Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Other in Us: Anthropology, Genealogy and Kinship in the 21st Century

Anthropology and Genealogy’s Long Romance
From prime-time celebrity TV shows, like BBC's Who Do You Think You Are?, to subscription-based Internet records archives, like, to y-chromosome DNA testing, modern genealogy means big business. Growing numbers of professional genealogists, local historians, and lay family researchers participate in professional certification programs, conferences, local society chapters, national associations, and online webinars. Here, I consider anthropology’s past intersections with genealogy and suggest new disciplinary ways for using this old method to understand contemporary cultural experiences and emerging social structures.

The oral traditions of cultures throughout the world collected and preserved kinship data and family lineages long before such social concerns featured prominently in ancient texts, like the Bible and the Erya, a third century B.C.E. Chinese encyclopedia featuring a chapter on kinship and marriage. Even now, much of what many of us know about our family histories comes to us via oral transmission. Up until recently, genealogical preoccupations in Western societies existed mainly among royalty and a landed elite concerned with inheritances of titles, land, and other properties. In the late nineteenth century scholars in the emerging field of cultural anthropology became interested in using systematized genealogical collection to scientifically study kinship patterns (especially seemingly taboo practices, like incest and cross-cousin marriage) among non-European, indigenous peoples. Lewis Henry Morgan created kinship surveys to document the Seneca of upstate New York and other Native American cultures, while British anthropologist W.H.R. Rivers relied heavily on genealogical data to study indigenous peoples in the colonial Pacific (deRoche 2007). First published in 1910, Rivers’ (1998), “The Genealogical Method of Anthropological Inquiry,” provided a succinct guide for generations of anthropologists interested in using genealogy to study traditional social organization and kinship through the 1960s.

Around this time, anthropology shifted from the collection and preservation of cultures supposedly untouched, but endangered by Western influences to a focus on understanding modernity's effects on traditional cultural patterns at home and abroad. As societies moved from agricultural to industrial to postindustrial economic models, kinship seemed to play less of a role in securing personal well-being, structuring social relations, and understanding emerging cultural patterns. Especially in more urban locales, private corporations and government agencies increasingly stepped in to provide social services, like education, work, and health care, to an increasingly mobile population less attached to family or geographical place (deRoche 2007). Some projects, like the Junaluska Heritage Association's work to uncover the history of Junaluska, a traditionally African American community in Boone, North Carolina, continue to find genealogy a useful research method. Many contemporary urban anthropologists and virtual ethnographers, however, employ newer methods to study more fluid, interest-based social relationships and debate over whether to classify such emergent structures as “networks,” “subcultures,” “neo-tribes,” or “scenes” (Hodkinson & Deicke 2007).

Some modern anthropologists have noted genealogy's popular explosion since World War II and, particularly, after the 1977 publication and television adaptation of Alex Haley's Roots, based on the author's research of his own African American family's history. Based on her study of genealogy hobbyists in eastern England, Fennella Cannell (2005) dismissed misconceptions that genealogy represented a self-centered preoccupation or that most participants were motivated by a search for lost roots. Instead, she argued for genealogy's modern popularity in the postindustrial West as one expression of a repressed need to care for the dead, participate in healing cultural remembrance, and redefine contemporary ideas about kinship and connection to others. As genealogical research becomes more popular, modern anthropologists ought to take advantage of this phenomenon to determine what new and useful research and teaching possibilities family history research might now hold.

Autoethnographic Anecdote
My own road to connecting genealogy and anthropology began when I discovered and decided to use the autoethnographic method in my Master’s thesis research. Born of 1970s feminist scholarship, autoethnography took root in anthropology as the discipline experienced a reflexive turn, acknowledging the non-existence of the disembodied, objective researcher. This radical, interdisciplinary method fuses autobiographic and ethnographic writing, using personal experience as a springboard for investigating larger social patterns and exploring ourselves as historically situated, culturally constructed persons (Berger & Ellis 2007). I used autoethnography to investigate how my personal experience as a performer in a local experimental music scene intersected with contemporary Appalachian representations and regional identifications.

Because I enjoyed and learned so much utilizing this method, I started seeking ways to help my students locate personal experiences within broader historical-cultural contexts. As I resurrected a personal project to research my own ancestors, I began to realize the potential for using family history research as a bridge between the personal and the cultural. An informal first-week survey of first-year college students in the genealogy seminar I am currently teaching confirmed my suspicion that a tremendous amount of interest exists for pursuing this type of research. Most students enrolled because of a personal desire to explore their own family histories and share these discoveries with their peers. I, myself, am excited to share what I’ve learned about my own heritage and what I find illuminating about this particular type of research.

One story I love to tell concerns my great-great-great grandparents, Clement I. Camp and Marie Louise Thelesie Varion. They were both born in New Orleans, Louisiana around 1820 and married there in 1847. My grandmother remembers their daughter, her own grandmother, Charlotte. Nevertheless, she and her sister were shocked when Camp family researchers informed them, via email, that these ancestors were documented as free people of color on their marriage record and several of their children's birth certificates.

Charlotte Camp Knight holding grandson,
New Orleans, Louisiana, circa 1928
“Does it make you feel any different?” my grandmother had asked me as she struggled to digest this new information.

The research process forced her to see herself in a new light, while helping my teenage self begin developing a reflexive awareness about the cultural and historical contexts that shaped our life experiences and marked us as belonging to different generations. Coming of age in the South during the years preceding the civil rights movement, my grandmother, who is, also, half Italian, developed an acute awareness of the relationship between ethnicity and oppression. Her Italian relatives had Anglicized their surname in the early 1900s. Meanwhile, most of the Camps, like many colored families in the South, seized the opportunity to “pass” as white by this time. When I replied that I felt no differently, I realized how much this attitude was informed by having grown up in the 1990s when more multicultural celebration and visibility existed in American public education and popular culture. I also realized that while my identification with my Filipina mother's heritage made me comfortable claiming a mixed ethnic identity, my American grandmother neither acknowledged this mixed heritage nor understood the desire to claim such an identity.

My recent research of these Camp ancestors has led far beyond a skeletal outline of their lives into an investigation of the historical and cultural backdrop of their time and place. By choosing to delve further, I learned about the still too unexplored antebellum history of free people of color in New Orleans. Many of these individuals arrived in the port city via Cuba and Saint-Domingue (which became Haiti in 1804) after the slave rebellions of the late 1700s and early 1800s. This created a dynamic, multi-ethnic cultural tapestry that included a large, prosperous class of educated and property-owning free people of color, unlike anything found in America during this time (Louisiana Black Heritage Symposium 1979; Kein 2000). Census records and some basic searching revealed Clement, himself, to be a skilled mason who worked to redesign the facade of the city's historic Catholic St. Louis Cathedral, in the early 1850s.

After years of reflection and research, I would now answer my grandmother’s question in the affirmative. Yes, in light of all I have uncovered, I do feel differently about myself. I feel even prouder to claim a multi-ethnic heritage, which is the true history and contemporary reality of the United States of America. I feel even more motivated to use genealogy as one tool for exploring the lives of women, ethnically diverse people of color, the poor, LGBT communities, and other oppressed peoples—those “others” that mainstream historical and cultural discourses still too often deemphasize or ignore altogether.

In conclusion, quality genealogy research possesses tremendous potential for anthropologists seeking more reflexive understandings of the historical and cultural contexts that shape our lives. Often, personal or family stories complicate cultural stereotypes and encourage the reexamination of historical grand narratives and taken-for-granted “truths.” Finally, family history research brings one face-to-face with stories and experiences that simultaneously do and do not belong to us. The genealogical lens asks that we confront the other in us while helping us recognize and build new types of kinship connections with those we perceive as historical and/or contemporary others.

Shannon Perry


Berger, Leigh, and Carolyn Ellis. 2007. Composing autoethnographic stories. In Doing cultural anthropology. Michael V. Angrosino, ed. Pp. 161-176. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Cannell, Fenella. 2011. English ancestors: The moral possibilities of popular genealogy. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 17: 462-480.

deRoche, Constance P. 2007. Exploring genealogy. In Doing cultural anthropology. Michael V. Angrosino, ed. Pp. 19-32. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc.

Hodkinson, Paul, and Wolfgang Deicke, eds. 2007. Youth cultures: Scenes, subcultures and tribes. Routledge Advances in Sociology, 26. New York: Routledge.

Kein, Sybil, ed. 2000. Creole: The history and legacy of Louisiana’s free people of color. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.

Louisiana Black Heritage Symposium, with Robert R. Macdonald, John R. Kemp, Edward F. Haas, and Louisiana State Museum. 1979. Louisiana’s black heritage. New Orleans: Louisiana State Museum.

Rivers, W.H.R. 1998. Kinship and social organization. London: Routledge/Thoemmes Press.

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