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

Sunday, January 31, 2016

What is History? What is Genealogy? Developing the Concepts -- Part Two

Historians make a distinction between "history and "History." The difference revolves around the particular epistemology used by the historian as opposed to the use of the terms by a lay person with little or no knowledge of the subject. In case you are not familiar with the term "epistemology" it is defined as an investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion. In this context, "History" has a rather long and complex epistemology. On the other hand, the epistemology of genealogy is practically missing. Another definition of epistemology would extend its application to the creation of a theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope.

In my first installment in this series, I began by pointing out the ancient origin of the discussion of the epistemology of History (with a capital "H"). The distinction between "history" and "History" is the difference between history as what has happened and History as selected and interpreted as a subject of research and study.

In this context, genealogy can hardly be classified as an historical pursuit. Rather than either adopting the current epistemology of those who are involved in History or even that of those in the scientific community, genealogists have avoided the issue of developing a coherent theory of genealogical knowledge and instead relied almost entirely on methodology. For this reason, genealogy is usually dismissed by academically inclined historians as a mere hobby or pastime with no real substance. The historians justify their position by pointing out that genealogists seldom either understand or care about the historical facts that constitute the context of the their accumulation of what they suppose to be facts about their families.

I would point out that historians are fully justified in their derision of genealogy. For example, it is fashionable with some genealogy programs to embed the individuals entered into a "timeline" of facts about the times in which an ancestor lived with total disregard as to whether any particular ancestor either participated in or was even aware of the historical facts listed. In addition, these canned or manufactured lists of facts are then compiled into a computer generated narrative that is supposed to give the user insight into the daily life of their ancestors. This is not "history" this is fantasy. The value of these timelines does not lie in the narrative, but only in their ability to suggest further areas of research that may produce additional information about an ancestor or ancestral family.

If your ancestor lived during the time of World War I, as a genealogist, you should be concerned about his or her participation in the war, but the mere fact that the World War occurred during your ancestor's lifetime does not mean that anything about how or why the war may have had an effect on your particular ancestor or his or her family. Most histories of America include the voyage of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Whether or not you accept Columbus as the discoverer of America, it should be evident that hardly anyone living at that time either knew about the voyage or was impacted by contact with America. The inclusion of an event on a timeline does not necessarily imply anything at all about our ancestors' lives.

On the other hand, there are a few genealogists, usually schooled in history, that see genealogy as merely a more detailed and personal application of history. During the 19th Century, it was popular among historians to apply what is now called the "Great Man Theory" to history. That is that history is explained by focusing on the influential individuals and that the rest of humanity were merely supporting actors in chorus. During the 20th Century this view was largely replaced by the view that all men, even the more prominent ones, act in the context of their greater social environment. See Wikipedia: Great Man theory. This change in the way history was viewed is a shift in its epistemology. Viewed in this context genealogy as it is generally practiced is not History.

Do we even want genealogy to be involved in the processes and interests of academic historians? If so, how does genealogy have to change? If not, is it important that genealogists discover their own epistemology separate from simplistic methodologies? Presently the genealogical process, for most researchers, involves finding a record, transcribing the contents and then moving on to the next record. Those genealogists who do reflect on the historical context of their ancestry, primarily focus on those individuals whose relationship is in dispute or for whom records have yet to be found.

By these observations, I am not depreciating the effort and expertise of competent genealogists, I am merely pointing out that with few exceptions, they are not in business of examining the methods, validity or scope of genealogy with the objective of placing it within the context of academic History.

I recently overheard a discussion among some genealogists about English parish records. The discussion centered around identifying references to both civil and ecclesiastical parishes. The participants, some of whom had been doing research for a considerable time, seemed amazed at the fact that there was a distinction. I have seen the same reaction to discussion concerning Scandinavian political and church jurisdictions also. The issue here is that there is a pervasive assumption that genealogical research can be done in a vacuum without reference to either the geographic, political, religious or social context. Lack of awareness of context of genealogical research is exactly the same class of criticism made by those who dismissed the Great Man theory of history as shortsighted and uninformed. I can remember one patron at the Mesa FamilySearch Library who became belligerent and abusive when I questioned the geographic basis for his conclusions about his family. He could see no reason why I would even question the inconsistent places he had accumulated for members of his family.

Genealogy is record-based and history is record-based so the conclusion is easily made that the two have the same methods and scope. The difference can be illustrated by a hypothetical situation. Suppose I were starting to write the history of World War I. How much time should I spend tracing the ancestry of each of the soldiers who fought in the War? Genealogy is intensely fact oriented. We are concerned about each tiny detail we can extract from the records that are available. Historians are more concerned about the big picture and analyzing changes across time. The criticism of genealogy is essentially the same as that made of biographies. Biography has long been considered to be outside the realm or interest of History because of its focus on a specific time period and it lack of perspective as to changes across time.

Likewise, for historians, genealogy with its focus on a particular family line, falls into exactly the same category. I see many correspondences between genealogy and anthropology, particularly kinship studies. But even with this apparent relationship, genealogists seldom extrapolate their facts into generalizations about the larger society shared by their ancestors.

If genealogy is not History, then what is it? That is question I am exploring with this series of posts.

Here is the previous post in this series:

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