Thoughts on family history in Australia

by | Aug 24, 2018 | Australia, DNA, Popular genetics | 0 comments

After a busy few weeks of events, interviews, and focus groups in July and early August in Sydney, Melbourne, and Canberra, we have had some time to listen back to our recordings, transcribe and categorise the responses received ad reflect on our many conversations and the wide range of experiences and views that people have shared. And: Wow! That was interesting!

It seems that every new conversation unearths new considerations and angles to consider. Whilst our primary objective has been to capture the impact of DNA sequencing technology on research methods and practices, skills development, and researchers’ ideas about history and identity, what has also been reinforced is the collaborative nature of the process of being able to discuss ideas with a large pool of researchers who approach the subject from a wide range of professional, technical, and experiential backgrounds.

Where “traditional” academic research often takes place in quite an isolated environment, with sporadic discussion with colleagues, the odd research paper to a closed shop of other academics, and a peer review process which comes only at the end stage of research, we have been able to discuss and develop ideas at each stage of the project with a broad team of researchers happy to challenge, critique, and generate new and alternative interpretations from a wide base of experience.

Many researchers have commented on what they feel to be the “Australian experience” of genealogy, often finding affinities with other settler colonial populations such as in the United States, New Zealand, and South Africa – the knowledge of being descended at some point from immigrants and wanting to trace these roots and a feeling that this differs somehow to the motivations of genealogists in Europe.

This following of roots from other countries has also led to complex international networks and contacts through electronic technologies, often aided by DNA discoveries. Genealogical tourism, particularly to Europe was a clear trend among our researchers for the purpose of accessing archival materials that aren’t available online as well as to visit the towns, villages, buildings, and places where their ancestors once walked.

We also encountered a wide range of attitudes towards data ownership, sharing, and custodianship from researchers who have had to grapple with the difficult balancing act between protecting their privacy and data relating to themselves and their (living and dead) relatives and reconcile the potential misappropriation of data by companies or other researchers with the positive outcomes generated for their research and knowledge about their ancestry. The growing amount of genealogical and biological data being generated and curated also brings up questions around information management and legacy planning that become increasingly complicated as new forms and formats of data, visualization, and knowledge are generated.

Also apparent from our discussions were various ways in which genealogy intersects with tricky, painful, and powerful social issues that impact individuals and families as well as wider society. On a personal level, negotiating relationships where issues around personal identity and parentage are active and challenging poses ethical dilemmas to researchers who through their work have made discoveries that can have potentially disruptive impacts and challenge existing narratives. DNA discoveries have offered a plethora of new avenues to unearth buried, ignored, or unexpected facts about family members, race, ethnicity, and gender that can cause real life impacts.

So, lots to ponder and process about as we continue interviews and focus groups in the UK and Australia over the next few weeks. Please get in touch if anything touched on here rings true with your experience and/or if you’d like to be involved in the ongoing discussion.


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