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A Revealing Look at Our Obsession with Genealogy

eviatar photo378x270Eviatar ZerubavelSome call it America’s fastest growing hobby. Genealogy, the study of family ancestry, is booming.  With the availability of DNA testing kits, and an ever-expanding number of genealogy websites, the average person can now trace family lines back hundreds of years. But why does the desire to know our ancestors exert such a strong hold on us?  And how do we actually go about the task of determining our ancestry?  Is it simply an objective, historical process? In his provocative new book, “Ancestors and Relatives,” Eviatar Zerubavel, a Board of Governors Professor in Sociology, makes some surprising findings about how and why people do genealogy.  His book, published by Oxford University Press promises to spur lively discussion and expand our understanding of kinship and relatedness. 

Q: Your new book opens with a passage from the Hebrew Bible that traces several generations of ancestors, starting with “Attai begot Nathan.” How is that connected to the themes you are writing about?

A: What I see in that passage from Chronicles is not just a lot of names, but the line connecting them. I love this idea of connectedness. I am not so much interested in the actual relations than in the way they are mentally envisioned. What jumps out in this example from the ancient Israelites is that it’s all men. This clues us in that this genealogy doesn’t give a complete chronicle of history, but a very partial story for a specific purpose.

Q: That in itself seems to illustrate one of the major points of your book: Genealogies are not passive recordings of ancestral history, but instead are narratives constructed for specific reasons. What are the typical reasons?

A: I would say identity and legitimacy. The same way you give legitimacy to a golden retriever by giving it a good pedigree, you do the same thing with human beings. I use the term ‘genealogical capital’ in that genealogies are used to solidify or enhance social standing.

Q: Can you give me an example?

A: There’s the last Shah of Iran who (in the 1970s) sought connection to the 2,500-year-old Persian kingdom of King Cyrus.  If you didn’t know a lot of history, you would think there is a straight line from the Shah to the sixth century BCE. This was a case of distortion, but it gave the Shah great legitimacy.

Q: That was fabrication for political purposes.  What would be the motivation behind the choices that ordinary people make?

A: For ordinary people, it’s a case of selectivity – not fabrication.  And quite frankly, there is no other way to do it. You have to be selective.    You go back several generations and you have dozens and then hundreds and then thousands of ancestors.    

I would also say that for the ordinary person, as egocentric as we might feel, we all know it didn’t start with us. We are related to something that came before us, and what’s interesting is that this ‘something’ gives us a sense of identity. You see it in the case of adopted children. Even when they grow up in great families, there is an eagerness to “know who they really are.” You want some solidity that you can anchor yourself to genealogically.

Q: One of your interests is cognitive sociology.  Can you explain what that is and how it fits into your book?

A: Early in my career, I realized I was very interested in looking at mental processes from a sociological perspective. Traditionally when you look at the mental or the cognitive, you think it has to do with psychology, or with what is now called cognitive science. I was interested in the social dimension, the cultural dimension of thinking.

So if I am looking at memory, rather than looking at how all individuals remember, I am more interested in how, for instance, Christians do it, or how lawyers do it, or how people in the 1930s did it.

What interests me here in Ancestors and Relatives is not just the biological, bio-genetic reality, but the whole way of cognitively processing it. What do we do in our head with it? All these trees and chains, they are just mental structures that we construct, and it fascinates me.

 

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