On the 14 October 2019, the network held its first workshop on the theme of genealogies, genetics and family history.
The one-day workshop included two panels – a first on genetics and a second on family history – and a roundtable.
The panel on genetics brought together Jerome De Groot, Maria Sophia Quine, and Petra Nordqvist to explore how people past and present engaged with their genetic material. De Groot explored his current research on how people are using DNA technologies, like ancestry DNA or health genetics, to shape ideas about family, health and identity. He highlighted that while some people they are just a bit of fun, others are sophisticated users of this information, interpreting their genetic material with nuance and using it to fill gaps in family trees or understandings of identity.
If De Groot explore current engagements with DNA, Quine took us backwards to ‘bad blood’, exploring how in the early twentieth century eugenic ideas focused attention on the diseases or disabilities that could be inherited from parent to child. Eugenics discourse interpreted such inheritances as ‘bad’, encouraging people with them not to have children or to be sterilised (sometimes against their will). Looking at the work of the artist Edvard Munch, she highlights his anxiety around ‘bad blood’ within his own family, exploring how ideas about genetics shaped personal identity and experience of family. Nordqvist showed a similar anxiety in her research on families who either received or donated genetic material (sperm, eggs etc) to produce children. Many families believed that shared genetic material enhanced the parent-child relationship, requiring non-biological parents to work harder or make more effort to compensate. In some families, grandparents also felt a stronger attachment to children to whom they were biologically related. Surprisingly very few parents refused this way of thinking about family for other types of connection, such as those based on sharing a household or love.
A second panel of the day included papers by Tanya Evans and Delyth Edwards. Evans gave an overview of her research with family historians over the last decade, where they explored their motivations and interests in searching their family trees and developing their lineages. She was particularly interested in how research into your family broadened people’s experience and so enhanced empathy for others. Evans also talked about her work on #historianscollaborate, looking at the beneficial partnerships that can be produced when family historians and academic historians work together. Edwards gave an overview of her new book and its inspiration – her mother. Edwards’ mother was brought up in an institution in Belfast, an experience she was very open about and which influenced her parenting. Edwards used her mother’s stories as a basis for her interviews with other women who had similar experiences, seeking to explore how they made sense of themselves and ideas of families when they had no practical experience of living in one as a child. Interestingly Edwards’ brother was similarly inspired by his mother’s story using it as the basis for an art project.
The second panel was followed by a roundtable that included Evans, Mike Esbester, a historian who discussed his collaborative project on railway accidents, Antony Ramm from Leeds Central Library and Gary Brannan at the Borthwick Institute for Archives, York. This panel explored how historians and heritage professionals worked with family historians in their research. An interesting statistic was that now for many research libraries and archives, family historians make up a large majority of users. This means that not only did a lot of archives originate in families but they are now used to produce information for and about families – putting the family central to their goals and purpose. Discussion ranged from practical discussions about how and in what context we work with family historians to more abstract conversations about what unites us – a care of people, suggested Brannan.
The whole day raised a number of interesting questions and conversations. A key point that was raised for me was the way that family history used their shared love of the past to create a community of their own. Do we need a shared past to create community I wondered, and if so, is that why families need to transmit family inheritances? The importance of genes and genetics to contemporary definitions and understandings of family and self was also a significant theme of the day. As an early modern historian who has placed emphasis on ‘social parenting’, fostering, and love as a way of connecting people, this raised questions for me about the role of ‘blood’ today compared to in the past. Do we care more or less about ‘family resemblances’ as the basis family emotional connections? Our final discussion made me also wonder about whether a focus on family requires us to ask different types of questions about the purpose of history – does a history written for family, about family, require different types of ways of doing history and different debates to contribute to? What does thinking about family mean for our understanding of the past?
Katie Barclay is one of the leaders of the AHRC-funded network on ‘Inheriting the Family’ and a historians of emotions and family life at the University of Adelaide.