On the Sociology of Genealogy

I am thrilled to be working with the venerable Beacon Press on my next book, The Social Life of DNA. This book is a sociological look at genealogy (and so much more!). I am interested in why genetic genealogy has become so popular today and what has sustained our interest in root-seeking over generations.

In the piece below, written for Dominion of New York, I take the recent news that President Barack Obama is possibly descended on his European-American mother’s side from John Punch, “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history,” as an occasion to discuss the assumptions, values and norms about belonging and American identity that underlie our preoccupation with our roots.  Let me know what you think.



There was breaking news recently in the lively world of presidential genealogy. Barack Obama–who is regarded as an inauthentic African-American by some because his late mother, Stanley Anne Dunham, was a white woman and his father’s ancestry traced to Kenya rather than Kentucky or the Carolinas–was suggested to be descended on his maternal side from John Punch, a black man.

Researchers at Ancestry.com, the online root-seeking company, derived Obama’s relationship to Punch using a combination of standard genealogical research and Y-chromosome genetic analysis. (Y-DNA is passed essentially unchanged from fathers to sons to grandsons to great-grandsons, etc.) The timing of this announcement could not be better for the Provo, Utah company that just reported booming fourth quarter profits and is rumored to be seeking a buyer.

An indentured servant in 17th century Virginia, Punch would earn the lamentable designation of “the first documented African enslaved for life in American history” when he was reduced to chattel as punishment for his attempt to escape servitude. Punch, like Obama the elder, was an African; tragically, what makes Punch “African-American” is his slave status. With rebellious, freedom-loving roots firmly planted in the New World, our nation’s first president of African descent —Punch’s 11th great grandson–may just be “black enough” after all.

News of POTUS’s connection to Punch, reported in The New York Times, the Washington Post and elsewhere, follows a now established pattern of presidential genealogy exposés that partly rely upon the paradox of opposing political ideology and shared kinship. So, in 2010 we learned, courtesy of the New England Historic Genealogical Society, that then Massachusetts senator-elect Scott Brown was the President’s tenth cousin. As a Los Angeles Times reporter put it, “[d]espite the political chasm that separates the two men… Obama and Brown have at least one solid family link.”

Read more at Dominion of New York

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One Response to On the Sociology of Genealogy

  1. I would like to suggest our interest in root-seeking makes us humble, regardless what your background is

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