24    May 20090 comments

Genetic Genealogy: Persuading People to Participate

DNAWhile DNA testing for genealogical research is the best new tool that we have, it is sometimes hard to convince people to participate in a surname or geographic project.

My own DNA projects have experienced good participation with the exception of my own closest male cousins. This means I have representation from several branches (except my own) descended from my great-great-great-great-great-grandfather. One of the mysteries is that some branches tell the story that one of his sons was an orphan left on the family's doorstep and brought up within the family - we don't know which son or even if the story is true. But I keep trying to convince them. Genealogy's mantra is "never give up!"

Traditionally, we researchers deal with paper documents (or online images of those documents) and follow the paper trail to our ancestors. This is kind of like the Yellow Brick Road to genealogical success. Put tooltip hereDocuments include birth, death and marriage certificates, wills, property deeds, census and voting records, obituary notices and other sources to either prove or reject a connection. Without documents, there may be a rather substantial thick brick wall. One way to open a door in that wall is with genetic genealogy DNA testing, which will tell us whether two people are descended from a common ancestor or not.

This post will focus on Y-DNA (male DNA) which is much more valuable for tracing lines within a historical framework, while mtDNA (female DNA), is more suited to anthropological resources as mutations are much slower. Instead of looking at 1000 years or less, mtDNA gives a window onto what happened tens of thousands of years ago. The results are interesting but difficult to use in a contemporary genealogical sense.

Y-DNA passes unchanged from father to son. Thus it is useful to see if two descendants of one man are related, no matter how far back in time. If both are direct male descendants of one man, their DNA should match. This makes it perfect for genealogical purposes and can link people even if surnames differ, as some family lines may have spread out to different areas before surnames were required.

Y-chromosome DNA markers used for genetic genealogy have nothing to do with certain diseases or hereditary traits. The markers used are described as "junk" genes and can't be used to determine paternity or possible disease markers.

Have you decided to get started with DNA testing to answer questions? Here are some hints to try to get your family branches involved.

The caveat is that DNA testing is also good to avoid wild goose chasing as it will rule out families that do not connect. And when a genetic match is made, researchers will then be able to go on from there and perhaps find clues and more information previously unavailable.

Approaching family you know and asking them to test is one thing, but how do you approach strangers and ask them to participate?

The reactions of strangers may be suspicion, hostility, misunderstanding, not knowing what genealogical genetic testing really is and what it can demonstrate. Of course, the person may just not care about family history research.

The process may be complicated and may take some time.

New Yorker Judy Simon is an administrator and co-administrator of a few family and geographical sites at FamilyTreeDNA.com (which partners with MyHeritage.com) and she offers some hints and tips that may help you.

She operates on the theory of creating curiosity and interest on the part of strangers (as well as friends and relatives).

If she can grab their interest, she hopes she can persuade them to order a DNA kit and join the family.

Her recommendations:

- Introduce yourself in a friendly, factual and respectful way. Depending on where the individuals are located, the initial contact may be by snail mail, email or telephone.

- Tell them briefly about yourself and your family research and illustrate it with a positive finding using DNA - if you have had a breakthrough - or what you hope to find.

- Explain briefly what they can learn from DNA.

- Importantly, whether or not they ultimately participate in the testing, tell them that you are still interested in comparing family histories to discover mutual clues.

- Offer to answer any questions they have about your own ancestry or about DNA testing for genealogical purposes.

- If people respond, they exchange e-mails and share family research.

- Sometimes, she may provide all the testing information in a second email.

- The important object is to develop trust. She provides more information and a link to the FamilyTreeDNA.com website for more details.

- The persuasion process can be a quick or slow. Judy allows the individuals to respond, follows their lead and requests for more information.

- Sometimes the problem is not the DNA testing itself but the test fee. Judy reminds them that those who join surname or geographical projects receive a discounted fee. In some cases where an individual is very interested but simply cannot afford it, she may pay for it herself.

- It is very important to stay in touch with those individuals during the process. If Judy can't answer all their questions, she finds someone else who can. She stays in contact after they have ordered a kit and received the results. And she will explain the results to them in detail.

Even after all this, the individuals may not match to her projects, so she will connect them to other surname, geographic and haplogroup projects to learn more about their ancestry.

Judy says that "nurturing" is the correct word to describe how she introduces people to genealogical genetic testing. It isn't magic, but another tool for family history researchers.

She helps them understand what they can and cannot learn from such a test and explains that many genealogists are using it to determine how people are related or not.

The persuader's most important trait is to be open and honest and to respond to requests for information.

A very important part of the process, she says, is that she is always fighting the temptation to say that she will be visiting them at their house in an hour with a DNA kit!

When she first began dealing with this new technology, Judy spent a lot of time with new people, providing information on confidentiality and privacy, and how carefully FamilyTreeDNA protects privacy.

However, she realized that she seemed to be more concerned about this than the people she was trying to persuade to participate. So she stopped speaking about it unless they asked.

What are some common objections to testing, besides cost?

- I'm afraid of needles or blood. No needles or blood are involved, it is only a swab of the inner cheek, called a "buccal" swab.

- What if it shows we have a disease? Genetic genealogy tests do not look for those specific disease markers.

- Will the results go into a government DNA database? No. All samples are kept private at FamilyTreeDNA. Many people have commented on what uses a person's Y-DNA results could be put to that would endanger them or mark them in some way. I haven't seen any answer.

- Can the test be used for paternity testing? No. Paternity testing uses different markers.

- Can the results be used to identify a unique suspect in a criminal case? No. Bennett Greenspan, founder/CEO of FamilyTreeDNA.com, frequently fields this question at conferences. He said that it could not be used to identify any particular unique individual, whose Y-DNA matches (barring mutations) that of his father, grandfather, great-grandfather, uncles, male cousins, sons and grandsons - a long list of people living and dead. Therefore, it doesn't help for paternity or forensic purposes. The closest it could come is that a suspect might be in the family somewhere, but the markers used in genetic genealogy are not specific or detailed enough to identify a unique individual.

Have you organized a DNA project for your family or other group? How do you persuade people to test?
I look forward to reading your comments.

For more information:

FamilyTreeDNA.com offers detailed information on everything related to genetic genealogical testing. They also partner with MyHeritage.com.

The International Society of Genetic Genealogy ISOGG offers many resources for further reading (see "For Newbies"), and a particularly happy section is "Success Stories," which shows what can happen using genetic genealogy.

Search for your ancestors:

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