15 January 2007

The Varieties of Family History

I tell my university students that there are at least three kinds of family history as pursued in the United States today:

1.) The “history of the family” as a social, political, and economic unit. Fertility, marriage customs, division of roles and powers, parenting practices and powers, how families brought about their economy, etc. This is a fairly active field in the historical profession with journals, conferences, and dedicated university courses.

2.) A less professionalized pursuit, once largely known as “genealogy,” now increasingly called “family history,” which seeks to deal with specific families-of-origin in a person’s ancestry, usually the one doing the research. The difference between family history and genealogy is one of scale and scope. Traditionally, genealogy has been limited mostly to the names of one’s ancestors, along with the dates and places of their vital events—their birth, baptism or christening, marriage, childbirths, death, and burial. So, names, dates, and places—sounds sort of like High School history. Family History, on the other hand, relies on genealogy to get those basic facts straight, but then attempts to go much further in actually fleshing out as much as possible how one’s ancestors actually lived. Though this is done to varying degrees of fullness, the objective is not to fill out one’s pedigree, so to speak, but to compile an historical account of one’s family.

3.) “Thicker-and-Richer” (my borrowing from Madison Ave.) family history that goes beyond even a compiled account to get at the context and meaning of a family’s history. It probes the social, political, cultural, and psychological environment in which one’s family developed, and in which each of us ultimately is formed. What I call family culture is the consequence of the historical process as it develops generation after generation. Why are some families affluent while some are impoverished, generation after generation? Aside from physiological factors, why are some families prone to alcoholism and other addictions? Aside from income factors, why do the members of some families almost universally pursue higher education while those in others rarely consider the possibility at all? Why do some families experience high divorce rates generation after generation? Are individuals with knowledge of their family history and ancestry happier and more successful in life than those ignorant of their family heritage?

Aside from these rather academic questions, and much more significant for the individual trying to practice a thicker-and-richer family history, there is the all important question of meaning. It is here that the novelists and film makers join the economists and sociologists and lawyers and historians and psychologists in addressing the nature of family life through time.

Even philosophers: Maurice Merlot-Ponty wrote that “because we are present to a World, we are condemned to meaning.” In my own family’s history, what does it mean that one of my four great grandmothers divorced her husband in Victorian England and migrated to the American West with her seven children, three of whom had already reached adulthood? What does it mean that one of my wife’s four great grandfathers left Germany with his parents just before the American Civil War in the “Auswanderung” of Alt Lutherans—“old” Lutherans—who fled the suppression of their fundamentalist Lutheranism in those parts of Germany controlled by Prussia?

Closer to our own time, what does it mean for me that my father, coming from a rural, mechanical, and mining family married my mother, who came from an urban, artistic, and musical one? What does it mean that both grew up during the Great Depression and that one went to war and was wounded in it and that they married just a few years after the war and reared their children in that extraordinary time of boom—both of babies and of the economy—that followed the war? What does it mean that they left their home state and moved to California at a time when it was poised to become the eight largest economy in the world?

The search for meaning in family history is no simple matter, and it doesn’t take long for my students to understand that the first and the second varieties of family history are matters of fairly settled practice and methodology, but that work and research on the third variety is scattered across a number of professional disciplines that typically do not interact and that only infrequently share their findings on the subject in a coherent way. I am hoping that this blog might, in a small way, help to remedy this by eventually bringing together those who are interested and who are willing to share their insights and knowledge.