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Reflections on Genealogy and "That New Yorker Article"

King and Queen

A few weeks ago, a New Yorker article by Maya Jasanoff, entitled "Our Obsession With Ancestry Has Some Twisted Roots" drove some in the world of genealogy into quite a tizzy. The title is misleading, having the air of being a copy editor's creation and, though the author is a distinguished historian who has been awarded prizes for her writing, in this case she is not terribly coherent or clear. It is obvious that the she does not know much about the techniques of genealogical research, or establishing genealogical proof or kinship determination, but that does not diminish the validity of her concern. She is worried about how genealogy is used not, as Elizabeth Shown Mills, herself a historian, brilliantly showed on facebook in response to this article, to understand how one's family fits into history, but for power, injustice and exclusion.

"The truth is, all genealogies are selective, often by design" she writes. Her concern here is exclusion. Her wording is imprecise, we believe, in that it is not genealogies that are exclusive, (or inclusive, for that matter). Genealogies attempt to show all familial connections in the most factual, documented and verifiable manner possible. It is when we place values on those families, their extended families, their tribes, and say that one is good while another bad and establish that belonging to one gives rights while to another deprives one of rights, that we are misusing, even abusing genealogy. Every hereditary genealogy society requiring a lineage proof for membership commits this type of abuse. Every immigration law based on a person's heredity commits this type of abuse. Dr. Jasanoff is right to raise the issue and to be concerned.

She does not dispute the pleasure that family history can give to us, that "Genealogy as a technique may bring individual rewards, but," she adds, "as a historical paradigm it has tended to serve those in power, and such effects are not diminishing." Her point is that those in power use genealogical research and techniques, including DNA research, to legalize injustices toward certain people based upon their heredity. This is a legitimate and important question which Dr. Jasanoff is asking us to examine: "We know that “race” is a social construct. We need to acknowledge the ways in which “ancestry” is, too."

Perhaps we genealogists and family historians should participate in, even lead this examination. There certainly has not yet been much written by genealogists asking just what "ancestry" is and what it means. Surely, the many times that we have seen how DNA evidence can contradict documented identity should have opened such a discussion amongst us by now. Additionally, so much of our focus in our work has been on good research and sound reasoning that we have not looked at just how our reports and studies might be used by the unscrupulous. 

The Code of Ethics of the Board for Certification of Genealogists makes no mention of how genealogy might be misused or of what a genealogist could or should do to prevent it. In fact, helping people with their applications to lineage societies is such a staple of most genealogists' work that it is unlikely that any professional genealogists' organization has questioned if it is desirable to help anyone to join a club that expressly keeps out others who do not have the same or a similar lineage. Maybe it is time for us to do so. Maybe it is time for us to add to our Codes of Ethics clauses to the effect that we will not contribute our research to activities that use genealogy as a basis for exclusion or injustice. Going further, we might add clauses to the effect that, in order to protect the honour of our profession, we will make every effort to stop such abuse.

It is sad and even somewhat horrifying that these abuses, that the nonsensical idea of superiority or inferiority based upon bloodlines, heredity or genealogy, are again a worry, when we should have thought all modern societies would have most vigourously crushed such idiocy by now. Dr. Jasanoff's essay may be a bit muddled but her points are most valid and we would suggest that those whose first reaction was to sense an attack on their profession and/or pastime and to retaliate pause to give it another reading.

©2022 Anne Morddel

French Genealogy

 

In response to the above, we have had this e-mail from Monsieur W:

"Dear Anne,

There are very few propositions that have universal application. The only one of which I am aware is René Descartes’ “Je pense, donc je suis” (or, if you prefer, “cogito, ergo sum”), which is both universal and irrefutable, even though it may be only momentarily true.

Your proposition that genealogy should not be used to establish exclusivity or defend exclusions does, I believe, require some limitations. To apply it universally may have unintended consequences.

Australia’s recognition of Aboriginal land rights arises from a principle that Aboriginal nations existed before European settlement, and that they were peopled by indigenous language groups whose members have living descendants, comprising at least 4 percent of Australia’s current population. To meet the requirements of Aboriginality, you must satisfy three genealogy-based measures:

· The person must identify as Aboriginal.

· The relevant Aboriginal community must recognise the person as Aboriginal.

· The person must be Aboriginal by way of descent.

A member of an Aboriginal language group may enjoy exclusive benefits. He or she may live on land that others would require a permit to enter. He or she might share exclusively in royalties from mining companies extracting resources from that land.He of she

These hereditary rights have been established in Australian law through a recognition that they embody rights and laws that were not extinguished by colonisation.

I am in full agreement with you that lineage societies, and their ilk, need to be put under an ethical microscope, but I would suggest this is a complex problem that needs to be approached cautiously. What is the intent of the society? Does its manifest cause harm to those who cannot meet its criteria? Has it crossed the line between fellowship and snobbish superiority? Do its members gain advantages that should be equally available to others? Are there actually people who want to be taken into a genealogical family, even though they have no genealogical connection with that family? Would such a demand, in itself, be legitimate?

Your blog will, I hope, stimulate this debate, and I’m sure many of your readers will be interested in following its development."

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