What is Radical about Family History – Part 3

Part 3 The Positive Potential of Family History

How can we best answer the negative criticisms of family history?

We cannot change the fact that the hobbyists will always be with us and that they will tend to be most of the people, most of the time. But a closer look at the activity of Family History Societies will illustrate that ‘even hobbyists’ can be a surprise.

It would surprise me if there is even one family history society that is not involved in some way with uncovering and making genealogical data available and accessible on a mass scale. This kind of data crunching is not something that academics would generally undertake on their own, as it is too time-consuming. But data available on this kind of scale can be hugely important in both quantitative and qualitative analysis of social change. Pooley and Turnbull used just such family history data, from a wide selection of sources, to create a vast database to unlock the secrets of migration and population change in the UK in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, out of the OU’s DA301 course, emerged the Family and Community Historical Research Society, linking former students, new enthusiasts and academics in partnership. They have undertaken several large scale projects using their widely dispersed membership to track down and collate information on a variety of subjects: almshouses, the spread of the Swing Riots in the 1830s, allotments, to name but three.

Without academic prompting, some individual societies have themselves focussed on specific wider issues, a favourite being migration around the UK and wider afield from places such as Cornwall and the South West generally. Specialist societies have focussed on particular communities, such as Romanies, Travellers and Fairgrounds. Most FHS groups publish a journal and go durther, publishing volumes of research about their area. There is nothing intellectually shallow about any of this and it demonstrates that there is a strong foundation for family history to contribute something much more than just a massive and incomprehensible web of kinship links. This is history organised from below and that in itself is a radical act, capable of being even more radical if those of such persuasion do not stand on the sidelines scoffing with their noses in the air.

The vast majority of us do not have privileged backgrounds. We come from long lines of very ordinary people, though some of them may have been, willingly or not, involved in some extraordinary things. What we have gathered together individually and in groups amounts to the greatest database about working class people ever assembled. All it lacks is the realisation of its potential value. One example – 2014 will see the commencement of centennial commemorations of the First World War, in which hardly a single family was not involved. Much of the potential data already exists on line, or forms part of current digitisation projects, or (like newspaper content) is being explored by enthusiasts. Imagine what this data could do to alter perceptions of that War and its impact on ordinary people. Imagine what a difference this kind of focus could make to any attempts to turn the centennial into a flag-waving jamboree. Imagine what new material will emerge from attics and old suitcases, over and above what is already in the public domain. Imagine all this being explored by ordinary people, collectively, critically, together. Imagine!

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