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

Saturday, January 5, 2013

A Systems Approach to Genealogy

Anytime I have to repair something complicated, such as my car, it helps to think of the function of car as an overall system. If you understand the system of how a car works, then any malfunction in the system is easier to locate and fix. In fact, a car is a system of systems. There are systems, such as the electrical wiring, the computer controls, the brakes, the exhaust and in each of these individual systems, there are sub-systems. In diagnosing problems, it helps to know how each system works and what might happen if it does not.

Whether you recognize it or not, familial relationships are a system. Beginning with the individual, genealogical research is primarily concerned with discovering relationships that exist within complex systems. Not only do researchers need to recognize how the individual operates within each of the surrounding systems, but also the researcher must understand how each of the systems operate. Each of these systems operate in conjunction with every other system.

Let me give an example of what I'm talking about. The basic family system consists of parents and children. However this basic system can vary in a huge number of different ways. For example, the basic family structure could be modified by the death of a spouse, divorce, remarriage, abandonment, and many other possible variations. Viewing the family as a system allows the researcher the latitude to include all of the possible variations in describing the family unit. Before you criticize this approach to the family as dehumanizing, you should realize that viewing the family is the system does not impose any sort of restrictions or preconceived structures on the family it is merely a recognition that the family has some complexity and understanding the possible variations is necessary for a beginning understanding of how the family may operate. The systems approach is purely analytical and not prescriptive.

Too many times, I find genealogical researchers shackled by preconceived notions of family relationships to the point where they ignore obvious details because the details do not fall within their notion of the family structure. This is especially true when the family comes from a cultural or ethnic background unfamiliar to the researcher.

Of course, the nuclear family operates within a larger system of the extended family. The definition of who and who is not a member of the extended family is determined in part by the cultural context of the extended family system. Then it is important to place the family system, within the context of the larger extended family system and also further within the context of the other cultural, social and political systems surrounding the family.

Another common problem associated with genealogical research is the inability of the researcher place the individual, the individual's nuclear family and the individuals extended family within the larger context.  At every level, it is important to view the family in the context of the greater systems in which it is embedded to enable the researcher to find records that are pertinent to the family. Too many times, researchers focused their attention entirely on the individual rather than the individual in the context of the greater social structure in which the individual lived. Some of the systems in which the family may be found include a particular legal system, a particular economic system, a particular political system, a military system, and any one of many other complex systems.

A simple example of placing a person within the context of a system can be found by looking for draft registration records. In the United States there were a number of major draft registration efforts including those men registered for World War I and those for World War II. Both of these registration systems involved more than one actual registration effort. For any male ancestor living during the time covered by the requirements of the draft registration, it is a given that a researcher looks for a draft registration document for any male relative. We do this because we recognize that the draft registration system reached nearly every male of the indicated ages in the United States.

In a recent discussion with a potential researcher, we found a WWI Draft Registration form for the target Grandfather. The Registration Form stated that he was a "Fireman" in the local city. For me, this fact opens up an entirely new "system" of relationships and possible records for this individual. Unfortunately, the person I was helping did not see this advantage and quickly lost interest in the record.

Once you have made the connection with something as simple as draft registration, you may begin to understand that there are a myriad of systems all of which created records concerning your family members. In every time period, no matter how remote, individuals and families are interconnected to a myriad of other organizations and jurisdictions (i.e. systems). Failure to recognize the existence of these potential relationships severely limits the record options available to a researcher. It is like putting on blinders to assume that your ancestor did not own land, pay taxes, register for the draft, fight in a war, have insurance, belong to a fraternal organization, borrow money, attend church or participate in any of the other endless possibilities. Viewing an individual and a family as a functional part of larger systems that kept their own records opens up endless possibilities for research.

1 comment:

  1. The systems approach to genealogy strikes me as similar to cluster genealogy. I agree with the approach, but it can be a curse as well as a blessing. As you said, it "opens up endless possibilities for research," but I don't have endless time, energy, or resources. To give another example: one of my 4ggrandfathers served in the Revolutionary War. For being only a private, there are a surprising number of records on him, including regimental rolls and his pension application. However, these records don't much describe his involvement in the war. So I expanded my research to include his entire regiment. Now I have hundreds of documents to go through, including letters between his commander and high ranking officials like George Washington and members of Congress. Engaging in such research can be overwhelming if one doesn't have a research goal in mind. My goal is to glean some interesting tidbits about the regiment that are not included in the usual regimental histories. I may also find some other connections to my ancestor, since members of regiments were often recruited from the same place. Thanks for the post.