Jerome de Groot teaches and researches at the University of Manchester. He writes about genealogy, popular history and public history. He has published several books including Consuming History (Routledge, 2016). You can follow him on Twitter at @deggy21.
How does the past affect you in the present?
Questions about our identity, our personalities, and our selves are fundamental to the pursuit of family history. We want to know where we come from, what we are, what made us who we are. The biggest TV programme about our subject poses the question as a challenge: ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ The implication is that family history might change this.
In the genealogy-detective novel Pale as the Dead by Fiona Mountain the central character reflects upon this: ‘Natasha saw it all the time, people presented with the tiniest reference to one of their ancestors, clasping or staring at a piece of paper as if it were the most revelatory discovery, something that might totally change their lives’ (Orion Publishing 2002, p. 84).
This emotional connection to the past, this life-changing moment as the archive renders up something material, is part of a desire to understand one’s self in the present. Pale as the Dead continues ‘Knowing such things helped people to make sense of their own lives. It’s a universal need, isn’t it, to want to know about your roots, where you came from?’ (p. 84).
Part of my work as an academic who studies family historians is to think carefully about the way that the past effects and changes our sense of self. I am interested in the way that investigation of the past is interwoven with this sense of ‘self’ in the present. How we relate our story, create our narrative, changes us. It is one of the things that make family history quite different to other historical pursuits.
Alison Light, in Common People, argues that ‘Like all historians, family historians are resurrectionists, repopulating the past, trying to put flesh to bones and bring past eras to life’ (University of Chicago Press, p. xxvii). This unpleasant fleshy metaphor is commonly used to describe family history. The idea that pursuing your past literally raises the dead is important to the way that we think about the detective work of investigation. Historians breathe life into dead material, raising ghosts and shedding light on those long forgotten.
Yet Light’s words also suggest that there is something more complicated going on. Family historians both reorder the past, by finding new information out, and change the present. They reshape then, and reconfigure now. This is such an elegant way of thinking about what it is that we do. Through our investigations we subtly change the past, and the present; we modify our ancestry, and ourselves.
Light is keen to stress that family history is ‘real’ history. Family historians are, simply, historians. I think she is right, and I’m convinced that we need to make this case more strongly and more fervently, to point out that family historians are skilled, thoughtful, inventive and scholarly.
Yet we need to think carefully about the involvement of the self in our investigation. How does history change our identities? Am I different because of what I find out? What does this mean for historical objectivity? Above all, how does my undoubted enjoyment in my work – pleasure in discovery, and in the revelations of the past – change the kind of historian I am?
Light sees these concerns as central to all historical work: ‘The central moral or ethical questions of historical inquiry are unavoidable and immediate in family history: why does the past matter? How much and what do we owe the dead?’ (University of Chicago Press, p. xxvii).
These moral and ethical questions are complicated by our presence in the process. We ask a lot of the dead, and one of the biggest questions is ‘Who am I?’
Using DNA sequencing for genealogy makes the questions about self and identity even more pressing. What is it that makes me ‘me’, at a fundamental, genetic level? How can this change what I am in the ‘now’? DNA testing focuses the investigation of the past on the present self. Yet this present self might turn out to be something quite unknown. DNA testing, like other family history investigation, might turn up something about me that I didn’t know about. Yet DNA looks at the stuff inside, seems to change me internally, and so my self might be reshaped from the genetic level up to my day-to-day character.
I don’t know the answers to these questions, but they are approached and considered every day by family historians. The interrogation of the self in the present, and the use of records and archives to clarify an understanding of a present-day identity, makes our approach to history unique and challenging.