What is Radical about Family History – Part 1

Part 1 Family History is not a cosy pastime

Recently, for the first time, I gave a presentation on the subject of radical family history to an audience of radical historians, most of whom were also politically radical. By and large the response was positive and constructive, but there were some quite contrary comments and it is worth addressing these in more detail.

First, a couple of definitions. ‘Radical’ in the sense that I intend refers both to political motivation as well as historical methodology or philosophy. The two often work together, but need not do so. ‘Family history’ in the sense that I intend refers to genealogical research, family reconstitution over generations and the linkage of basic life cycle data to other records for context. It shades into community history and community reconstitution at a grassroots level.

There is absolutely nothing that is intrinsically radical about tracing one’s family tree, especially when confined to the direct male line as some strict genealogists suggest. Genealogy, pure and simple, may be juridically useful in tracing claims for inheritance among propertied and landed classes, but for the majority of us is no more useful than any other collecting hobby – this time of ancestors and distant cousins. It is a pastime, no more, no less. It is not history.

As a pastime, family history can also become conservative and reactionary, if all that is learned by the practitioner is “what a long way we have come”. Worse still it leads to a tendency to wallow in self-indulgent nostalgia. Such passive, self-congratulatory reconstruction of an imagined, sepia-tinted past is not even worthy to be called ‘history’ at all. Sadly this is precisely the terms in which family (and local) history is often presented, in specialist magazines, in the mass media and by the publishing houses.

In my own city of York, the University’s Centre for Life Long Learning is putting on a short course for adults in 2012 that promotes this very viewpoint. I quote from the description of Meet York Families: A Rapid Tour through Six Centuries: “One family will be examined each week, with key texts and slides used to illustrate important aspects of their lives. Interestingly, we will see that by dint of hard work, sufficient education and training, an aspiring attitude, good health, good luck, frugality and auspicious marriage, the social and economic prospects of each kinship group was raised”.

This could not be more obviously an assertion of a conservative, meritocratic individualist ideology more associated with the Victorian moralist Samuel Smiles. There is nothing about the context of wider political and social change, no mention here of collective life. It could not be further from that sadly missed DA 301 course from the Open University in the 1990s which took students from Family Tree to Family History, on to Community History and then reflected back on the relationship between Communities and Families. But it demonstrates that Family History, like any other historical genre, is not some simplistic gathering of ‘facts’, but an area of research that has to be contested like any other. That is where the potential for Radical Family History comes in.

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