Families and Ancestry
In one of my graduate school courses, we read a book called Families We Choose, Kath Weston’s 1991 study of how gay and lesbians create family ties. This was particularly enlightening in the 1990s, when the concept of LGBT families seemed like an oxymoron to many people. I had never given much thought to what constituted a family until reading that book.
I had an arguably narrow idea of the meaning of families then: one based on legal or biological ties, as I had known in my family. A few kids I went to school with had been adopted, and that was always a quiet curiosity, one that was typically only brought up rarely, and was seldom the topic of conversation. The meaning of families seemed to be very clear-cut.
DNA testing has also impacted the meaning of family. Thanks to the ubiquity of sites like Ancestry.com and 23andme, we can now find distant relatives: fourth, fifth, sixth cousins and beyond. These sites help us connect to people who we would not likely ever meet through traditional family social connections. It also may bear surprises, to find that people who we thought were our biological relations are not. How might that change our notion of family?
The Internet has also helped us broaden our notions of family. People who have been adopted and find biological relatives might grapple with what this means for them. How do you form a relationship with someone with whom you share DNA but no past? For some people this presents new challenges about the meaning of family. This is a bigger challenge if one person is more interested in a relationship than another.
DNA testing, the digitization of historical records, and shows like Finding Your Roots and Who Do You Think You Are have helped spawn interest in genealogical research. The U.S. Census Bureau has a 72-year rule, which means that after 72 years the public can access information from the decennial census. For example, you can use this link to access 1940 census records online to see where family members lived, their occupation and country of origin.
I have a relatively unusual last name, and the Internet has enabled others with my surname to find me and contact me. On a few occasions, we have tried to figure out if we can identify a common ancestor (thanks to some genealogy research of a cousin, I can trace my ancestry from this part of the family back to the mid-nineteenth century). But I am never sure where to go from there with them. Do we stay in contact because we share a great-great-great grandparent?
These new ways to find people with similar ancestors pose interesting questions about the meaning of family. Are people whom you have never met, with whom you have no common history, members of your family? What sorts of relationships might be built on simply sharing a common ancestor, maybe a century ago, if any?
From a legal standpoint, if someone dies and you are related to them by DNA, and perhaps have never met, can you claim some of their estate? This was an issue after the death of Huguette Clark, the subject of the book Empty Mansions. Ms. Clark died in 2011 at the age of 104, leaving an estate worth approximately $300 million. Distant relatives successfully contested her will and won part of the estate.
Clearly, most people who choose to research their ancestry are not doing it for the money. If you have ever seen shows like Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are, you can see that people are often brought to tears upon learning about their ancestors. As in the titles of these programs, ultimately the journey is about feeling more connected to one’s past in order to have a better sense of identity in the present. Some people who don’t know their family’s history might feel disconnected to the past that many of us know and take for granted.
So what defines a family? As Weston’s book posited in 1991, it is about more than legal or biological ties. Yes, our shared biology and DNA often connect us to others, especially when thinking about health risks and medical history. But the meanings of family are rooted in social contexts, the people and groups that tether us to the larger society, both in the past and in the present.