Monday, November 22, 2010

US and THEM, Or Drawing that Bright Line Around “Family”

A few weeks ago, we had dinner with a small number of well-known genealogists.  Since it was a somewhat captive audience of “experts”, in between the waitress’s serving of the main course and her soliciting orders for the coffee and dessert, I raised the question, “When do those folks with whom we have a “blood kinship” (i.e., descent from a common ancestor) cease to be our “family” and become something else – or perhaps, nothing at all?”

Interestingly, the responses suggested that the question is far from simple, since there was no single point of agreement as to where the line dividing “family” from “non-family” should be drawn.

Why does this matter? Well, before we’re able to define the scope of a research project, those of us who do genealogy usually have to come to grips with that basic definitional problem, otherwise the project would grow out of control.

Exactly what do we mean when we speak of “family”?  And are we possibly stepping out onto shifting sands by even raising the question in the first place …?

Even though I’ve been doing family history and genealogy for nearly 50 years I’m still surprised to learn where non-genealogists draw the line when they’re faced with the task of defining their own “family.

For example, several years ago, while working through a large archival collection, I found a letter addressed to the individual whose career I was researching.  In it, the correspondent, who was writing what was essentially a “fan letter” to a journalist that he listened to on the radio, identified himself as a simple apple grower AND then mentioned that he was the journalist’s father’s first cousin (making him therefore the recipient’s first cousin once removed). He then proceeded to observe that he didn’t expect a personal reply to his fan letter since he and the journalist were – in his words - “barely related”.

Certainly that’s not a position that most genealogists would take!

Similarly, I received an email a short while ago from the great-grandson of my grandfather’s first cousin, asking for information about my grandfather’s major league baseball career during the World War One era and before.  In the note, he described my grandfather as his “distant relative.”

However, maybe it’s not so strange after all, since the very condition of being “related” to someone – in effect, being a full-fledged member of someone’s “family” – often brings with it certain responsibilities.  These responsibilities can be emotionally, financially or sometimes even politically demanding.

Are people who view themselves as distant relations still “family”? Are second cousins still “family”?  What about those who descend from a much more remote common ancestor born, say, in the 16th century? For that matter, what about that very same remote common ancestor him or herself? There’s no question that he or she is related as “kin” in the genetic sense, but is that individual someone who would be considered “family” in the common everyday sense of the word?  Or is that person just another member of the “Family of Man” with whom we share one of many of our genetic relationships?

Try this: if the final resting place of this remote ancestor from the 16th century was discovered and identified beyond all question, would you chip in, say, 200 of your hard-earned dollars for a grave marker? How about for your much closer (but still largely unknown) great-great grandmother?  Does your third cousin deserve a seat at your daughter’s wedding reception, simply because he’s kin? How about your favorite aunt’s grandson? Would you vote for a first cousin who was running for a state office, even if her political views were, in your opinion, more than a little weird?

Then, there are the spouses of those blood kin.  Where do they stand?

Where do YOU draw the line on family?


  1. Gravestones - yes. Weddings - No. Politics - definitely not unless I had a personal relationship with the person AND still felt they were qualified :)

    I totally understand what you are trying to say. I have a closer relationship with one of my third cousins than I have with many of my first cousins.

    But I wonder if it is more socio-economic than family related. In America we are taught to take the job and strive for success more than we are to maintain family relationships. That drive tends to remove us physically and geographically from our family. Other cultures can be very different. Either way there is a price to pay.

  2. 'I’ve been doing family history and genealogy for nearly 50 years"
    Mr. Wolfgang, please explain what you perceive to be the differences between genealogy and family history.

  3. I know that I love finding family - no matter how far removed. As Marian says, sometimes you have closer relationships with distant cousins than with those you grew up with. I also agree - weddings, no! politics, only if he/she agrees with me! I actually tried to get a bunch of second and third cousins to chip in to buy a headstone for our g-g-grandmother, but couldn't interest anyone!

  4. Gravestones- yes. Weddings- no, and like Marian, definately a no when it comes to politics.

    In regard to the socio-economic side of it all, in my opinion, this only relates to modern America. In my research I have found that a lot of my "family" were all very close at one time. In the earlier part of the 20th century, 1st and 2nd cousins and even those who were removed knew each other and knew each other well. Sadly this has changed over time, We just don't have those strong ties or feel that obligation to family like our ancestors once did.

  5. Michelle,
    Absolutely! Perhaps the socio-economic change was a a post WWII phenomena. My family lines were similar before then or at least before 1900.