Review: “Secrets and Lies: the Radical Potential of Family History”

The article by Dr Tanya Evans in History Workshop Journal 71, Secrets and Lies:the Radical Potential of Family History, draws heavily on the specific cultural conditions of Australian experience, and creates a welcome addition to the literature on radical approaches to history. In her argument she seeks to rescue ‘family history’ from the enormous condescension of academic historians, though some inconsistencies suggest she may not have quite freed herself from the same reproach.

She rightly asserts that ‘when it comes to broader questions of historical change and continuity the techniques and findings of family historians disrupt many of our assumptions about the past’ (p. 51). By way of examples, she illustrates how family historians have recovered both the relatively common ancestry among transported convicts and the importance of Aboriginal family history and mixed race origins. In the process, the tendency to sanitize the concept of the family has been exposed and a greater acknowledgement made of the role of these marginalised groups. In greater depth, she explores a couple of rather exceptionally well documented case studies relating to ambiguities, lies and silences with regard to family origins, using diaries as well as public records. These demonstrate the value of focussing on the activities of ordinary people to get a more rounded picture of social change, with a strong emphasis on issues of gender and cultural attitudes to illegitimacy.

Evans picks out a number of factors in family history that she feels need to be more greatly appreciated by academic historians. Family history emphasizes the everyday experience of individuals, families and communities (p. 54). Family historians have an ’emotional engagement with the past’ that gives strength and passion to their research (p. 55). She notes the extent to which family history has itself become professionalized, with its own collective rigour, and how family historians have themselves sought to acquire broader historical skills and qualifications (p. 58). She concludes that ‘it seems appropriate to reassess the condescension shown towards the motivations, methods and findings of family historians as some innovative Australian historians have begun to do’ (p. 68). Indeed, she is one of those historians, having learned the value of genealogical sources for her own previous work, which, with its emphasis on the everyday experience of women, meshes almost exactly with the areas of interest of family historians.

If there is a small problem with her analysis of the role of family history in relation to academic history, then it probably derives from the real structure of that relationship, rather than her personal views or outlook. She talks of academic historians being ‘dependent upon the voluntary work of genealogists’ (p. 57), while asserting that family historians ‘still need academics to help them to interpret their data’ (p. 55). This is a view prevalent in the UK and one which informs the activities, for example, of the Family and Community Historical Research Society. While the FACHRS grew out of the continuing interest and enthusiasm of graduate students from a series of courses at the Open University, its projects tend to be largely designed by and led by, practising academics. The ordinary members labour voluntarily in the archives, while the professional academics interpret and contextualize the data and gain the kudos from publication of the findings. Elitism is institutionalised in the name of democratisation, even if that is not the intention of any of the participants.

Fundamentally this situation is driven by the hierarchical structure of relationships in a society where the effect of concentrations of wealth and power infiltrates social life. However it has to be acknowledged that most family historians remain content to pursue their activities as a private hobby, perhaps taking an interest in wider socio-historical issues, but not becoming involved in debate. There is, however, a very active and substantial minority of family historians, many of whom have studied for higher degrees. They often lead local societies and encourage their members to go beyond ‘a paper trail of birth, death, marriage, legal and civil records to reconstruct their ancestors’ lives’ (p. 54). It follows that the family history community and its practitioners need not be subordinated to the academic community. Family historians are capable of being more than labourers in the collection of data, or at best technicians in the methodology of collection and preservation. The family history community has a forty-year record as a mass movement in the UK and in the course of its growth has changed the face of public history and the archives.

Ordinary diligent, intelligent and studious people are as well equipped to interpret data, to weigh and assess arguments in learned publications, to appreciate context and understand social and cultural theory, as any professional member of the ‘Academy’. Several such, gathered together and operating collectively, have formidable potential to design, research and interpret their own projects and publish the results. They might struggle to get them accepted in most journals, as these tend to be controlled and refereed by institutional academics. They might face formidable constraints in obtaining funding for more ambitious projects. On the other hand, they are better able to present their findings in a form that is readily accessible to the generalist family historian. Many already do so, using as their outlet the family history press and their family history society journals. The input of academic historians is valuable, but it bears no intrinsic privileges.

Tanya Evans quotes (p. 55) Grace Karskens’ brilliant observation that ‘the great lesson of early Sydney is that it was not made by those in authority, the wealthy and powerful alone…The country was replete with lighter signatures’. She also recognizes that ‘it is scholars of the poor and the dispossessed who have most eagerly embraced family history in recent years’. There is no doubt that a formidable and growing team of professional academics are pursuing interests in precisely this direction. They lack the scope and time on their own to carry out much of the immensely difficult task of assembling and interpreting the masses of data from family history sources. Perhaps the structure of their relationship with the family history community is what needs to change and perhaps it is incumbent on the latter to assert their equality more forcefully. They are, after all, bearers of the same ‘lighter signatures’ and openly heirs to the same.

Only a handful of academic historians have gone quite as far as Tanya Evans in celebrating the role of family history and its part in reinventing  ‘history from below’. She pushes the frontiers of the academy very hard. She also challenges some of the assumptions of genealogy about the male line, re-asserting the equality of women in social development. She therefore pushes the family history community in a radical direction as well.  If I have laboured one small flaw, it is because the purpose of this website is to champion a concept of history organised outside of academic and public institutions and challenging the hegemony of history endorsed by officialdom. It may be a scary thought, but does history need to be academic at all?

Martin Bashforth, June 2011.


2 thoughts on “Review: “Secrets and Lies: the Radical Potential of Family History”

  1. I know that there is serious stuff about me and my sister (today not alive any more) it happened 31 years back or so, I think!?

  2. Family History and Local History are nevertheless History, each with a specifically focussed interest. As a family historian, I am always hoping to find a well-researched local history, to assist me in clothing my ancestors with some context.
    And, some of my work has been embraced by local historians.
    Years ago, as novices, we chased the births, the deaths, and the marriages, if only because we had forms with spaces for that data, and the gaps seemed to visibly represent our failures.
    But now, vastly more sources of information are available to us: archives have been opened; volunteers have indexed them, and we can all find what our ancestors got upto, without the great effort that would have been necessary a few decades ago.
    Yes, some “academic historians” view us non-academics as lesser beings, and our results less meritorious. But those forms of ignorance are not, in my experience, universally held.
    This brings me to my final point: why do we bother ? In my opinion, family historians (those researching their own family) are not motivated by financial gain, although most of us would like some “recognition”. Greater still, however, is our need to quench our own thirst for knowledge: the pursuit of truth, largely for its own sake.

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