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

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Twenty-two: Who needs codification?

Codification is the the act, process, or result of arranging in a systematic form or code. In genealogy, this can take various forms. Genealogists use a variety of computer programs as well as informal (paper and pencils) and more formal methods to record (codify) the results of their research. Within the overall genealogical community, there are factions that advocate their own form of codification and actively promote their way of recording genealogical information as the "only" way it can properly be recorded. In addition, there is also a substantial majority of the genealogical adherents that choose codification by default. They allow whatever structure they encounter to dictate how they record their data. The two extremes in the genealogical community can be characterized, at one extreme, as name grabbers who simply populate an online family tree and think they are doing genealogical research and at the other end of the extreme, those who are convinced that only those who adhere to their particular view of codification are truly genealogists and the rest are beneath notice. Most of us fall somewhere in between these two extremes.

Do you regularly use the word "ain't?" Such as in the phrase, "I ain't going to the store?" Or perhaps, "We ain't going to the store?" In fact, if "ain't" is part of your common vocabulary you probably use it as follows:

I ain't
he/she ain't
they ain't
we ain't

Probably since pre-historic times, there have been self-appointed prescriptive linguistic grammarians, that is, people who speak a certain way and look down on anyone who does not conform to their standard language pattern. In many European countries, there are national language institutes that work diligently to make sure that the population uses the accepted and "pure" language. My introduction to this was a book I purchased in Argentina:

Ragucci, Rodolfo M. El habla de mi tierra: lecciones prácticas de lengua española ... Buenos Aires: Editorial Don Bosco, 1963.

This rather sizable book proscribed which types of phrases were "acceptable" Argentine Spanish and which were unacceptable. Your use or not of the word "ain't" is a perfect example of a regular contraction used by the English language that has become unacceptable due to social grammarians efforts to eradicate the usage of the word. Your use of language has become a classic class-marker as illustrated by George Bernard Shaw's Play, Pygmalion. Here is a Wikipedia comment on "ain't."
The usage of ain't is a perennial subject of controversy in English. Ain't is commonly used by many speakers in oral or informal settings, especially in certain regions and dialects. Its usage is often highly stigmatized, and it may be used as a marker of socio-economic or regional status or education level. Its use is generally considered non-standard by dictionaries and style guides except when used for rhetorical effect, and it is rarely found in formal written works.
We have exactly the same type of social stratification in genealogy only rather than focusing on the way we talk, the stratification is based on our personal method of recording our research, that is, our methods of codification. If you put all your family history on a publicly available family tree with no sources, you are definitely in a different category than if you publish your research findings in an accepted and revered genealogical journal. The difference is essentially in the level of codification you choose to learn and employ. The stratification comes from attaching value judgments to these two activities. On the one hand, those who fail to add sources or citations to their work are considered plebeians, while the "upper crust" uses the proper and highly structured formalities associated with their class status. In fact, many genealogist expend a huge amount of effort simply learning what is and what is not acceptable by the patricians. Do you worry about how you are recording your research? Think about it.

For more than forty years I operated within a highly codified structure known as the U.S. legal system. Many years ago, I began the move sideways into an equally codified structure, genealogical research. In essence, I trade one structure for another. Personally, I think it was a good trade-off. But as with nearly all human activities, we have a tendency to codify our social rules and mores and separate into classes and I had to learn and adapt to the new paradigm of codification in my avocation of genealogy.

Why has how we record our research become the chief indicator of class division among genealogists? My opinion is that there is very little else we can use to distinguish what I do from what you do and we have fastened our attention on one very obvious indicator. I could use a few other examples, but they would only make me even less popular than I probably already am in some circles.

But there is a basic issue that transcends class distinctions. That is the need to accurately record our research efforts. Whether or not I use a "standard" citation method is vastly overshadowed by the need to record where I obtained the information I record. For example, this past week, I have been using a family from the Family Tree in my classes at the Brigham Young University Family History Library. The Family Tree records the family as General James Edward Morgan and his wife, Margaret Elizabeth Jarman. During the time I have been teaching this series of classes, someone has made some significant changes to this particular family line without recording any sources. In fact, I used this same family for examples in my blog posts recently. In one case, the person making the changes, changed a birth date for the wife that was listed as being more than a 150 years after the death of her husband. The husband was listed as being born in the 1600s and the wife in the 1800s, an obvious error. That particular couple also has 17 listed children. The husband is listed as having three different wives with 25 children listed for the second wife and 2 for the third "unknown" wife. The sources listed include three published genealogies from the 1800s and early 1900s. However, no source was listed for "correcting" the wife's birthdate. The husband was supposedly born in 1670 and married in 1679, no wonder he had so many children.

It is abundantly clear that this family is a mess from a genealogical standpoint. What is even more interesting about this entry is that the three "sources" obviously do not refer to the named individual in the entry. The person named is identified as "General James Edward Morgan, (b. 1670, Bala, Merionethshire, Wales, d. 20 April 1736,  Gwynedd, Montgomery, Pennsylvania, United States). The person changing the wife's birth date without citing a source, has apparently ignored the fact that the rest of the entries are ridiculous. What is interesting is that the probable Edward Morgan was not a General and is claimed to be the grandfather of Daniel Boone. Although this family appears in my line on the Family Tree, I have long ago disproved any connection with this family and my own. As I pointed out, the three "sources" do not refer to the same three families and none of the sources refer to the family recorded in the Family Tree.

Am I going to worry about the formalities of my citations when there are much more serious issues? As a matter of note, I am not going to untangle this family because my line actually ends three or four generations before I get to these illustrated problems.

This series will keep going.

Previous installments of this series include:

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