French historian Michel Foucault’s term ‘genealogy’ was borrowed in this sense from Friedrich Nietzsche, for his research methodology, which was in turn superseded by the notion of archaeology.
First outlined in a 1971 essay entitled, ‘Nietzsche, Genealogy, History’ (reprinted in the collection, Language, Counter-Memory, Practice, edited by Donald Bouchard), genealogy aims to uncover the implicit systems or unwritten rules (what Foucault himself later referred to as discursive practices) which taken together comprise lived society.
As is true of so many of Foucault’s concepts, genealogy was intended to break with the conventions of the history of ideas. In particular, Foucault wanted to challenge three postulates he saw as fallacious, namely the assumptions that history is an attempt to uncover the essence of things or some primordial truth; that the most important moment is the moment of birth; and that the origin of a thing is also its truth. Instead, he proposed that history should concern itself with descent and emergence. History, Foucault argues, is not the result of the deliberate acts of individuals; it is rather the product of the unintended and unexpected coalescence of millions of individual acts. So the only way to chart it is to try to see how certain accidents and departures give rise to new solidities over time.
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