Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Is history all genealogy?

In a recent Roots & Rambles post, Marian Pierre-Louis poses the question, "Where does genealogy end and history begin?" After examining dictionary definitions of both genealogy and history, she summarizes her inquiry by asking, "Am I a genealogist when I connect the dots between my ancestors, a local historian when I research in-depth the life of one ancestor, or an historian when I look at the events that impacted the lives of generations of my ancestors? Someone please tell me if I am a genealogist, local historian, historian or all three!  How do you separate genealogy and history? And what do you consider yourself?" Her questions caused me to stop and think.

Genealogy and history have not gotten along well. There is a Spanish saying which translated into English, is "to lie like a genealogist." In times past, it was not unusual for famous or important people to hire a "genealogist" to give them a pedigree showing a guaranteed relationship to kings and queens. Genealogy's spotted past carries over into the present, with genealogists all to eager to "prove" a relationship to a famous historical figure. It also does little for the credibility of genealogists to claim ancestry back to Adam!

In his book, The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Val D. Greenwood defines genealogy as, "That branch of history which involves the determination of family relationships. This is not done by copying by rather by research."[Italics in original]. He goes on to admonish that a genealogist should never "approach a pedigree problem as a student of history..." This concern comes from the traditional view of history as a study of history books. Greenwood points out that the student of history, "takes someone else's word for everything--that is, if he believes what he reads."

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000.

In a real sense, all history is genealogy and genealogy is nothing more, or less, than detailed localized history. Traditional history was focused on the grand scheme of politics and society. It deals with wars and only mentions individuals as they become prominent. However, more recently, historians have become more concerned about theory and methodology. Most, if not all, university level history degrees now require a class or classes in methodology and theory. As part of the modernization of history and as a reflection of modern societal concerns, history has become more oriented towards the individual's place in society. There have been a flood of books on more ordinary individuals, many of which are compilations of letters or journals. The distinction between the genealogists' emphasis on the individual and family and the modern historian's interest in those same individuals has become blurred and indistinct.

In the past few years, it has become common to talk about "family history" as distinct from "genealogy." As part of this trend, The Genealogical Society of Utah became FamilySearch. There is actually no real distinction between family history and genealogy, only an attempt to make the idea of genealogy more appealing to a greater number of people. Genealogy and family history are the same with only the idea that family history would include more information and details about the "family" than was usually included in a genealogy.

But, just as Greenwood uses the issue of research to distinguish between what is and what is not genealogy (or family history), the same distinction can be applied to all historical research. Copying is not genealogy, nor is it good history. The major component in the distinction is research. Research is defined by Greenwood as,"An investigation aimed at the discovery and the interpretation of facts and also the revision of accepted theories in light of new facts." I could expand considerably on that definition, but it suffices for the present discussion. To the extent that genealogy lacks research, it is not genealogy and to the extent that history is merely the study of previous histories, it is also not history. 

One of the real issues causing the division between history and genealogy lies with the academic university-based historian. The victim of the publish or perish environment (from my first hand knowledge), university history professors almost universally, would not give the time of day to a mere genealogist who had no academic credentials at all. For the most part, genealogy has not penetrated the academic world as an accepted discipline and the history establishment will go to the length of coming up with a term like "microhistory" to avoid using the term genealogy. This attitude is based, in part, on genealogy's checkered past and historical lack of basis on real facts and research. In turn, if genealogy wishes to be accepted as a valid historical pursuits and genealogists as valid historians, the genealogists need to recognize that bad or poor research makes for bad genealogy.

There most definitely needs to be more communication and interdisciplinary communication between the main stream history community and the genealogical community. The larger genealogical community needs to move more towards the standards of good research and documentation and the historical community needs to lighten up and realize that history is nothing more or less than families.


  1. James,

    I was lured in by the topic of your post which is of great interest to me. What a surprise to see my name mentioned here. This is just the kind of dialog that I love about blogs.

    You have done a wonderful job of expanding the discussion of genealogy and history. I love your quote from Greenwood and the points you've made about research for both history and genealogy.

    I hope to see you listed in Randy's weekly email :)


  2. Well, sometimes when I talk too much genealogy I am in danger of terminating family relationships ....

    But when I do talk genealogy with my husband the history guy, it is easy to see how both disciplines have areas where they suffer from lack of rigor; in genealogy, the people guilty of this are usually called "amateurs," but in history, they may be called "professors" or "authors."

  3. I was interested in your discussion and was surprised that you quoted me to further your arguments. However, when you quote me in the future, I will be grateful if you quote me correctly.

  4. Star

    Have you read Tamura Jones's insightful article about genealogy definitions?

    By the ol' way, I think you'll like her ideas on scientific genealogy.