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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree February 2019 > Tackling ethical dilemmas in genealogy

Tackling ethical dilemmas in genealogy

Everyday family history research is fraught with ethical dilemmas, especially with the explosion in popularity of DNA testing. There may be no right or wrong answer, says Dr Penny Walters, but the debate is sure to be enlightening


On the opposite page are examples of some of the things that can worry us when researching family history. Have you had similar situations arise? If you have, then finding a solution isn’t always easy. When we have options, choosing the right solution is an ethical dilemma, which can be defined as ‘a situation in which there are genuine reasons pointing toward two different courses of action’¹ or a ‘challenging situation that involves competing sets of values.’1


Is genealogy ‘just’ a hobby, or does it feel like it is your ‘duty’ to research the family tree, especially when nobody else within the family is doing it? Founder of MyHeritage DNA Gilad Japhet explained that his ‘hobby became his passion’2. People invest a lot of time, effort, energy, and sometimes money, into investigating their tree, do their best at doing the research, and want all the information to be right. Genealogy is now a hugely popular hobby, maybe because of fascinating books and television programmes such as Alex Haley’s Roots; the successful reunions in televised searching programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are?, Long Lost Families and My Family Secrets Revealed; the reasonable pricing of self-administered DNA tests; easier internet access to records and indexes; the enjoyable puzzle solving element; and the desire to record our place in history for perpetuity. Because such a variety of people are doing family history, probably very few of us have had any training in ethics before, and we may feel confused as to what to do if a tricky situation arises. We do much of the searching online these days, so there’s often nobody to discuss things with. Most hobbyists and many professional genealogists work from home.


How many people do you have in your tree? Most people are very loyal to family, ‘blood is thicker than water’. Our relationship overlaps by 50 per cent with our two parents, but only a 0.1 per cent overlap with ancestors from 10 generations ago (see above). Have we considered what private or sensitive information we are compiling and revealing about all these people?

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About Family Tree

What are your family history goals for 2019? Perhaps you'd like to get your family history notes more organised? To be sure you're searching the right ancestors? To take your research back further? To look into your family's lives in more depth? Or perhaps your goal is simply to take that first step and start finding out about your family tree? Our ultimate guide - in this, the Feb issue of Family Tree - has advice to help everyone become the best genealogist they can be... from the newly curious, to those with many research discoveries under their belt already, you're sure to find it a valuable read. Happy researching!