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

Thursday, February 11, 2016

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

After much thought, I have concluded that genealogy is not history and history does not include genealogy. To quote from page 99 of the following book:

Carr, Edward Hallett, and R.W Davies. What Is History ?: The George Macaulay Trevelyan Lectures Delivered in the University of Cambridge, January-March 1961. London [etc.]: MacMillan, 1986.
History, therefore is a process of selection in terms of historical significance. To borrow Talcott Parson's phrase once more, history is 'a selective system' not only of cognitive, but of casual, orientations to reality. Jus as from the infinite ocean of facts the historian selects those which are significant for his purpose, so from the multiplicity of sequences of cause and effects he extracts those, and only those, which are historically significant; and the standard of historical significance is his ability to fit them into his pattern of rational explanation and interpretation. 
 The genealogical facts are, in a real sense, preselected. As genealogists we are not out fishing in an ocean of facts, we are searching for very specific facts that apply to individuals and their families. Because both historians and genealogists utilize the some of the same source documents, it is the process of selection that makes all the difference. Hence, the goals of history, especially academic history and genealogy are not only different but in opposition.

I was recently speaking to an historical writer who is in the process of compiling a soon to be published important history. The author was appalled that anyone would consider the book to be a genealogy. It is true that genealogy may be supplemented by stories and placed in context by reference to historical events, but that alone does not make it into what is considered history. For the same reason, there is a significant segment of the history community that does not consider biography to be history.

Quoting another book,

Stern, Fritz Richard. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present. New York: Meridian Books, 1956.

at page 293, "Historical thinking is always teleological." Teleology is a philosophical doctrine that final causes, design and purposes exist in nature. History deals with processes over time. Genealogy deals with snapshots. The difference, although not obvious, has to do with the goals and expectations of the historian as opposed to the goals and expectations of the genealogist. As a genealogist, I approach historic (old) documents for the information they can supply to me about my family. I am not interested in why the documents were created or the governmental processes that required the document's creation, only whether or not the document is credible and supplies me with information of very specific type. I use a broad spectrum of documents for the purpose of providing context to my ancestor's lives. For example, if I discover that my ancestor fought in the U.S. Civil War, I may use the information from the records to find additional records or to confirm basic facts about my ancestor's life. In doing this, I have no intention of writing a general history of the war or even of one battle. My goal is not to determine the basic causes of the war. My focus, as a genealogist, is to provide background support for my ancestor's life.

I recently wrote that if genealogists wish genealogy to be accepted as a valid academic pursuit, then they must garner enough support for the idea to convince universities to offer advanced degrees in genealogy. Absent that interest, genealogy is forced to languish in the realm of hobbies and pastimes.

Now, don't get the idea that just because genealogy is not history that it is not a valid, challenging and worthwhile pursuit. There are many good reasons for embarking on an intense study of genealogy and genealogical methods. From my perspective, what genealogy lacks is not a well-developed methodology, but a vigorous philosophy. History has a well developed historiography, but there is no concomitant genealography. Genealogy also differs from prosopography. Those genealogists who yearn for more academic genealogical atmosphere, need to focus on creating a valid genealography.


  1. I think those references that you quoted, James, have a different concept of what is "genealogy" than the modern interpretation. Maybe it's one based on the literal derivation, and so merely about lineage. Although that differentiation from "family history" is still evident in the UK, I believe it's more blurred in the US. This is one reason why I prefer the term "micro-history" as it is inclusive of many fringe pursuits, such as one-name and one-place studies, and more. Being too specific is for purists, and you can't be a purist when researching the past; who knows what we'll find.

    1. Important distinctions. I was thinking more towards the issue of genealogy's acceptance or lack of acceptance as an academic pursuit. If academics think that genealogy is not history then they will be unlikely to include genealogy in history studies at the university level.

    2. I totally agree with you James. If genealogy is no more than family trees then it cannot really aspire to being history -- hence my suggestion. However, "software genealogy" has probably done more to tarnish the concept of genealogy than any confusion over semantics. IMHO, of course.