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Culture & Religion

The Ancestor Allure: Exploring Why We Look Back

A unique history is what distinguishes one family from another, and knowing a family’s distinct set of stories is what binds the group together. While social media connects the larger society, genealogical work is what connects us to our own small group.

What’s the Big Idea?

On Thanksgiving Day in 1896, while families across the forty-five states basted turkeys and mashed potatoes, Jerry Holly’s great-great-grandfather lay on the shore of Lake Michigan. He had drowned the day before. 

This tale is just one of many that Holly has uncovered in his fifteen years as an amateur genealogist. And he’s not alone.

A survey by found that nearly 87 percent of Americans have an interest in their family history, and a Vanity Fair/60 minutes poll shows that a vast majority of Americans are curious about their ancestors, 34 percent to the point of research. A study in the Journal of Travel Research even cites genealogical tourism as one of the fastest-growing markets in vacation travel. 

Reality TV, a reflection of our times for better or worse, also points to a trend toward genealogy: returning for its third and longest season yet in February, NBC’s Who Do You Think You Are? gets big-name celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and Lionel Richie to unveil their family trees in front of millions. And, more recently, in early April, the most-read story on was about Kyra Sedgwick and Kevin Bacon discovering they’re distant cousins on the PBS show Finding Your Roots. So, what’s driving this desire to look back?

What’s the Significance?

Based on conversations with a range of experts, the motivations—and the psychological mechanisms behind them—can be classified under three distinct roles: teller, researcher, and listener. 

The Teller

Something to talk about. Grandparents may share family stories to bypass generational gaps and connect to their grandchildren, says Carla Santos, a professor of recreation, sport, and tourism at the University of Illinois. While researching genealogical tourism at the Historical Genealogy Department in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Santos recalls one woman told her, “Now my grandkids look forward to me visiting because they know I’ll come with some sort of story. I’m this explorer.”

A hand in the future. The impulse to foster, nurture, encourage, and guide the next generation—generativity—is another potential motivator, says Martin Hadis, who received his masters in media technology from MIT and whose dissertation focused on family stories, computers, and genealogy. Generativity has two steps: creating the product of the self—a book or an idea, for example—and then handing off this product. But, as Hadis writes in his dissertation, generativity isn’t about only transferring information. By passing down their stories, people experience the satisfaction of knowing they are contributing to the lives of those who will succeed them. 

Immortality. In her article the “Therapeutic Value of Oral History,” which appeared in the Journal of Aging and Human Development, Willa Baum recalls an oral history project conducted to document a community’s past. After the project ended, contributors reported that the greatest reward of having participated was that they had become immortal to the youngsters of that region. According to Baum, as Hadis summarizes in his dissertation, telling stories evokes such positive emotions that every oral history project has a tale of “the declining oldster” who “began to recover under the attention and importance and the moral obligation to get memories down.”

The Researcher

Playing P.I. There’s a phenomenon in genealogical research called the brick wall, says Holly, a past president of The Irish Ancestral Research Association. It’s when you’re researching, making progress, finding information . . . and then, all of a sudden, the trail goes completely blank. Holly suspects that this moment, when “you need to have a little bit of creativity to make the connections,” could be at the heart of why people are increasingly attracted to investigating their ancestors. “We are driven to make sense of things,” says Art Markman, a professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. “If your family completely makes sense to you, then there’s no pleasure in the hunt. But the fact is that families are all quirky in their own way,” he says, and when people start to wonder what’s behind these quirks, they become motivated to delve into family history.

Somebody’s got to do it. By filling in the blanks in their ancestry, Santos believes people are also carving out their own spot on the family tree—as self-appointed historians. “They become the narrators,” she says, and that role allows them to be the person who continues the tradition. “I don’t take offense to this, but when I start sharing stories, some people’s eyes glaze over and some people’s eyes roll back in their heads,” says Holly, “I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m the de facto family genealogist.”

Yes, there are always people who just enjoy knowing more than everyone else, says Markman, but “there are definitely people who feel acutely that they’re the link to the family’s history, and that if the information that they have doesn’t get passed on, then that information will simply disappear.”

Putting the “I” in history. Tracing one’s lineage also provides a unique perspective on historical events. When Buzzy Jackson, author of Shaking the Family Tree (Touchstone, 2010), discovered her dad’s side had been in the United States since the original thirteen colonies, she couldn’t believe that in all her years of studying American history (ultimately getting her PhD in the subject), she had never considered what role her family might have played.  “It made me feel much more connected to the history of this country,” she says. “The feelings were surprising to me, because I wasn’t a particularly flag-waving kind of person, but it was moving.”

“Suddenly, you’re contextualizing history,” says Santos. It’s like “I understand what we’re talking about when we’re talking about World War II, but I have a greater insight into it from how my own family experienced it.”

The Listener

Boundaries, please. People are interested in listening to family stories because they provide an initial source of identity, says Markman. “Part of what you’re doing by taking in your stories and buying into those stories is helping to create an identity as someone who is bound by a story.” For example, a huge amount of our daily behavior is driven by habits. To develop existing habits or to create new ones, we instate policies. Family stories are one means for deciding which sorts of rules to set.  “What we end up doing,” says Markman, “is saying, we, the family, are not the sort of people who do X, or we are the sort of people who do Y.”

A more complete picture. Even in those cases in which family stories concern themselves with disgrace and disaster, they often also offer valuable perspective. Shortly after Jackson discovered that her dad’s side of the family had resided in the United States since the 17th century, she also learned that they had been slave owners. “On one hand, I was proud that my family had been here for so long, on the other hand I felt like, oh, and we were definitely part of the problem,” she says. She is now involved with a group that addresses the legacies of slavery, by working with descendants of slave owners and descendant of slaves.

You’re one of us, now. A unique history is what distinguishes one family from another, and knowing a family’s distinct set of stories is what binds the group together. “That’s one of the reasons why when someone marries into a family, joining that family late, one of the things they get are the family stories,” says Markman. By absorbing these stories, the newest family member establishes a greater intimacy. “While social media connects the larger society,” says Santos, “I think that genealogical work is what connects us to our own small group.”

Image courtesy of Shutterstock/Elena Ray.


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