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

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Fifteen: Where did it all start?

Back in 1904, the following book was published:
Allaben, Frank. Concerning Genealogies; Being Suggestions of Value for All Interested in Family History. New York: The Grafton Press, 1904.
At pages 32 - 33, the author compares genealogical research to proving a case in court:
Thus the reader can perceive the full importance of doing the work of investigation properly, as insisted upon in the preceding chapter. If he has done so, there is no difficulty in compiling an authoritative work. His note and the authority for it stand side by side, and as he uses the one he can instantly set down the other.
We have spoken of the legal method of investigation, and said that the genealogical investigator is like the lawyer who is getting his evidence together. But this having been done, there remains the preparation of the case for its presentation to the court. The work of the genealogical compiler corresponds to this. As the lawyer's brief compels the favorable decision of the judge, or as the logical presentation of the case convinces the jury, so should the argument of the compiler of family lineage convince the court of public opinion. His should be an historical document which carries its evidence upon its face. But if his method has been careless either in research or presentation, the cross-examination of historical criticism is sure to tear the case to pieces. Although a temporary decision may be given in his favor, an other investigator will eventually arise and question some of his unsupported statements. The whole case will thus be appealed, and a new investigation be called for.
I have been searching the genealogical literature for some time and was under the impression that applying legal analogies to genealogical research had its beginnings much more recently than this publication. No, I am not going to launch off into another tirade about how inappropriate it is to compare historical research and genealogical research in particular to proving a case in court, but apparently the siren call of legal jargon and analogies is all too pervasive to be ignored completely, even by lashing yourself to the mast.

Although the legal analogy is preserved, the following book makes an important point in Chapter 7, page 115:
Cerny, Johni, and Arlene H. Eakle. Ancestry's Guide to Research: Case Studies in American Genealogy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry Inc, 1985.
Here is the quote:
When student of genealogy first learn that it is impossible to prove a lineage absolutely, the resist the fact. They live in an era when advanced technology demands absolutes, the products of societies driven to achieve perfection. Neither resistance, technology, nor the pursuit of perfection will alter reality; at best, a lineage can be proven only beyond a reasonable doubt, just as guilt or innocence is proven in a court of law. Lineages, like court cases, are built upon available evidence.
We can see how attractive the legal analogy has become. The additional point here is that despite the use of legal jargon, it is "impossible" to prove a lineage absolutely. I would also note that the observation here about "technology" was made in 1985, long before the Internet became an overwhelming influence in the area of genealogical research. It is likely that the recourse to the legal terminology is a recognition of the uncertainty built into historical research. We can never be certain that we have found all of the documents and records, no matter how exhaustive our search. By adopting quasi-legal jargon, such as the reference above to "beyond a reasonable doubt," we can shroud ourselves in a higher degree of certainty, even though that level of certainty will always be an illusion.

One example of the impact of this reality is the varied responses to a program such as the Family Tree. Wikis are, by their nature, constantly subject to change. In effect having a family tree wiki is a blatant acknowledgment of the underlying uncertainty of genealogical research. Users of the Family Tree are, in effect, forced to confront the fluid nature of research and the lack of absolutes. For many users, this lack of constancy is disturbing and causes them the believe that the program "doesn't work." To the contrary, the program works exactly as it was designed and it is a valid analogue of the real nature of genealogical research.

If I lose a coin and begin to search for it, am I doing "research?" What is the difference? There is an old comic featuring Bazooka Joe and Mort. Mort is crawling around on the ground beneath a street light and Joe asks him what he is doing. He says he is looking for a coin he lost. Joe asks where did you lose it? Mort answers, "Over there about a block away." Joe then says, "Why are looking here?"
Mort replies, "The light is better."

In effect, by using technology to do our research, we are like Mort. We like the Internet because the light is better. But if we think we are doing research, then we are sadly and tragically mistaken. Searching online can be a part of our research, but it is not an end in itself. The next installment will discuss where we go to do our research.

Previous installments of this series include:

1 comment:

  1. I love the cartoon analogy to the internet and genealogy! I have enjoyed this series and am caught up till you write the next one. I hope it is okay but I intend to share the link with others.