Family history has never been in more robust health, its forms multiplying ferociously. After years in the scholarly wilderness, the odd brave practitioner pilloried for desertion of professional duty, this once removed cousin is firmly back in the fold. The only mystery is what took so long, where else, after all, does private and public, biology and culture converge in such provocative ways? What else wields the same power to redraw history’s boundaries and level its terrain? Not only has genealogical research stimulated a multi-billion-dollar industry and generated a legion of independent historians, but, fuelled by advances in DNA testing, it has also rewritten histories of migration, race, health, marriage, even human evolution itself. It has connected people to the ‘National Story’ and, at other times, disconnected them by transgressing borders and speaking in its silences. In fact, family history interrogates all big stories, including ‘History’ itself, not least by demanding recognition for affect (and affection) as a form of historical knowledge.
This home of many mansions is showcased in a new collection, Family History and Historians in Australia and New Zealand (2021), edited by myself and Malcolm Allbrook – but what might the next generation of family histories and historians bring? What questions might they pose to our ideas, ideals, and representations of kinship? Here I speculate on some of the challenges the future may present.
The Kin of Kith
Constructed Kin Groups (CKG) offer an interesting avenue with strong contemporary resonance. CKGs are configurations of people, unrelated by biology or law, who form temporary or long-term alliances that supply members with an emotional and/or economic framework comparable to that traditionally assigned to family (colloquially, the Friends syndrome!). In one sense, this connects to a rich outsider-historiography encompassing all those persons socially marginalised, displaced, or otherwise estranged from their biological families. Here, ‘communities of interest’, or circumstance, assume important roles in providing acceptance, guidance, and caregiving. Moreover, their relative distance from conventional society permits experimentation with its norms and expectations (for better and worse). One might consider, for example, intentional communities, LGBTQ+ communities, differently abled communities, activist groups, religious groups, refugees, bohemian cliques and performing troupes.
Another common way CKGs form now is through house sharing, often during university. Higher education is now routinely considered, and marketed, as a holistic life-learning experience (a view popularised by soap operas like Channel 4’s Hollyoaks). Prospective students are as likely to consider lifestyle factors as they are course content. Inevitably, student houses – for many the first break from the family home – generate intense relationships as, historically, public boarding schools or Oxbridge colleges did for a privileged few. Many friends still share houses a decade after leaving university; partly because of prohibitive house prices (a highly significant factor in the story of contemporary family life), but also because they derive adequate support and companionship from continuing with that arrangement.
My Family and Other Animals?
If family history is more than a dreary procession of begettings, if it can take in a diverse range of affective relationships, why stop at the species? Animal and plant relations seem an obvious call. Many people would grasp this for domestic pets (who doesn’t buy – and wrap – Tabby a Christmas present?) but applying this to livestock would prove timely. Understanding how the maintenance of herds and flocks structures the farming calendar and identity would help contextualise resistance to proposals for the ‘greening’ of agriculture beyond crudely economic explanations (always unconvincing in the case of most farmers anyway), just as understanding mining as a whole way of life shed important light on the ferocity of the 1984 miners’ strikes.
At a more molecular level, we might consider our biochemical entanglement with the planet. This moves beyond shared interests with the more-than-human world towards our direct infusion into it. Depending on your point of view this could involve following Luce Irigaray into an imaginative expansion of the human subject unleashed from the confines of gender and species. Or it might invite us to eradicate our ‘self’ altogether and see, with Ed Wong, fissiparous constellations of interacting microbial colonies. Ironically, then, family history, once considered the conservative preserver of biological distinctions (and translator of these into socio-cultural roles), could apply the exact same logic in unravelling them altogether.
They ain’t heavy, they’re my cyborg
So, family history can accommodate radically relational modes of thinking, sure, but can it take on a full strength assemblage theory, and include technology? The pandemic brought this to the fore. During this time, relationships were not just facilitated by the digital, they were recreated. Video calls with loved ones managed to be simultaneously intimate and impersonal. Like a Brechtian theatrical, they heightened self-conscious performance (the galling experience of getting to watch your own ‘facework’ live) and at the same time, they scattered that attention through chat-boxes and ‘reactions’ emojis. Building on this, and thinking back to those communities of interests, what of those families ‘born digital’ only knowing – and loving – one another through online interactions. My partner and I were not born digital, but, when he recently submitted a visa application, some lucky official received extensive transcripts of our emails and texts which, byte by byte, had co-created our partnership.
Pluralistic families need pluralistic histories. It is impossible that digital would not feature strongly here, offering, as it does, a vibrant mixed-media repository of slickly presented photos, recordings, videos, and text, easily edited as memory (which is also an editor of sorts) requires and dictates. As exciting as this seems, this tool, which offers so much scope for self-sculpting, presents current and future historians with intriguing new methodological and ethical problems. How can we ‘read’ between or against the selections when they leave no trace? How can we recapture what is deleted, and, more to point, should we? Who, in the end, should have final say on the presentation of the (historical) self?
Personally, I hope that talking (or ‘yarnin’ to use Lorina Barker’s warm expression), rouses itself for a counter-attack (or at least a resistance!). Drifting conversations and shaggy anecdotes exist only for the time of telling. They resist both capture and caption, affirming duration over documented time. In this sense, oral history, while usually prized for the immediacy and intimacy of its access to the past, also offers some therapeutic protection against it.
This brief survey barely grazes the surface of the future family and its possibilities. Whatever forms these can or will take, one thing is certain, any challenge to the ‘traditional family’ (a disputed and disputable term in itself) is political. Whether this takes a dystopian tone (as, for example, the tell-tale apparatus of totalitarianism or the symptoms of late capitalist alienation) or a utopian one (the sign of a mature, enlightened democracy), the stakes are always high.
In the end, all such schemes prove reductive. At best, they help navigate the contemporary family, which is important, especially in times buffeted by change. In this sense, as Tanya Evans discusses in her forthcoming book, as well as her influential article and in a previous piece for History Workshop Online, family history is a liberatory pedagogy. At heart, it is always a coming of age, a move from intimate experience to exile in an unfamiliar world and a return, stronger and with a few stranger memories of who we really are.
Get involved with Family History: The Next Generation!
The Related Histories team are planning the second phase of our Family History project and want to hear from anyone – but especially Early Career researchers – with interests, ideas, or inspirations in this field.
Please send expressions of interest including a brief intro and description of interests to: S.Scott-Brown@uea.ac.uk