14 February 2020

Book Review: Roots Quest: Inside America's Genealogy Boom

"The ancestors are ornaments decorating our family trees, making our own identities shine all the brighter. And we select our ornaments quite deliberately."

Likely you don't spend much time pondering why you research your family history. The research, and everything else there is to do in a day, are enough.

Jackie Hogan is an exception. As well as being a genealogist she's a professor of sociology at Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois. Exploring why we do genealogy is an aspect of her profession.

As laid out in the introduction, the book gives particular attention to the character of our current genealogical era and the factors that shape it, principally the following:

  • the increasing importance of digital and genetic technologies;
  • the secularization of society and a trend toward viewing knowledge and morality in relative terms;
  • The increasing saturation of the mass media on the proliferation of virtual forms of social interaction;
  • the hypermobility of populations (particularly in wealthy Western nations), and the new ways we are experiencing space and time;
  • the commodification of identities — that is, or increasing tendency to assemble unique identities in a large part through our consumption practices.
‬A chapter I particularly appreciated is "Who Do You Think You Are? Televised Roots Quests." Starting out by dissecting the structure of a typical WDYTYA TV episode, it likens the program to a morality tale reinforcing the message of the virtues that Americans supposedly hold dear. It points out how "hero" ancestors are selectively chosen — you've wondered why it's the hero on the mother's, mother's, father's mother's line that's explored rather than the mother, father's, father's mother's line!

And when a black hat ancestor crops up their behaviour is often justified as circumstance.

It also debunks myths of American (US) exceptionalism promoted in the programs: social mobility, a land where anyone can succeed — in reality not so much as other wealthy nations, and: generosity — on a per capita basis the US lags well behind those same nations in terms of the percent of GDP contributed to foreign aid.

Another chapter with content you probably haven't thought much about is "Imagined Homes: Roots Tourism and the Quest for Self." Genealogy tourism is a substantial business. Overseas tourism, much of it of those looking to walk in the footsteps of their ancestors, generated over 4% of Irish GDP in 2016. US visitors to the National Library of Ireland routinely outnumber visitors from any other nation, including Ireland.

Hogan points out the distinction between the experience at a historic site favoured by US tourists compared to residents of the home country. She points out that locations on the tourist route, such as the Dunbrody Famine ship, use positive spin — those who survived the famine and the journey across the Atlantic eventually became successful (those who aren't can't afford to visit anyway!) Locations off the Irish tourist path that cater mainly to local visitors tend to emphasize the terrible conditions of the famine. In Ghana, here's a similarly positive spin for African American visitors to the ports from which slaves were shipped across the Atlantic. They receive a different tour from that given to locals — sometimes leading to conflict.

As indicated by the sub-title, the book is written from a US perspective. While many do some of the factors contributing to genealogy's popularity in the US do not extend to other countries.

Anyone interested in the motivations behind why we, or our aunt, spend time and money exploring our roots will find this well-researched and written book worth reading.

The Ottawa Public Library has several copies in its collection.

Roots Quest: Inside America's Genealogy Boom 
by Jackie Hogan
Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers (January 15, 2019)
ISBN-10: 1442274565
ISBN-13: 978-1442274563

1 comment:

Emily said...

Thanks for this review. Adding to my To Be Read list!