genealogy.

Another reason is that I was raised in Alaska and Washington state, while all my extended family lived in Michigan. Only four of my ancestors are buried west of the Mississippi River, and none of them are buried nearby: one is in St. Paul, MN; another is in San Antonio, TX; and one couple is buried in Woodburn (near Salem), OR (an 8-hour drive from my home in Spokane, WA). When you lived far removed from your roots, they become precious, indeed.

ANCESTRY WORSHIP - GENEALOGY said...

I see every ancestor I rise out of the grave to speak briefly of their own life (through documents) as a character in an important drama. I believe many people feel a sense of their personal strength when they realize the things their people lived through and succeeded despite. I find history far more fascinating than I ever did in a classroom when it is peopled by those who lived it. I do think that genealogy can be a form of ancestory worship. I'm not a member of LDS and I've heard a lot of discussion about the "Baptism of the Dead" temple work in my years working at the LDS Family History center as an independent researcher. Personally, my belief is that there is something to reincarnation. Come visit me at ANCESTRY WORSHIP GENEALOGY at
http://www.ancestryworship.blogspot.com

ANCESTRY WORSHIP - GENEALOGY said...

I see every ancestor I rise out of the grave to speak briefly of their own life (through documents) as a character in an important drama. I believe many people feel a sense of their personal strength when they realize the things their people lived through and succeeded despite. I find history far more fascinating than I ever did in a classroom when it is peopled by those who lived it. I do think that genealogy can be a form of ancestory worship. I'm not a member of LDS and I've heard a lot of discussion about the "Baptism of the Dead" temple work in my years working at the LDS Family History center as an independent researcher. Personally, my belief is that there is something to reincarnation. Come visit me at ANCESTRY WORSHIP GENEALOGY at
http://www.ancestryworship.blogspot.com