Managing Family Secrets in Genealogical and Family History Research: A Triangulated Qualitative Study

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name


Organizational Unit

College of Arts Humanities and Social Sciences, Communication Studies

First Advisor

Mary Claire Morr Loftus

Second Advisor

Ellen Willer

Third Advisor

Darrin Hicks

Fourth Advisor

Erika Polson


Genealogy, Family history, Family secrets, Communication privacy Management theory, Dialectical tensions, Boundary coordination, Turbulence, Negotiation


Genealogy and family history are significant hobbies in the US. Though genealogists and family historians uncover family secrets, many guidebooks do not fully explore the complexity of managing family secrets.

This study aimed to understand how genealogists and family historians manage secrets through the lens of Communication Privacy Management theory.

Through a triangulated qualitative approach, this study employed in-depth interviews and autoethnographic narratives. Forty-three genealogists and family historians participated in semi-structured interviews. Data were analyzed using Owen’s (1984) thematic analysis. The autoethnographic narratives explored my experience with family secrets as a genealogist and family historian.

Overall, the study produced 21 themes, including two dialectical tensions: respecting versus expanding boundaries and \stating historical facts versus the reputation of the antihero. Five themes emerged around ownership: two variations of collective boundaries, personal boundary, boundary inheritance, and boundary collapse. Themes related to ownership rights included rights to open and rights to control as well as no rights. The ownership responsibility themes were accurately communicating findings, minimizing risk, respecting the boundary, and widening the boundary. Privacy coordination themes included genealogy/family history opened the boundary, genealogy/family history dissolved the boundary, the passage of time erased the boundary, and the boundary maintenance. Boundary turbulence themes were reluctant guardian, intentional rule violation, and record holder revelation.

The key findings show that genealogists and family historians consider accuracy, protecting living family members, and privacy boundaries and ownership when dealing with secrets. The results showed two ways to consider secrets: secrets turn into stories and records reveal secrets.

Publication Statement

Copyright is held by the author. Permanently suppressed.

Rights Holder

Dana Rae Zione Vaughn


Received from author

File Format




File Size

410 pgs


Communication, Genealogy

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