Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Kinship: Real, Imagined, Past & Present

When I think about kinship studies in anthropology, I think of diagrams filled with little circles and triangles, and of course a lot of lines leading this way and that through a familial/historical maze.  That’s the image that comes to my mind.  I imagine a big chalkboard (or dry erase board) in front of a classroom and a complex network of family relationships all mapped out with some anthropologist explaining how the whole social mosaic fits together.  Kinship—to me—has a very classic and “old school anthropology” feel about it.

I’ll go ahead and be right up front about this: kinship is not my area of study.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate this aspect of anthropology.  I do.  In fact, I have always found the study of kin relations extremely interesting.  And as it turns out, I am not the only one.  When I was teaching intro to anthropology courses over the past two years, the kinship, marriage, and family lectures turned out to be some of the most fun and engaging (especially when students got into discussions and debates about things like arranged marriages or in vitro fertilization).  When I first started teaching, however, for some reason I assumed that students would have zero interest in all of that stuff.  After all, there is something about kinship studies that harkens back to the anthropology of yesterday.  Kinship charts?  Isn’t that something that anthropologists used to do in the black-and-white, sepia-toned days of the late 19th century?  Right? 

I knew that it was something that I found intriguing, but I just assumed it was too old-fashioned for young college students.  And I was totally wrong about that.  I was completely surprised to find out just how popular kinship issues were with students. Over the past several years, the more I have met and talked with colleagues and professors who are doing kinship studies these days, the more I realize just how off base I was about the relevance and appeal of the entire subject.  Kinship studies aren’t just some holdover from anthropology’s past that draw interest from a limited few—and the anthropologists who specialize in this area of research are out there doing some pretty exciting and inspiring work.

All you have to do to realize that “kinship matters” is pay close attention to the political debates and social conflicts that engulf discussions about families, reproduction, adoption, and marriage.  When it comes to all of the ideals, social conventions, beliefs, and norms that people have in relation to sex and family, it’s seriously a battleground out there.  The current US election cycle (including much of the rhetoric of candidates like Rick Santorum) proves quite clearly that the socio-political importance of kinship is anything but passé.  So there you have it: in the 21st century, kinship matters…just check out the work of researchers such as MarciaInhorn if you still have any doubts.

Now that we have established the point that kinship is not only interesting, but also a critical component of 21st century anthropology, I am going to move this little essay down the road and discuss one aspect of kinship that I find particularly intriguing: online genealogy.

That’s right: I am talking about all of the people who spend years and years of their lives searching out distant family relationships on sites like Ancestry.com and Rootsweb.  I mean, what on earth are all those people doing?  What are they looking for?  Why are they so obsessed with finding some little document that may or may not really show the Civil War enlistment of some random, long-dead person they never met?

Full disclosure: I am, or have been at one time during my life, one of those people who have dabbled with these sorts of genealogical quests.  I can’t claim to be some genealogical or archival expert, and I have a lot to learn when it comes to this type of research, but to me the whole process is endlessly alluring. 

Let me give you a little background: On one side of my family I can trace my ancestry back to a group of German Lutherans who landed in North America in 1717.  My family is connected to the Yagers who, along with several other families, crossed the Atlantic Ocean in the early 18th century and subsequently found themselves indentured by one Governor Spotswood in Virginia for seven years.  My family genealogy threads its way back to one of the passengers who made that voyage: Adam Yager.  Ever since I was about 10 years old I have had a copy of a typed document that details some of these histories, along with some stories about members of later generations (all the way up to recent 20th century family connections in Los Angeles, California).  And that’s not the end of it: there is a site in Virginia called “Germanna” where some of those early German relatives of mine settled and lived.  I have a copy of an archaeological report about this site, and someday I will hopefully get the chance to visit in person some day.  But think about what’s going on here: isn’t this a lot of energy, thought, and time devoted to what are (at best) imagined family relations (I will, after all, never break bread with the late Adam Yager)?

This search for connections with people long gone reminds me of Pierre Bourdieu’s discussion about the functions of kinship, and the differences between what he called “theoretical” and “practical” kin relations.  Bourdieu points out that the kinship charts and diagrams of genealogists and anthropologists merely reproduce “the official representation of social structures” (1977:34), rather than actual relationships as they exist in daily practice.  Representational kinship, Bourdieu argues, is “nothing other than the group’s self-representation and the almost theatrical presentation it gives of itself when acting in accordance with that self-image” (1977:35). 

In contrast, practical kinship groups exist only through continuous maintenance (social ties, rituals, marriages, family events, communication, and so on).  Bourdieu makes the case for seeing kinship as something that people actively create and “with which they do something” (1977:35), rather than as a static, idealized, structured map of social relations.  In short, he urges us not to confuse the map of society with the actual practical, daily, and very real workings of society itself (he extends this argument when he talks about “The Synoptic Illusion” later on in this text; see page 97).  Bourdieu writes:
The logical relationships constructed by the anthropologist are opposed to “practical” relationships—practical because continuously practiced, kept up, cultivated—in the same way as the geometrical space of a map, an imaginary representation of all theoretically possible roads and routes, is opposed to the network of beaten tracks, of paths made ever more practicable by constant use.  The genealogical tree constructed by the anthropologist, a spatial diagram that can be taken in at a glance, uno intuiti, and scanned indifferently from any point in any direction, causes the complete network of kinship relations over several generations to exist only as theoretical objects exist, that is, tota simul, as a totality present in simultaneity.  Official relationships which do not receive continuous maintenance tend to become what they are for the genealogist: theoretical relationships, like abandoned roads on an old map (1977:37-38).
Essentially, that’s what I am doing with my search for the Yagers and other distant kin connections: looking for abandoned roads on old (theoretical) family maps.  These aren’t practical, living, real kin connections that I seek…but idealistic abstractions based upon a whole compilation of documents, bits of data, and family stories about “where we came from.”  Now, why would anyone do this?  What’s the purpose of chasing down these kinds of historical abstractions?  Why would I (let alone the thousands of other genealogically-inspired folks), feel the need to locate the familial equivalent of a dusty old road that nobody has been down for generations?

I haven’t exactly gone full bore into this historical and genealogical research, but I do check in and see what I can find out from time to time.  It’s a project that I pick up every now and again, between everything that I have going on in graduate school.  I am drawn to all of this because it combines personal histories with my studies in both anthropology and archaeology.  Someday I want to explore this further..I’m curious to see where it all leads.  What’s also  interesting about this is that many other people are doing the same thing—thousands in fact—and the online communities at places like Rootsweb can be quite collaborative and helpful.  People often make connections, assist other researchers, and spend a good amount of time providing tips and possible family details to fellow part-time genealogists.  Online genealogy forums provide a whole range of tools and social networks that people utilize in their own searches for those old, lost dead ends and alleys in their family histories.

Like any kind of historical and archival research, genealogical studies can be pretty tedious.  Things are difficult enough with fairly well-documented historical sources, but they get even more dicey once you reach the online genealogy world.  Mostly because there are so many people who participate in these informal research communities.  One of the issues that I see with many of the family trees posted online, for example, is that there are often a lot of discrepancies the deeper the roots go.  This is to be expected, and makes for slow work for anyone who really wants to find out the difference between plausible connections and demonstrable kinship connections (although I think there is always a measure of uncertainly in some cases).  That’s why I have a lot of respect for the legions of trained, experienced archivists and genealogists out there who do this kind of research and have the talent to work through these difficulties.

The expert genealogists are really amazing to talk to, and it’s always impressive to see how a really knowledgeable person weaves their way through histories.  I had the chance to visit the National Archives about a year ago, and was incredibly impressed with one of the staff archivists.  But the experts are one thing…what really catches my interest are the thousands, if not millions of non-professionals out there who spend enormous amounts of time tracking down their kinship histories.  I am truly intrigued by the legions of amateurs who brave the mountains of information, rumors, documents, and family trees in search of a connection to the past.  What is really striking in anthropological sense, actually, is how many people make connections in the present while searching for connections to real or imagined pasts.  Using online forums and tools, many people start to form new communities (and even establish new kinship connections) while sifting through their prospective histories.

I’ve had people email me asking questions about particular individuals, and I have emailed others asking for information and help as well.  People post discussions asking about specific individuals or more information about particular surnames or geographic areas.  In the discussion forums of sites like Rootsweb, this sort of thing is really common.  It’s a social network that is predicated on finding distant relations and histories…and in the meantime people end up creating new ties and bonds (which sometimes result in yearly events like family reunions).  This is a fascinating use of technology and social media.  In these days of disconnected social ties and networks (family often live quite separated throughout the country in places like the US), sites like Rootsweb are locations where people create and participate in new, digitally-mediated kin relations.

Earlier I asked why people undertake these personal genealogical quests.  What are they looking for—what are they hoping to find after sifting through those old abandoned genealogical roads?  One thing seems possible: the creation of new communities and relationships during their online genealogical quests might be as meaningful as finding a documented familial connection with a long deceased individual that arrived in the Americas in the late 1600s. So the whole process may be just as much about building, maintaining—and extending—kinship relations in the present through the camaraderie of shared pasts.  And that’s how it goes: when it comes to kinship, whether we’re talking about the classic, complex diagrams of the early 20th century or the new ways in which people participate in social relationships, there’s often a lot more to it than you might think upon first glance.  When you look closely, some of those old, abandoned roads that people seem to obsess about are actually surrounded with incredibly meaningful little paths and connections that are continually created and recreated in the dynamic present.

So there you have it.  Why not take your own online sojourn in search of long-gone ancestors and distant kin relations.  Just don’t forget to take note of the fellow travelers who happen to be traversing the same old roads.

Ryan Anderson


Bourdieu, Pierre.  1977.  Outline of a Theory of Practice.  Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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