Family History: Why do we do it?

Up to 300,000 Australians are currently engaged in family history research. [1] It is a popular pastime in many first world countries, but it has been suggested that its popularity is much stronger in post-colonial countries such as the United States of American and Australia.[2]

A number of commentators have proposed explanations to account for the popularity of family history.  It has been argued for example, that interest in personal roots has increased along with a growing uncertainty about how families are constructed and defined, and with increasing consumerism and individualism.  Golby (1994) argues for example that the preoccupation with genealogy and origins is not unique to our times, but that throughout history during times of massive social change and uncertainty, people have turned to the study of history and the search for roots.[3] In support of this claim, Golby cites psychologist Stephen Sayers (1987) who argued that genealogy becomes particularly important for people whose identities are in doubt or under threat.[4]

Modern families are often referred to as “blended” families as they can comprise stepparents, and stepchildren. And there are families comprising same sex couples with children; children who have resulted from sperm donation and in vitro fertilisation; adopted children and parents of different race.  Within this social context, origins and heritage seem to have a gained a particular significance. On a recent ABC radio broadcast, sociologist Kevin McDonald[5] argued in a similar vein to Golby, that in Australian society today, family relationships are becoming increasingly uncertain.  He argues for example that two quite different things are happening. “On the one hand, relationships between couples in families are becoming more and more contingent, or more and more contractual.”  McDonald suggests that the rise in prenuptial agreements provide an example of these contingent relationships.  On the other hand, McDonald argues that, “the relationship between parents and children in the family is becoming more and more irreversible.” This he argues is evidenced by the decline in the rate at which people give up children for adoption, and in the “extraordinary measures people who had been adopted take now to find their biological parents.”[6]

McDonald attributes recent changes to the focus within family relationships to a rising individualism that has contributed to a belief that knowing one’s genetic heritage “tells me really who I am”.  He argues that the designer culture of our consumer society has lead individuals to construct their own identities, so that identity is now far less concerned with family and nationhood for example, and is now more concerned with the self and personal constructions of identity.  We also see this emphasis on the individual in increasing numbers of children within the so called ‘blended’ family who bear a different surname to that of his or her siblings, and who in many cases will bear a unique surname constructed from the names of both of their parents.[7]

Apart perhaps from the need to establish identity, the motivation to know about ancestors is not the same for all groups of people.  The need to know and understand our personal identities can be different for Indigenous Australians, for immigrants and refugees, for people who have been adopted, and more recently, for those people whose births have resulted from in vitro-fertilisation  or sperm donations. For some the motivation is political, for others it is about genes and health.

Whatever the motivation however, knowing who we are, and where we come from is now held to be a social right of all individuals.  This right to know our origins is probably as much about our preoccupation with health, and it is with identity. As the health concerns of modern communities have moved from infectious diseases to genetically transmitted illnesses, it is important to know our genetic origins. This knowledge can enable us to seek advance treatments, and even to mate more selectively to ensure the survival of our offspring.

For Indigenous Australians social and political imperatives to establish identity have driven improvements in the access to personal and family records. In South Australia for example, the Aboriginal Family History Centre at the Museum of South Australia was established in the 1980’s.  For Indigenous Australians family history research is not just an individual search for identity, it is also a political act that can establish claims to kinship, and to land and resources, as well as to entitlements.[8]

While identity is always a social construct and can be constructed in different ways, genealogy offers the appearance at least of something scientific and methodical. Both Davison (2000) and Habel (2001) agree that genealogy attempts to be objective and scientific.[9] Genealogy is afterall; “research using historical methods and documents which seeks to conclusively establish a given ancestry…”[10] [11]

Genealogy (or the Family Tree) and family history form in a sense, two sides of the same coin. Where genealogy provides the “bones” or structure of a family line, family history provides the ‘flesh’ or narrative that gives life to and provides a context for the lives of our ancestors.[12]  Harrison (2000) defines genealogy as the “body of knowledge accumulated by tracing one’s genes” through tracing ones line of descent.[13]  She argues that family history is different from genealogy in that it is an attempt to “extend the concept by placing the individual within a family group then within a community.” Family history then, according to Harrison, ‘puts people back into history.” [14] It enables us to ‘fill-out’ the specific story of an ancestor by extrapolating the general to the specific.[15]

With its origins in establishing claims to inheritance and nobility, genealogy is often considered to be an essentially conservative pursuit. In its modern construction, however genealogical research can also be considered to be part of the process for the democratisation of history, in much the same way as local and community history movements have been.  Genealogy and family history have become part of the celebration of the ordinary man and woman.[16]

With the advent of community and local histories, and the focus on the lives and struggles of ordinary people, history was no longer to domain of the significant and famous, or the purview of the academic historian. History belongs to everyone. Family history is the supreme example of this; it connects the individual with the past, and it enriches and gives meaning to the places we find ourselves.

As Brian Gleeson from the Genealogical Society of Victoria explained to Jill Singer on ABC radio recently, “We all get a thrill out of knowing the type of people our ancestors were. We also like to know where they came from and why they came, what the circumstances were like. One of the things that are, you know, enjoyment to me, is to find out just how much our pioneer ancestors were involved in the local community, and how they actually built it. They built the schools, they built the churches, they were on the councils and things like that.”[17]

Family history can tell us about the times our ancestors lived through. It can tell us how they survived. It can tell us about social change and social mobility. Family history as Egerton (1983) described it, makes history  “a concrete and a personal thing….it bound the past to the present, the distant to the near at hand; it made unknown things important, ordinary common things significant.”[18]

Davison and others may be correct; genealogy and family history may be about identity and self-knowledge in an uncertain age; it may be about our preoccupation with health and security.  Nevertheless, whatever the motivations of family historians, it is a satisfying pursuit on many levels, and perhaps we should not attempt to take it too seriously.  As a 50 something white Australian, who is a feminist, who celebrates Australia’s multiculturalism, and who actively supports the formation and legal recognition of ‘unconventional’ family constructs, I do it because I have access to the records and I can. I do it because researching one’s roots is a particularly individual activity that is personally meaningful in a way that many other forms of research often are not. I do it because it places my family and me at the centre of historical events; and it provides me with a sense of continuity with the past. I do it because my hard work is often rewarded by new and interesting discoveries. I do it because it offers an endless challenge; there are no endings as such to the search for roots; family research could go on forever as genealogies expand and intertwine and defy attempts to capture them within the limitations of charts and diagrams. Principally I think, I do it because its fun.


[1] Nick Vine Hall interviewed byGeorge Negus (2003). Ace Bourke. New Dimensions in Time.  ABC TV ( (Accessed 30 August 2003).

[2] Davison  (2000). p.80

[3] John Golby (1994). Reflecting on the Issues. Studying Family and Community History 19th and 2th Centuries: Volume 3: Communities and Families. J. Golby. Cambridge, The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge with The Open University: 217-224. p220

[4] Ibid. Stephens Sayers (1987). The psychological significance of genealogy. Perspectives on contemporary legend. G. Bennett, P. Smith and J. D. A. Widdowson. Sheffield, Sheffield University Press.

[5] Kevin McDonald in interview with Jill Singer (2002). Roots. Dimensions, ABC Radio National ( (Accessed August, 2003)

[6] McDonald (Singer 2002)

[7] McDonald (Singer 2002) also posits another reason for the popularity of family history and genealogy, and that is because we now have the means to do it. Access to archives and records, and the advent of the internet has enabled and contributed to the vast interest.

[8] Eleanor Bourke (1993). “The first Australians: kinship, family and identity.” Family Matters no.35 ( ( August 1993).

[9] Davison (2000) p.83; Chad Habel (2001). “Ancestral Narratives And Historical Consciousness.” Counterpoints: The Flinders University Online Journal of Interdisciplinary Conference Papers Vol. 1( No. 1): (accessed 17 August 2003).

[10] Ibid.

[11] The reality may in fact be quite the reverse, as the public record is often deficient in many ways. Habel (2002)

[12] Singer (2002)  “David Weatherill from the Genealogical Society Of Victoria claimed that, “Family history is a like a skeleton, and as you get more information, you put the rest of the body on it.”

[13] Jennifer Harrison (1990). “Family History: Its relationship with the Academy.” Australian Historical Association Bulletin No. 62(May 1990): 29-35.

[14] Ibid. p30

[15] Habel (2001)

[16] Davison (2000) p.83

[17] Brian Gleeson interviewed by Jill Singer (2002) ABC TV

[18] John Egerton (1884) as cited by Jane Stephens (1994). “The Appeal of Personal Roots: Research Made More Palatable.” The History Teacher 27(3): 311-315. p.315


ABC Radio National (2002). Roots. Dimensions( (Accessed 17 August 2003).

Bourke, E. (1993). “The first Australians: kinship, family and identity.” Family Matters no.35, August 1993.

Dunn, A. (2003). Register to help complete the genealogy jigsaw. The Age, Melbourne. ( (accessed 17 August 2003).

Egerton, J. (1983). Generations: An American Family. Lexington, University of Kentucky Press.

Habel, C. (2001). “Ancestral Narratives And Historical Consciousness.” Counterpoints: The Flinders University Online Journal of Interdisciplinary Conference Papers Vol. 1( No. 1)

Harrison, J. (1990). “Family History: Its relationship with the Academy.” Australian Historical Association Bulletin No. 62 (May 1990): 29-35.

Negus, G. (2003). Ace Bourke. New Dimensions in Time ABC TV ( (Accessed 30 August 2003)

Sayers, S. (1987). The psychological significance of genealogy. Perspectives on contemporary legend. G. Bennett, P. Smith and J. D. A. Widdowson. Sheffield, Sheffield University Press.

Simpson, I. (11-04-2000). “Challenging Australian History: Discovering New Narratives: A Report on the National Library of Australia Conference, Canberra, 14-15 April 2000.” The Electronic Journal of Australian and New Zealand History ( (Accessed 17 August 2003).

Stephens, J. (1994). “The Appeal of Personal Roots: Research Made More Palatable.” The History Teacher 27(3): 311-315

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