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

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Complexity as a Factor in Genealogical Research

Genealogy is a subject that is rife with different levels and types of complexity. Overcoming complexity requires tailoring the approach to both the type and level of complexity. We can all recognize complexity but do not all understand how to handle the consequences of complex systems.

Let me start with a definition of a system. A system is a set of parts or elements that are related in a way that differentiates those same elements from similar relationships outside of the relational regime. Put into the language of genealogy, a family is a group of people who are related in way that those outside the family are not. Systems can differ in the identity of their individual elements or in the relationship of similar elements. For example, a nuclear family can have a father, a mother and children. Two different families can have the same relationship of the elements, but involve different individuals. You can also have entirely different kinship systems that are dissimilar in the relationship of those similar elements (i.e. the members of the family) Unfortunately, I know very, very few genealogists who are even marginally aware of kinship systems even though the overall kinship system plays a major role in the structure of the ancestral line. 

A system can be simple such as a nuclear family, or more complex such as the major patterns of kinship systems. For example, take the English word "uncle." What does this word mean in the context of familial relationships in 1800s? Do you know? The word uncle derives from the Latin avunculus, or mother's brother, which is the diminutive of the Latin avus or grandfather. So uncle originally meant "little grandfather." Originally, in Old English, the word for a maternal uncle was usually "eam." A paternal uncle was a "faedera."  You will note that we generally use the term to mean a male relative who is not a direct-line ancestor. So, my grandfather's brother is still my uncle (sometimes differentiated by the use of "great-uncle). But not in common speech, still call him an uncle, obscuring the generational differences.

As we begin to acquire information about our family, the very method by which we collect that information will begin to regularize and obscure the kinship system under which the family lived. We are immediately confronted with both levels of complexity, not only do we have a lot of individual members of our system (family) but we also have a complex system of interrelationships. Keeping track of the complex number of individuals is easily done with a computer and a good genealogy program. Representing the underlying kinship system is more difficult and more complex.

I recognize the difference between disorganized and organized complexity. A crowd is a disorganized complex system. But even disorganized systems obey certain rules. Just as chaos is fundamentally ordered if not organized in way we can easily perceive. Genealogy deals mostly with organized complexity but both types of complexity are exacerbated by the increase in the number of elements. If you have a database of 100 individuals you have a completely different challenge than if I have a database with 100,000 individuals.

Here is the point of this discussion. As genealogists we are dealing with a highly complex system. Part of that complexity is a system of kinship relationships that are, to a large extent, either entirely ignored, or at least, obscured by the very methods we use to record our information. Nearly all the existing software programs reflect an idealized kinship system that only partially corresponds to any actual existing kinship structure. Do you know the level of complexity existent in your ancestry? Are you aware of any kinship systems that may have influenced your ancestors? This question opens the door to even more complexity when you add legal and property transmission issues.

This post will probably be continued from time to time.

1 comment:

  1. If I am understanding the concept here - kinship relationships - I believe that I do at least in small part deal with them. I chose my current software because I could view my grandfather with all of his children - my mother and her 2 (half) brothers - together as one family. They grew up as a family and the siblings would never identify themselves as "half-brother" or "half-sister." In the same way, both of the men that my mother identified as her grandfathers have no blood connection.

    I have always sought to show these relationships as they were very important to the family dynamic.

    It's much harder as I go back in time to have any idea if I am properly capturing anything other than the biological relationships though.