Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community


Genealogy has long been one of humanity's greatest obsessions. But with the rise of genetics, and increasing media attention through television programs like Who Do You Think You Are? and Faces of America, we are now told that genetic markers can definitively tell us where we came from.

The problem, writes Eviatar Zerubavel, is that biology does not provide us with the full picture. After all, he asks, why do we consider Barack Obama black even though his mother was white? Why ...

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Ancestors and Relatives: Genealogy, Identity, and Community

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Genealogy has long been one of humanity's greatest obsessions. But with the rise of genetics, and increasing media attention through television programs like Who Do You Think You Are? and Faces of America, we are now told that genetic markers can definitively tell us where we came from.

The problem, writes Eviatar Zerubavel, is that biology does not provide us with the full picture. After all, he asks, why do we consider Barack Obama black even though his mother was white? Why did the Nazis believe that unions of Germans and Jews would produce Jews rather than Germans? Are sixth cousins still family? In this provocative book, he offers a fresh understanding of relatedness, showing that its social logic sometimes overrides the biological reality it supposedly reflects. In fact, rather than just biological facts, social traditions of remembering and classifying shape the way we trace our ancestors, identify our relatives, and delineate families, ethnic groups, nations, and species. Furthermore, genealogies are more than mere records of history. Drawing on a wide range of evidence, Zerubavel introduces such concepts as braiding, clipping, pasting, lumping, splitting, stretching, and pruning to shed light on how we manipulate genealogies to accommodate personal and collective agendas of inclusion and exclusion. Rather than simply find out who our ancestors were and identify our relatives, we actually construct the genealogical narratives that make them our ancestors and relatives.

An eye-opening re-examination our very notion of relatedness, Ancestors and Relatives offers a new way of understanding family, ethnicity, nationhood, race, and humanity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"An erudite treatise about how culture drives human cognition about near and remote relations, Ancestors and Relatives offers lay and academic audiences alike a great read."
-Marta Tienda, Science

"Making the world seem strange is the first step to understanding it anew. Eviatar Zerubavel is a genius at doing this. Here he takes on kinship and shows us the profound, politically fraught, sometimes frightening, and often funny ways in which we take the biological fact that life creates life and fashion genealogy from it. This is a brilliant, witty, effortlessly well-informed book that anyone with ancestors or anyone who worries about ethnicity, race, and nationalism will read with pleasure and surprise." -Thomas Laqueur, University of California, Berkeley

"While ancestors and relatives are genetically given, the genetics give us no clue how we should measure their relative importance to us. In this lively and well-written book, Eviatar Zerubavel avoids the aridity of technical kinship analysis and uses a personal perspective to show how humans fabricate, in the literal sense, their relatives, by a creative process of elimination and selection in the generation of rules. It is easily the most engaging introduction to kinship for the general reader that I have read, and a contribution in its own right to a wider understanding of our place in evolution."-Robin Fox, author of Kinship and Marriage and The Tribal Imagination

"Kinship is a perennial staple-necessary but ordinarily dry as dust-of anthropology, sociology, and demography. In Ancestors and Relatives, Eviatar Zerubavel makes the topic new, bringing to it an encyclopedic knowledge and a powerful sociological imagination that brings to life the deeply social and cultural ways in which we talk about, imagine, and understand our ancestors and relations. Never has kinship been more interesting and never has it been as much fun."-Paul DiMaggio, Princeton University

"Widely-researched and absorbing ... This book could not be more timely. As Zerubavel points out we need only to look at the popularity of television shows such as Who Do You Think You Are? and the shelves of newsagents and bookstores generously stocked with magazines and books on how to research your family tree to see that there is a tremendous interest in genealogy ... [this is] an engaging and thoroughly enjoyable book." —Turi King, London School of Economics (June 2012)

"Ancestors is a significant contribution to its author's ongoing project, highly original, wonderfully imaginative, overflowing with insight, to develop a distinctive cognitive sociology. And for that, we should be deeply grateful. I, for one, happily await his next book in a long line that grows more venerable with each addition." —ontemporary Sociology

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780199773954
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/9/2011
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 540,274
  • Product dimensions: 5.80 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Eviatar Zerubavel is Board of Governors Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University. He is the author of The Elephant in the Room: Silence and Denial in Everyday Life, The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life, The Seven-Day Circle: The History and Meaning of the Week, Social Mindscapes: An Invitation to Cognitive Sociology, and Time Maps: Collective Memory and the Social Shape of the Past.

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Table of Contents

1. The Genealogical Imagination
2. Ancestral Chains
3. Co-Descent
4. Nature and Culture
5. The Politics of Descent
6. The Genealogy of the Future
7. The Future of Genealogy

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  • Posted January 13, 2012

    Recommended with reservations

    Professor Zerubavel has written an excellent sociology text on how societies in general views their ancestry and other people around them. And, as the cover summary says, it does offer "a new way of understanding family, ethnicity, nationhood, race, and humanity."

    However, the text bares no relationship to how genealogists today practice their profession. It does provide a review of the glaring mistakes many people make when they start doing their family genealogy.

    A close look at the notes and bibliography show that Professor Zerubavel did not read any genealogical articles or books, very likely never attended a genealogical conference, and probably never spoke to a genealogist.

    In writing a book subtitled "Genealogy, Identity, & Community" it would have been nice if Professor Zerubavel had made himself familiar with the people & profession he alleges to be writing about.

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