Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community

Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community

Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community

Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community


Genealogy has long been one of humanity's greatest obsessions. But with the rise of genetics, and increasing media attention to it through programs like Who Do You Think You Are'and Faces of America, we are now told that genetic markers can definitively tell us who we are and where we came from.

The problem, writes Eviatar Zerubavel, is that biology does not provide us with the full picture. After all, he asks, why do we consider Barack Obama black even though his mother was white? Why did the Nazis believe that unions of Germans and Jews would produce Jews rather than Germans? In this provocative book, he offers a fresh understanding of relatedness, showing that its social logic sometimes overrides the biological reality it supposedly reflects. In fact, rather than just biological facts, social traditions of remembering and classifying shape the way we trace our ancestors, identify our relatives, and delineate families, ethnic groups, nations, and species. Furthermore, genealogies are more than mere records of history. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Zerubavel introduces such concepts as braiding, clipping, pasting, lumping, splitting, stretching, and pruning to shed light on how we manipulate genealogies to accommodate personal and collective agendas of inclusion and exclusion. Rather than simply find out who our ancestors were and identify our relatives, we actually construct the genealogical narratives that make them our ancestors and relatives.

An eye-opening re-examination of our very notion of relatedness,Ancestors and Relativesoffers a new way of understanding family, ethnicity, nationhood, race, and humanity.


My fascination with genealogy goes back more than fifty years to the time when, as a ten-year-old boy, I loved reconstructing ancient dynasties. Years later, as a sociologist, I became professionally interested in both time and cognition, the combination of which ultimately led me to write a book, Time Maps, about the way we organize the past in our mind. The part of that project that most intrigued me was the chapter “Ancestry and Descent,” and four years after completing that book, I indeed found myself gravitating back to that chapter, focusing this time on the way we organize our visions of relatedness. Finally, in June 2007, I started writing Ancestors and Relatives.

Several people—family, friends, and colleagues—were kind enough to read early drafts of the manuscript and offer me valuable comments and suggestions. I am particularly grateful in this regard to Yael Zerubavel, Noam Zerubavel, Asia Friedman, Tom DeGloma, Dan Ryan, Catherine Lee, Kathy Gerson, Ruth Simpson, Debby Carr, James Cook, Neha Gondal, Sarah Richardson, Stephen Rutter, Hannah Kwon, John Martin, Ethel Brooks, Phaedra Daipha, and Chris Nippert-Eng. I have also benefited greatly from discussing my . . .

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