Genealogy and identity

I have just read a very interesting article by Hannah Little on genealogy, identity and the role of archives in Scotland (‘Archive Fever as Genealogical Fever: Coming home to Scottish Archives’, Archivaria, 64 (Fall 2007)). Indeed, I’m not alone in thinking this is an excellent piece: Hannah has just been awarded the Lamb Prize by the Association of Canadian Archivists to honour the author of the Archivaria article that, by its exceptional combination of research, reflection, and writing, most advances archival thinking in Canada. It is the senior award of the journal, for the best article overall (from the University of Glasgow website). This is an incredibly impressive achievement for a PhD student or indeed any early career researcher: congratulations Hannah!

The bulk of the article consists of a really in-depth analysis of the historical background to family history/genealogical research in Scotland. In the final section however she addresses the nature of authenticity and the link between genealogy and identity. This is a fairly short section so she does not have space to explore the thorny question of identity in quite so much detail. However, much of what she says about ‘identity’ as a questionable social policy goal is as true for communities as it is for the individuals who engage in genealogical research.

Here is an extract:

[…] genealogy is often perceived as a stabilizing force for identity. Its popularity is often simply explained as compensation for modern rootlessness. The acts of researching and writing genealogical material and travelling to ancestral homelands are interpreted as a way of fending off the “nightmare” of homelessness, which “is to be uprooted, to be without papers, stateless, alone, alienated and adrift in a world of organized others.” Indeed, perhaps genealogy, with its pursuit of different authenticities, does offer a way of constructing a “more authentic” and perhpas a more essentialist and existential sense of self.

In what ways can archives contribute to this sense of self? Family history is a fairly open-ended pursuit; the more on researches, the more possibilities and different “identities” there are to follow.

If genealogy is a matter of choice (a subject I‘ve written about elsewhere in relation to my own family) then it can be compared to Freud’s description of legend as a “product of history attended to by desire” (where is this? ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle?’). As such it ‘offers practitioners some degree of unconcious gratification that finds form in the construction of narrative.’ And she adds a note of caution: ‘”history attended to be desire” has led to some of the worst atrocities’.

‘Identity’ in short, is a risky game. It is very hard to know whether policies that encourage identity quests, whether for individuals or communities will foster cohesion or identity. I find myself troubled by the idea of the Scottish ‘homecoming‘ 2009, a national tourist initiative that seeks to build on this ‘genealogical fever’ to draw people with Scottish ancestry back to the ‘homeland’ and in so doing constructs a very fixed, exclusive notion of Scottish ‘identity’ (the construction of white ethnic identities is another point on which Little’s article is strong).

Little’s article begs the question of when ‘identity’, supported by heritage, is useful and for whom. The same question is also at the heart of our research.

How ‘returning’ Scots will be expected/encouraged to peform their identity. From the Come to Scotland website.


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