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Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Genealogy Under Attack

Zoe Williams (check out her less-than-flattering Wikipedia entry before it's edited) climbs on her soapbox today at The Guardian to trash genealogy.

I called this a branch of history, but in fact scraping round for ye olde DNA is the very opposite of history. Historical inquiry would always direct you to the heart of events, whether in the traditional sense (royals) or the revisionist one (radicals, grassroots movements, that sort of thing). From neither perspective can the criterion "they've got to be related to me before I'm at all interested" be anything but an impediment.

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. [Link]
See A Defense of Genealogical Obsession for my response to the equally specious arguments of Cary Tennis. I would add that my ancestors were always at the "heart of events," though perhaps not events that Williams would deem sufficiently historic to study. She denies by implication that the life of any given 17th-century peasant is worth researching, making her guilty of the very snobbishness she pretends to abhor in her final paragraph.

The best family historian possesses all the skills of a "real" historian—including that personal connection to his subject which is always the mark of good historical writing. That the connection is familial makes no difference. In fact, I've found that the sense of familial connection gets weaker as the generations recede, replaced by a more general connection of the sort shared by any two human beings. It's harder then to make the connection personal, but with enough research and empathy it can be done.

I'm not greatly offended by this article, because—like Tennis—Williams is attacking a caricature of a genealogist. Let's leave her alone on her soapbox to hurl insults at the straw man she's created. We have important work to do.

Jason

Perhaps Ms. Williams tried to research her family, but was disappointed to learn that, like Justin Timberlake, it contained but a single branch and only went back about 250 years.

James

For those of you who didn't see the original Wikipedia profile, here it is:

Zoe Williams (born 1937) is a British columnist and journalist. She writes regularly for The Crackpot though her work has also appeared in the trash. Much of her writing is in the form of short, ignorant articles but she also writes political comment, interviews and reviews. Her political views are left-wing and feminist and she frequently covers feminist issues in her columns. She is the ex-wife of genealogy blogger Christopher Dunham.

Chris

She is the ex-wife of genealogy blogger Christopher Dunham.

That's a lie! We only dated in college.

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