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

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Eight: On your mark, get ready...

Its time to step back a bit and review where we are with the concept of genealogical research. Research involves both theory and methodology. At a bare minimum, the researcher needs to understand the historical records which are the subject of the research effort. This can involve not only understanding the nature of the records and any limitations, but may ultimately include deciphering old handwriting and translating foreign languages.

It is time for another hypothetical situation.

Let's suppose that Mr. Researcher is interested in discovering his ancestry. The standard, traditional research process (see Research Process) involves a series of steps (methodology):
  • Identify what you know about your family
  • Decide what you want to know about your family
  • Select records to search
  • Obtain and search the records
  • Use the information
These are the general steps and each one is broken down into several discreet sub-steps. Here is the expanded list:
Use Appropriate Forms · Recall Information · Gather Family Information · Gather Low-Hanging-Fruit Sources · Record Useful Information · Organize Your Records Identify Candidate Families for Further Research · One Family at a Time · One Research Objective at a Time · Select the Easiest Research Objective · Prepare a Research Log  Creation of Records · Identify a Category of Sources · Choose a Record Type · Select Specific Records · Describe the Records on a Research Log Obtain the Records · View the Records · Search the Records ·Record the Results Evaluate the Evidence · Transfer the Information · Organize the New Records · Share the Information · Restart the Research Cycle
This all sounds so organized and efficient. Unfortunately, it is entirely unrealistic. This whole methodological sequence sounds like the researcher is working for a vast bureaucracy and that research is nothing more or less than a check list prepared for the assembly line. Let's suppose that I decided to disregard this entire scheme and just find out about my ancestors. Am I going to get arrested by the genealogy police if I fail to keep a research log? What if I decide to work on half a dozen families at a time? Are they going to kick me out of the library for exceeding my quota?

Why is my concept of research, after 50+ years or so of being involved in the process, so vastly different than this almost universally accepted model? OK, let's get back to Mr. Research and his objective of finding out about his family. Even before he starts worrying about what he knows, how about if he decides what he would like to know? What does he really want to find out about his family? Does Mr. Researcher want to connect to royalty, join a genealogical society or simply find out something about his parents and grandparents? Is he interested in becoming a professional genealogist or just interested in knowing where his family originated? How and to what extent he conducts his research will be determined by his ultimate goal. 

This step cannot be neatly characterized. In fact, what Mr. Researcher wants to know about his family will likely change as he acquires more information. As an example, many of the different objectives motivating Mr. Researcher would not involve the need to "use appropriate forms." He may not be interested in forms at all. Becoming involved in genealogy is not like performing major surgery. There are very few initial skills needed to start finding out about your family. So where does Mr. Researcher start his "research?"

At this juncture, we have reached Alice's conversation with the Cheshire Cat:
“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?"
"That depends a good deal on where you want to get to."
"I don't much care where –"
"Then it doesn't matter which way you go.”
― Lewis CarrollAlice in Wonderland
Can you please tell me how to do research? That depends a good deal on what you want to learn. I don't care much about what I learn? Then it really doesn't matter a great deal how you proceed. I could put it this way; do you want an advanced degree in history with an emphasis in genealogy or are you merely interested in seeing how you are related to some movie star?

Some people have a very low tolerance level for pain. They probably should avoid doing intensive research. What I mean by this is simple, research is not only a skill that involves methodology and theory, it is also an activity that only certain people enjoy doing. This depends on whether or not you see the research as a means to an end, or as an end in itself. My thoughts in this series are directed towards "Research" with a capital R and in quotes.

You can get an insight into the complexity of this subject by reviewing the following article.
Scotland, James, Exploring the Philosophical Underpinnings of Research: Relating Ontology and Epistemology to the Methodology and Methods of the Scientific, Interpretive, and Critical Research ParadigmsCanadian Center of Science and Education, English Language Teaching; Vol. 5, No. 9; 2012.
I like Scotland's definition of methodology from page 9 of the article:
Methodology is the strategy or plan of action which lies behind the choice and use of particular methods (Crotty, 1998. p. 3). Thus, methodology is concerned with why, what, from where, when and how data is collected and analyzed. Guba and Lincon (1994, p. 108) explain that methodology asks the question: how can the inquirer go about finding out whatever they believe can be known? (References from the original)
What the article points out is that the methodology of any research is determined by the ontological (concept of reality) and epistemological (the researcher's belief about what can be known) position of the researcher. Translated into English this means that what you believe or know about historical records, to a great extent, determines where, when and how you do your research. The article goes on to talk about educational research which does not directly apply to genealogical or historical research.

What are the basic limits of genealogical research? The answers are fairly complex. Of course, regardless of the capabilities of the researcher, the ultimate limit is the availability of records (I am using the term records in the expansive sense I have discussed in previous posts). But there are other immediate and less discernible limitations.

Back to Mr. Researcher. In discussing what he expects to find out about his family, he discloses that he heard that his grandfather came from Germany and he is interested in finding out about the place in Germany where his grandfather lived because he is traveling to Germany on vacation this summer. The question then changes. What is Mr. Researcher prepared to do to find out the birthplace of his immigrant ancestor?

The point here is that the expectations, beliefs, knowledge and even the physical limitations of the researcher determine the content and extent of the research. If you think about this for a while, you will begin to understand the limitations of online family tree programs and the ultimate limitations of all genealogical research. If we view genealogical research as nothing more than a series of steps (methodology) and ignore the mindset of the researcher and the researcher's ultimate expectations, then we are assuming a one-size-fits-all approach to research, which is not the case at all.

At the same time I was writing this current post, I was being asked a series of questions about the identity of an ancestor of a patron in the Brigham Young University Family History Library. I very quickly located the ancestor's birth, residence and marriage information. Did I follow the Research Cycle?

Previous installments of this series include:

1 comment:

  1. I always have several lines in the fore front. I "chase" one family and let it rest and chase another and then let it rest and might go back to the first one or chase another. And to me it is more like working a very large jig saw puzzle and not a straight line thing at all. So I have little areas where I have a few pieces together here and there inside the boarder. Therefore I might choose to work here or there when I sit down to spend time whatever particular day. Often and email or message sends me to a particular line and sometimes it is just a question of my own that I remembered.