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

Monday, March 26, 2012

Interdisciplinary Controversy

History and genealogy are closely related but highly isolated disciplines. The lack of collegiate representation of the genealogical community creates an apparent dichotomy so that the two disciplines operate almost entirely independently. When was the last time you went to a history conference? When was the last time you met a professional historian at your local genealogy conference. This separation does not rule out the possibility that an avid genealogist just happens to be a history professor or writer, but there is virtually no interaction between them on a professional or societal level. Genealogists have their conferences and historians have theirs.

But what happens when the two are involved in a controversy concerning historical events that affects both disciplines? Well, usually nothing. Either the problem is considered history and therefore ignored by the genealogists or is considered, "genealogy" and not worth the historians' time or interest. Only very rarely does a issue arise that affects both. One such issue was the Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings controversy of a few years ago. Suddenly genealogists had something historical to talk about and historians had to think about families and relationships.

If there were any historians reading this post, I am sure they would immediately become defensive and claim that they know all about genealogy but that it is such a narrow and unproductive area of concern that any attention paid to ordinary genealogy is a guarantee of professional suicide. As an aside, one of the reasons that I did not continue in linguistics was that my main area of interest, language universals, was considered, at the time, to be professional suicide by my professors. I was bluntly told that if I pursued that interest, I would never get a job. Back to history and genealogy.

How about an example. How may of you genealogists out there attended the Conference on Illinois History held in Springfield, Illinois on September 29, 2011 or are planning on attending the 2012 Conference on October 11-12, 2012? I am not advocating a reconciliation between historians and genealogists, I am just noting that we live in different parallel universes. However, my interest in history, particularly the history of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Mormon pioneers in the southwest, often compels me to pay attention to what is going on in the history community. So like some people watch the basketball or football scores, I watch what is happening in Utah and Arizona history and every once in a while there is a teeny tiny overlap of interest.

One such controversy is brewing right now, probably totally ignored by the genealogy community and as yet hardly noticed by the historical community but with the potential to make national news similar to the issue of the Church temple ordinances for those who were victims of the Holocaust. Now am I going to tell you all about the controversy so you can be up on the latest scuttlebutt? Not on your life. You will have to ferret out the issues and the controversy on your own. But I will give you a hint. Here is the link.

The one aspect of genealogy that I do deplore is the lack of historical involvement of the researchers. As I talk to patrons at the Mesa Family History Center, it is amazing to me how little connection they evidence to history. Such as, oh by the way your grandfather lived during 1918, did he fight in World War I or register for the draft? Response: blank stare from patron who obviously had no idea when World War I occurred.

How many problems that genealogists call "brick walls" are really evidence of an ignorance of local, state and national history? My guess is quite a few.


  1. Good post! I agree, but then again I am a Genealogical Historian, so I am a breed apart so it would seem.

    The two should intertwine and I am a huge proponent of that mixture on my website and blog and Facebook page all the time.

    More folks need to get on this bandwagon for sure!

  2. In the 1980's I attended many genealogical conferences that had avid historians as guest speakers. They usually focused on their favorite specialty such as civil war, etc. But being genealogists also, they cited sources, and many wrote books.

    My post today is on just such cross pollination. Just a really different take in my series "A Genealogist Looks at Isaiah."

  3. Thanks for the post. The context of our studies is just so important - particularly as we move back in time to those for whom we have not much more than a name and dates. I, for one, have learned so much about Eastern Europe and Jewish Eastern European history since I began my genealogy endeavor.

    I would think that students would really get jazzed about history by learning about the context of their ancestors' lives. It would make history so much more meaningful and vital. I'm not sure why history teachers haven't figured that out.

    Oh, and by the way, yesterday I blogged about BackStory Radio: a wonderful podcast/public radio show dissecting issues of today in the context of U.S. History.

  4. James, you say: "If there were any historians reading this post, I am sure they would immediately become defensive and claim that they know all about genealogy but that it is such a narrow and unproductive area of concern that any attention paid to ordinary genealogy is a guarantee of professional suicide."

    May I present a different perspective? I am a returned student (having received a B.A. in government in 1969 and an M.S. in library science in 1970 from Florida State University) about to graduate with a post-bacc B.A. in history and Spanish at the University of North Florida. My area of study is Spanish Colonial Florida during what is termed the Second Spanish Period (1784-1821). I received a grant from the university's Office of Undergraduate Research for an independent undergraduate research project concerning the family structure of St. Augustine, Florida, during that period. In my grant proposal, I made it very clear that I was planning on conducting a combined historical and genealogical study, that I was a trained genealogist as well as a student in the history program. My mentor, who is now the chair of the History Department here at UNF, was highly skeptical that I would win the grant because they usually, in his experience, went to science students and not to history students. I won the grant, with comments from the judges to the effect that they saw this as an unusual and interesting approach. My mentor is 100% backing me in my application of both historical and genealogical methodologies in my study. Career suicide? Hardly.

    In the fall I will begin my graduate studies in history here at UNF, and will continue with my study of the families of St. Augustine. Community studies have become accepted in history, viz. Carolyn Earle Billingsley's Communities of Kinship, a study of a family in ante-bellum Georgia, and Aaron Sheehan-Dean's Why Confederates Fought, a study of the family-grounded values that induced Southern men to enlist for the Civil War.

    I think the balance is swinging definitely in the direction of genealogy being accepted as a discipline in its own right. I am doing my bit to advance that cause, and I think the future for the academic acceptance of genealogy is bright, indeed, if my professors here at UNF are any indication.

    1. Thank you so much for that insight. It is nice to know there is hope out there. The real change will come when universities start offering degrees in genealogy (in addition to BYU and a very few others).