Beyond Geneaology

Beyond Genealogy: towards a Radical Family History

What exactly is ‘radical family history’? It is an evolving concept that implies a meeting point between Radical History and Family History. It needs your critical input before it can be clearly defined. What follows are a few basic points and an invitation for you to submit comments and suggestions.

‘Radical History’ refers to the work of groups of people practising ‘history from below’ in their own localities and concentrating on discovering and celebrating their radical pasts. This may mean the history of political radicalism in the area (such as the movement for political reform, the Chartists, anti-slavery, women’s suffrage, the Poll Tax) or the growth and development of the labour movement and other social movements (trade unions, socialism, syndicalism, anarchism). Radical History groups like this operate in Bristol and Nottingham, while one in East London casts its net wider than the immediate locality.

‘Family History’ is a much more widespread activity, generating a massive commercial industry and impacting significantly on the work of public libraries and archives. It is a hugely popular activity, often supported by the academic community in company with ‘ Local History’ or ‘Community History’. It is a form of ‘history from below’, in principle and in practice, though the extent to which its practitioners divert from simply tracing genealogy and ancestry varies considerably. The influence of academics, TV programmes and the plethora of magazines on the subject have encouraged family historians to encompass aspects of social and cultural history. Many people who begin by researching their family tree quickly develop a much broader appreciation of what historical study can achieve.

‘Radical Family History’ brings these two strands together, so that the one influences the other. Family history gives to radical history the opportunity to humanise the past, so that movements are seen as the product of individuals and social networks. Radical history suggests to family historians that taking a more collective approach to how they look at individuals in the past will help to create a theoretical framework that adds meaning to what they find.

In both cases, there is a need to recognise that history does not happen in the past, it forms an imaginative link in the here and now between present and past. The simple accumulation of ‘facts’ and data have no meaning. We need to question every one of these points of reference to establish their contextual significance in place, time and social relationships and, by doing so, reflect back on our own patterns of significance in the present.

Both radical history and family history need to confront and deal with contemporary historiography and theory, reconstructing social networks in the past but also applying radical criticism. Ideally this should happen in a collective, self-managed format, in the form of local radical family history networks. Radical historians have this approach, while family historians have the sheer numbers.


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