Sunday, 2 March 2014

The four waves of genealogical interest

On Friday 28 February Dr Scout Calvert, of UCLA Irvine, was the speaker at Carleton Universiy`s Department of Sociology and Anthropology with a presentation Technologies of Kinship: Genetic Genealogists and Origin Stories. The blurb announcing the talk read
Against the backdrop of powerful, networked ICTs, affordable genetic tests, and discourses of human difference that inhabit genealogy and genetics research, this paper investigates the production of genetic knowledge and subjectivities within genealogical communities of practice. Based on interviews and participant-observer work in genealogical communities, this paper explores how genetic genealogists use and engage with genetic tests and databases, with ramifications for the construction of race and identity in the US context.
Dr Calvert is interested in how genealogists, and genetic genealogists engage with the racial legacies of US history and population genetics, especially origin stories. Her study is a work in progress so she laid the framework and provided examples rather being able to draw firm conclusions.

Part of the framework she mentioned was "four waves of genealogical interest" in the US:

- 1876: the US centennial
- 1930s: the Depression
- 1976: Alex Haley`s Roots
- 2000: genetic genealogy

In discussion following the presentation I asked about these waves, commenting that there's surely more to the last than genetic genealogy, and asking about the Depression wave. Scout quoted a source which I didn't catch. At there's reference to peaks of interest in the 1890s, 1930s and 1970s as reflected in publications. That publication is too early to have captured the last peak.

What's the evidence from Google Ngram? Here's the frequency of the terms genealogy, ancestry and, pedigree in the American English corpus, with 5 year smoothing.

I'm hard pressed to see the four waves. Can you? What I see is an increase in the term ancestry through the 19th century, then a decline through the 1980s followed by an increase in parallel with an increase for the term genealogy which started around 1950.  The term pedigree had no similar dramatic moves.

So what about the widely believed influence of Alex Haley's book Roots? An Ngram for the terms race and racial do show bumps in the mid-1970s, but Haley published Roots in 1976. It's more in line with the influence by the civil rights movement which preceded it.

What this evidence from Ngram suggests to me is that in terms of influence on genealogical interest the book Roots had precious little.

I'll have more to say on this lecture soon, including some comment on Elizabeth Kipp's post on her English Research from Canada blog.


Elizabeth Kipp said...

At the time that Dr Calvert was speaking about the four waves, I was trying to remember why the Great Depression might have been significant. The New Deal of President Roosevelt kept coming to mind. Searching this morning revealed:

National Archives History (NARA)

Congress established the National Archives in 1934 to preserve and care for the records of the U.S. Government. Previously, Federal records were kept in various basements, attics, abandoned buildings, and other storage places with little security or concern for storage conditions. In 1935, Archives staff began to survey Federal records and the next year began transferring records to the new National Archives building in Washington, DC. From one building on Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Archives now has over 40 facilities nationwide including regional archives, Federal Records Centers, Presidential Libraries, the Federal Register, and the National Historical and Publications Commission.

Perhaps that is the significant event in the Great Depression that created this third wave. With unemployment, bringing together the records would have been a great job creater I expect and given impetus to the idea of preserving history.

Investigating the Depression era with regard to the collections of NEHGS and NYGBS might be interesting as well.

Looking forward to your comments on the talk. Although it was primarily academic, it did have some rather interesting forays into genealogy and particularly DNA as a useful tool which I do believe that it is but I am not really sure that it will be a driving edge to genealogy but rather a useful tool to help to clarify when the paper evidence is lacking or reinforce the paper trail.

However, DNA studies could be the lever that brings more and more people into genealogy as the Big Y, Chromo 2 and full genome scans bring the y and mt DNA trees into paper record time. How can you resist once you have discovered where your "twig" of the phylogenetic tree sits not then moving into "paper" trail genealogy!

Laura O'Grady said...

A few points regarding your blog entry:

(a) it isn't clear to me which word is presented by which colour in the ngram line chart you have provided.

(b) the Google ngram tool is limited in that it only includes the books that it has scanned not all the books that are in print. I also suspect that even with the best OCR applications in place some texts are never fully digitized in a machine readable first and remain a frozen snapshot of the book's page rather than a searchable repository.

(c). Many families kept their own genealogical records , which were hand written in the family bible and passed down over generations. One such bible exists in my family and has allowed me to obtain information about my ancestors without using any outside resource. This practice is not noted in this discussion or captured in the research methods used to support it.

(d). Although genetic genealogy as a tool is becoming more popular I would suggest that stand-alone software applications to record family histories (back in the DOS days of computing in the 1990s) coupled with television shows like "Who do you think you are". along with web sites such as (and other country's equivalent) need to be included in this analysis. Until recently genetic testing as associated with genealogical resources has been prohibitively expensive and in some causes fraught with prejudice and misunderstandings. Its impact on the genealogical field has had little impact to date IMHO.

I think these latter two issues should be taken into consideration regarding the "four waves of genealogical interest" in the US or any other countries.


Laura O'Grady

Blaine Bettinger said...


I agree with some of your points, but I wanted to disagree with your statement that "[Genetic genealogy's] impact on the genealogical field has had little impact to date IMHO."

23andMe, Family Tree DNA, AncestryDNA, and National Genographic have sold more nearly 800,000 kits, mostly to genealogists in the United States. Every single major genealogy conference (NGS, FGS, RootsTech, SCGS Jamboree, NERGC, etc.) has multiple sessions (and sometimes entire days) devoted solely to DNA. There are hundreds of mailing lists, groups, and blogs devoted to DNA and genealogy.

Everyday, thanks to DNA, genealogists are breaking through brick walls and making connections with family members they never otherwise would have made.

I think it's extremely difficult to argue that genetic genealogy has had little impact on genealogy.

I guarantee that if you take a poll at the next genealogy meeting you attend asking "how many people here have taken a DNA test for genealogy," you will be astounded by how many people have done so.