Rr is for – Rhizome

It’s a great pleasure to introduce my first guest blogger, Dr Chad Sean Habel, who also happens to be my youngest child 🙂  Chad willingly offered to share his view, on the Gould “Family History Through the Alphabet” challenge, of the rhizome as a most helpful way of describing our family connections.  Over to you Chad…


We all know the metaphor of the “family tree”, “digging for your roots”, and so on, and it’s a very alluring way to think about our ancestry. But what if your family tree doesn’t grow straight? What if it has holes, or gaps, or roots that pop up in unexpected places and don’t fit the “normal” model of a nuclear family or European dynasty? Well, thinking of your family tree as more of a rhizome might help.

The idea of the rhizome is taken from French theorists Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari, and it is usually used to describe language, knowledge and society, but it seems also to apply to ancestry. One of the things my PhD thesis explored was the way that ancestry can motivate such different thoughts and feelings. For example, it is often (perhaps usually) the case that ancestry is a positive reclamation of our family’s past, and that it puts us in touch with those we have been cut off from. It’s about redemption, discovery, a wonderful inclusion of that which has been forgotten, sometimes wilfully. This model of ancestry is inclusive, flexible, and dynamic.

However it must also be acknowledged that ancestral identification can lead to exclusion, racism, and worse (as we have seen in the Holocaust and so on). This is a conception of identity which is binary: us and them, either you’re in or you’re out. Incidentally, this aligns with many forms of national identity too. How is it that essentially the same thing (ancestry) can lead to such different outcomes? I started looking for a model to help explain it and stumbled across the notion of the rhizome. Put simply, a rhizome is a form of plant that grows like bamboo or grass, across the surface of the ground (unlike a tree).

 Source: http://www.sciy.org/2009/03/10/the-evolution-of-discourse-rhizomes-a-thousand-plateaus/

It’s perhaps easier to explain by beginning with the opposite of the rhizome: aborescence. Plants that have an aborescent structure have roots (there’s a familiar metaphor!) that go deep into the ground, then a strong trunk capped off by a canopy of trees. This type of ancestry is linear, hierarchical, binary, and characterised by deep internal structures. Aborescent ancestry is about authenticity, purity, a sense of belonging that is denied to those who fail to qualify. It struck me that if we see our ancestry like this, we are more inclined to look back for a sense of “pure” origins that may exclude those who don’t fit that model of purity. Tragically this is what so often happens: those who are not legitimised in the culture of the time (through no fault of their own) are excluded from the family or national story – or sometimes they exclude themselves! The Australian tradition of “Hiding the Stain” by rejecting or excising convict ancestors from memory is a good example of this kind of aborescence.

On the other hand, if we see ancestry as a rhizome, we see that it can follow any pathway (Deleuze and Guattari would call this desire). We realise real families don’t fit “normal” structures: they include multiple marriages, children born out of wedlock, international connections, interracial marriages, same-sex relationships: basically much more than the so-called “nuclear family”. To me this is just a better way of understanding our personal origins: families are dynamic, interesting, messy, complex, non-linear and bridge all kinds of gaps in a good way. In its most radical form, a rhizomatic conception of identity might allow us to include people who don’t even have the same biological connection that we usually require: in this way, my second cousin Rani (who is lucky to have two loving dads) is just as much a part of anyone with that pure “blood” connection.

The Luciani-Crout family – Jan 2011 (c)Allan Luciani-Crout

By loving rhizomes I am saying I want to live in a world where we do respect family connections and they are preserved and seen as important, but that those connections don’t have to be defined in an exclusivist way. Love the rhizome: revel in its messiness, its complications, the way it resists categorisation and submission to the authority of logic. Because families come in all shapes and sizes.


Author bio:

Chad Habel had the good fortune to be brought up by the best Mum in the world. (Chad’s words, not mine 😀 )  He studied at the Flinders University, South Australia, completed a PhD on ancestry in literature and now works in the School of Education at the University of Adelaide. In his spare time he nurtures a healthy preoccupation with video games and their potential to support learning.


Further References:

We are family
, by Kate Legge. The Australian 12 Jan 2011. http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/we-are-family/story-e6frg8h6-1225986408817 

AUSTRALIA’S BIRTHSTAIN  the startling legacy of the convict era by Babette Smith. 2008. Allen & Unwin. ISBN 978 1 74114 604 2 (hbk)


Copyright © 2012. Dr Chad Sean Habel  

18 thoughts on “Rr is for – Rhizome

  1. What an intriguing post – the title certainly caught my attention as I thought “what on earth do rhizones have to do with family history!” Thank Chad for the explanation.

    • Thanks for your comment Susan and am sure that Chad will make his own response, in time. It’s a fascinating concept which I’m now beginning to understand. e.g. My mum’s birth certificate has her mother’s former husband named as her father. Nana & Grandpa never married and Nana did this to ensure Mum wouldn’t be labelled a “bastard” … but what a terrible thing that her actual dad, the Grandpa I loved and grew up, with was denied his rightful place in our recorded Family History… unless, of course, “secret” information is passed on, word of mouth, about children “born on the other side of the blanket”. Time to end this, I reckon.

    • Thanks Susan! Haha yes it seems a bit out of left field, it did take a few years to come up with. It has a nice balance of newness and intuitive sense that seems to work with some people at least. Given the time I would develop the idea further, but that might need to wait for a bit.

  2. Crikey… so so so sorry, and embarrassed to admit, that I had ANOTHER “broken link” re: Chad’s “Gamer Serious” blog. Ooopsie doozie… fixed now. Note to self: check and double check the hyper-links Catherine 🙂 …

  3. Welcome to the genealogy blogosphere Chad! And what an impact your appearance has made. Like many great discoveries it seems so simple, obvious and logical as presented. Families are indeed messy and rarely fit the linear model so much beloved of genealogists and genealogy software (in fact the only one that seems to cope with it properly is an Australian one, Relatively Yours). I always feel confined by this linear thinking and its potential for exclusion. Thank you so much for providing us with an alternative model although it may not look quite a pretty in an image ;-). Thanks Catherine for sharing Chad’s insights with us.

    • Thanks so much! Yes it seemed like a no-brained to me but it’s remarkable how some people quite resist the idea. It seems to respond to something deep in us, one way or the other. I’m very glad that it resonates with you, as something with experience in the field… there would be something more in this, but unfortunately that stage of my academic life is over (for now)… maybe something to pick up later then. Thanks for your comments 🙂

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  5. Well Chad, thank you for introducing me to a fabulous new word ‘rhizome’. Not being much into gardening (I’m a kind of plant it, and hope for the best kind of gal) I hadn’t come across the term, but it does fit is so nicely with family history too. Great post, and thanks for contributing to the Alphabet Challenge.

    • Thanks! Haha, the great thing about gardens is that they do their own thing, one way or the other… all you can do is give them the conditions for the kind of success you hope for, not get too worried if things don;t go to plan, and just be happy if they’re healthy! A bit like families really. It struck me that we think about families with garden/organic metaphors all the time, and we should just do it in a little more depth…

  6. Chad sent me his “blog post” just before flying to Northern Queensland for “hols” with his dad. About now he’ll be travelling on to Japan for a “Gaming Conference” and expect him back on “earth” real soon 🙂 …
    In the meantime, just HAVE to say to Auntie Mary that your son/ my nephew / his family have enriched all of our lives in the most wonderful & amazing of ways. Eye opening!!!
    Pauleen, although Chad’s talked with me often about “rhizomes”, this is the first time I’ ve actually “got it”. Had a brief look at “Relatively Yours” … hooley dooley!!! they have a section for “same sex relationships” etc. 😀
    Both of my “boys” enjoy gardening Alona, reckon that they get it from their dad. Love that Chad offerred his “Rr is for – Rhizome” post and am so happy that all 3 of my children are interested in FHistory and a few Grandchildren are also beginning to show more that just “a glancing interest”. Can hardly wipe the smile off “my dial”.

    • Always wonderful to get your feedback Pauleen. When I get a moment to spare will look more closely into the Australian Genealogy software programme “Relatively Yours” which may better suit my needs. Thanks SO much 🙂 …

  7. Pingback: Family History Alphabet: U is unique | Family history across the seas

  8. Interesting. Is there a picture of a “Family Rhizome” somewhere? I am trying to picture it. I spent many hours pulling up grass that traveled that way in my garden.

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