How DNA Can Get in the Way of History, Sometimes

Family Historians as Kinship Artisans across both ‘Religious’ and ‘Secular’ Contexts


  • Fenella Cannell Department of Social Anthropology, London School of Economics and Political Science



amateur history, genealogy, DNA, Latter-day Saints, England, America


This paper considers two sets of amateur genealogists as specialized kinship artisans. My two sets of informants describe their projects in contrastive terms. Family historians in East Anglia (United Kingdom) explain that they are doing history (not ‘religion’), while for American Latter-day Saints genealogy is an explicit religious duty that cannot be separated from their Church’s salvific mission. Despite this difference of outlook, there are important overlaps in the way each group practices and experiences connections with related others across mortality. I argue that the rapid expansion of commercial DNA-tracing companies within genealogy appears to be affecting each group in different ways. English amateurs are currently capable of relativizing DNA-based information where it does not mesh with the narratives of family, local, and class history in which they are interested. Latter-day Saints’ distinctive genealogical cultures may be less easy to defend against the priorities of DNA-genealogy companies, both because of internet linkages sanctioned by the Church leadership, and because the attempt to trace all souls who have ever lived is vulnerable to the unlimited ambitions of profit-driven logics.