How Ancestry's New DNA Algorithm Affects People's Identities

If you are one of the millions around the world who launched into a personal journey to discover your ancestry, you know how addictive the process can become. With a seemingly unlimited set of familial analyses, based on documents and records alone, it’s possible for you to spend an unlimited amount of time delving into your own family’s history. You can search through the past generations of your own ancestors, those of your partner and his or her own family, and share trees with people you don’t know but with whom you share common familial bonds. You can also validate (or not) claims from your own family members of famous people with distant relationships to you by searching their trees.

In addition to conducting archival research on your family, you can submit a sample of your own DNA into the service’s database to discover your heritage, and also to determine whether people you don’t know, who have also submitted their DNA samples, are related to you or not. Up until a few days ago, most people trusted the results they received from one of the largest family research websites, Ancestry.com. However, at the end of April, everything changed when Ancestry.com revised its DNA algorithm. As reported in the U.K.’s Daily Mail, an “update to its database drastically changes the ethnicity of many users overnight.” People’s lineage shifted, as reported further in CNBC, so that some people became, in the words of one user, “a lot more British.” The outrage over this change in the algorithm suggests that learning your genetic background can alter, for better or worse, your own identity .

The importance that people put on their quest for knowledge of their family roots suggests that the process involves more than academic interest. With the online tools available to learn about your heritage, you now have the ability to gain a deeper sense of your own identity. As much as you might try to define yourself independently from your parents or others in prior generations, there’s a part of you that now can determine exactly where you stand in the ranks of those who preceded you. Whether or not you provide your DNA information to track your heritage, personal traits, and health , you still have the potential to learn about your identity in ways never before possible.

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Despite the popularity of these heritage websites, there is little in the academic literature to inform an understanding of the process of self-discovery that these websites support. One intriguing 2015 article by University of Manchester’s Wendy Bottero provides insights into the role of identity in driving people to trace their family genealogy on these websites. In citing some of the earlier studies on the topic, she notes that “popular genealogy performs the task of anchoring a sense of ‘self’ through tracing ancestral connections” … and by promoting “’self-making,’ ‘self-exploration’ and ‘self-understanding’”(pp. 534-535).

Bottero notes that there are many explanations for the popularity of these family history sites, including people’s desires to know their ethnic roots, to compensate for the destabilization of the modern family structure, or just due to a general fascination that people have with family resemblances, traits, and general ‘ways.’ An older relative may have told you that you look just like your great aunt, and now you have the ability to check this out yourself. Similarly, you might have lost family members in wars, sociopolitical events, accidents, or natural disasters, and you want to fill in the gaps of knowledge that you have about these people.

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The process of tracing your family history, whatever the reason, amounts to what Bottero calls “identity work.” Family tree enthusiasts, furthermore, have their own rules of engagement that structure the activities considered appropriate for this particular social activity. You and other website members may feel comfortable communicating only through the messaging service and not directly via email or phone. These norms help to ensure that participants respect the boundaries of others, and as a means to protect the privacy of other family members who do not wish to be a part of your personal search for family identity.

Bottero takes for granted, then, the idea that engaging in family history research is driven in part by the need for self-understanding. Additionally, she observes that when you interact with your past family members by learning the details of their lives, you can put yourself in their places. Quite literally, family history websites give you the “story” of your relatives, including what historical events they were either directly involved in or affected by due to the time and place in which they lived.

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To test more explicitly these ideas about family history websites, Bottero used a qualitative approach in which she conducted hourslong interviews with a small set of people, asking them how they conducted their research and what they had found out in the process. She went through their family websites with them in a method she refers to as “family tree elicitation.” Participants told her what was interesting and significant, and also about the range of information they collected as “hinterland” to their stories. In other words, she wanted to learn not what the participants found out about their families, but how they went about the discovery experience.

In part, as Bottero learned, people just enjoy the process of delving through old records and trying to match names with facts as derived from other website members, census information, and any birth, death, or marriage records. Akin to solving a giant crossword puzzle, the search becomes enjoyable in its own right. Thus, Bottero’s respondents enjoyed developing “picturesque cameos” from such newspaper reports as a relative who nearly died in a shipwreck, one whose wedding was attended by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and even the convicts sent from England to Australia to serve out their terms. Participants also enjoyed piecing together the life stories of distant relatives, including whether great-great-great grandparents married more than once, or who might have fathered an illegitimate child. To be able to accomplish these tasks not only provided information about one’s own family members but also became a source of pride regardless of the results. Perhaps you’re the family member who’s decided to do a deep dive into previous generations. You can now gain status in your clan as the one who took the time and effort to uncover long-lost truths.

Heather Weston

To sum up, the identity work involved in family genealogy involves the “thrill of the chase,” (p. 551) but also serves to round out your sense of self both in the broad historical context and in the more narrow framework of your slice of that context. Forming a personal narrative of your own life can be fulfilling in and of itself, but as Bottero’s research shows, the process of writing your family’s narrative can inform your larger sense of where you belong in the world.