Micro-narratives of the ancestors: worship, censure, and empathy in family hi(stories)

Family history research has become one of the most popular pastimes in the world due to digital advances and the resulting democratization of historical records. For many, family history research is a heuristic in which to make empathetic connections with their ancestors they will never (and can never) meet due to the barriers of temporal, geographical and intergenerational distance. The resulting family histories reconstruct and re-tell social history through the micro-historical lens of the individual. It has been claimed that this intimate connection between researchers and their familial narrative can heighten empathetic responses and lead to interpretations and assumptions beyond the evidence. This paper examines this proposition by analyzing qualitative data drawn from a large survey that examined the beliefs and practices of Australian family historians. The data supported their use of historical imagination as a catalyst for historical interpretation and meaning-making, and the well-established Ashby and Lee’s (1987) stages of historical empathy was used to gauge depth of understanding. The research concludes that for many family history researchers, micro-narratives of their ancestors evoked a wide range of empathetic responses ranging from the elementary to the nuanced and sophisticated.