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Communication, culture and identity in family history

Dunlop, Victoria (1996) Communication, culture and identity in family history. Masters by Coursework thesis, Murdoch University.

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Family history is more than personalized and democratized history: it is a self-conscious search, across space and through time, for a more meaningful sense of self in the present. While mass migration and global communications have made traditional determinants of belonging less relevant, contemporary communication structures, increased leisure time and affluence have made it possible for large numbers of ordinary people to both search for their roots without travelling far from home and to travel to distant homelands to seek their past in the present.

The collection, organization and dissemination of information about people who, for genetic reasons, are regarded as our forbears, is more than a biological jigsaw puzzle. Family history is biographical, highly contextualized and has an inherent narrative drive. The importance of historical constructions in contemporary relations mean that it is a political, as well as a cultural, activity. Although its genealogical roots are conservative, the majority of its practitioners are ordinary people with ordinary pasts who are accumulating a large body of information about hitherto irrelevant past lives. This knowledge, recognized as a valuable commodity by bureaucratic and commercial institutions as well as social historians, has the potential to transform the way people view their relationship to their history and their place in the world.

The construction of family memories, a private and public struggle in which a complex web of texts and materials, both historic and contemporary, interact, is a potentially productive site from which to examine a range of cultural problems - communication structures, political and social formations, intertextuality and narrative processes, constructions of identity and the role of the past in the present. I propose an interdisciplinary framework drawn primarily from cultural studies to examine the family history phenomenon from a number of perspectives. The first section will attempt to explain the growth of family history as a popular pastime in terms of contemporary communication structures, commercial enterprise and political and social formations. It will also examine some of the boundaries of ancestral knowledge, many of which are the result of past biases, the consequences of which persist in the present. Section two is concerned with family history reading practices and the ways in which they sometimes conform to but often resist and criticize cultural and familial myths. Section three explores the significance of the construction of family histories for personal identity and for collective identities based upon common denominators such as race, ethnicity, social class and historical experience, as well as kinship and nation. Finally, in section four, I will examine family history’s potential to resist and transform dominant constructions of the past.

Item Type: Thesis (Masters by Coursework)
Murdoch Affiliation(s): School of Humanities
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Supervisor(s): UNSPECIFIED
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