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

Saturday, October 12, 2013

What is Research? Compaing Legal Research to Genealogical Research

I have been thinking a lot lately about research. It occurs to me that both understanding the nature of research and answering the question "What do I do next?" are central issues to the entire concept. Let me start with a hypothetical.

Let's suppose you need to buy some food for the upcoming week. So you get in your car and drive to the nearest supermarket and walk into the store, go up and down the aisles and pick out things that look good. Once you get tired of shopping and have filled up your food basket, you go to the checkout, pay for your purchases and go home with all your food.

Now, let's take an entirely different view of the same shopping experience. If you are a careful shopper and on a limited budget, you will go through what you have on hand (survey), determine what your needs are from the food on hand, make a list of things you need to purchase and then you will go to the most recent food ads and look to see what is on sale. From your list and what is on sale you will make a list of items available at each store that are on sale or needed from that store. Then, and only then, you will get in your car and drive to the stores, making only those purchases you have on your list. Then you will take the items home and update your list of needed items to show the newly added inventory.

What are the chances the person in the first hypothetical will actually purchase food that he or she needs or will use?

I hope you realize that my hypothetical situations are really about research and not about food. The first example is a person who does not know what he or she has or needs and it will be only entirely by chance if the real needs are met by the subsequent purchases. The second person is functioning in a way that shopping experience may actually be of some benefit.

Research is basically and extension of the present and past experience, not a blind shot in the dark hoping to hit some target. This applies directly to genealogical research; the only way to make progress is to follow the second food buying example. Here is what is known as the Research Cycle:
1. Identify what you know.
2. Decide what you want to learn.
3. Select records to search.
4. Obtain and search the records.
5. Evaluate and Use the information.
Do you recognize each step in the second example above? But rather than focusing entirely on methodology, research also involves an entirely different mind set depending on the results that need to be obtained. I find that the two poles of thought on research are represented by what is called "legal research" and the methodology illustrated by the Research Cycle.

Legal research involves a entirely different process with an entirely different outcome. If I applied the concept of legal research to the food shopping experience above, it would sound like I had lost my mind entirely. Here is an attempt at a hypothetical food purchasing example using legal research.

Let's suppose that a truck comes by your house and dumps a load of random food in your front yard. You look through the pile and pull out things you might need, but ignore the rest and let it rot. I'm not entirely happy with this analogy, but it is close. The term "legal research" is a misnomer. It involves looking through a pile of law cases and selecting out only those items you need to support your arguments and trying to explain why any case that does not support your arguments doesn't apply. The only "research" part of the process is the searching for cases part. Depending on your legal experience you may not have to "search" for cases at all, you may already know all the cases that apply to any given situation. In that situation, you simply pull out your list (look at a previous pleading) and copy the list over.

The reason I give this example is to show that there are activities that are called research that are not really research, in the Research Cycle sense, at all.

Now applying all this to genealogy, the first example, the impulsive buyer, is like most of the people who come to me for help. They have no idea what information they already have, they do not know what they need and they walk into the FamilySearch Library expecting to find something useful without even knowing what is available. Clearly, in these situations, the person needs to go back and start through the Research Cycle before going any further.

In some cases, the genealogical researchers finds themselves in the "legal research" category. They already know what they want to prove and are only looking for specific evidence (cases) to support their arguments and aren't interested in anything that will contradict what they have already decided to do or think.

Genealogical research is real research and it needs to follow the steps of the Research Cycle.


  1. Your methodology in the research cycle is very important. As a physician and now genealogist / family researcher (depending on the day) I use my very similar research methodologies. The difference from a legal approach, however, is allowing myself random rummaging, looking for the unexpected "Eureka" moments.

  2. I thoroughly enjoyed this post. Well said! I never really thought of genealogical research or legal research in this way but I will now. Your Research Cycle is reminding me of the steps of planning from my MGT 300 (Management Theory and Practice) class I am currently taking......interesting.....