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

Friday, July 1, 2016

What is Genealogy Revisited

Laughing Skull
A few months ago, I wrote a post asking the question, "What is genealogy?" My conclusion was the following definition:
Genealogy is any activity that has anything to do with anyone who is or is not defined as human and who could possibly be related, even if such relationships cannot be proved or even theoretically postulated.
Then, just a few days ago, I wrote a blog post about the large, online genealogy websites. The two ideas got connected in my mind when I began thinking about relatives and who we consider to be relatives and who we classify as non-relatives. Of course, this classification is arbitrary and capricious depending on our personal preferences and our cultural background. I live in a culture that values relationships and ancestry. Who you are is defined more by your relationships that any other factor. I was beginning a class at the Brigham Young University Family History Library and one of the class members stopped me and asked me, "Who are you?"

That was an interesting question. I had to ask another question. "What do you mean, who am I?" In this case, even after discussing the question for a while, I am not sure I knew the answer. Genealogists have ancestral lines and I suppose, after years of research, they see their family as a web of relationships all leading back to themselves. Traditional pedigree charts reinforce this perception that we are pivotal member of our family by putting the individual as the starting point (or ending point) of our genealogical quest.

When I arrived in Provo, I left Mesa, Arizona where I had been living for many, many years and where no one I associated with ever asked me who I was. Here in Provo, the first question asked me by many people was, "Are you related?" Hmm. Yes, as a matter of fact, I have about as many relatives as anyone I know, i.e. two parents, four grandparents etc. and about a million or so cousins and other sundry relatives. Why was I asked this question? In my case, the answer was and is complex. I have a surname that is fairly common, but implies certain cultural, social and religious relationships here in Utah.

The interesting thing is that I immediately discovered a half a dozen or so "relatives." But here, knowing that you are related means about as much as finding out that you drive the same model car or buy food at Costco. I am not treated any differently or invited to events or whatever based on genealogical relationship. When I am asked about what I do or did, those questions mean what I was employed at. Since attorneys are fairly common, that gives me something to talk about and establish a relationship with people. Does this translate into a social relationship? No. Not at all.

Now, I suspect that many people do genealogy with the expectation that they will find their place in the world. I further suspect that the relationships they find turn out to be interesting and may even be life changing. However, from my own standpoint, I find that the situation is a lot more complicated than shown on any pedigree chart. So, what is genealogy? I am still not sure, but it looks like my definition above is about as good as any I can think of.

1 comment:

  1. This made me think for a minute James -- something that happens less often these days. Of all the "relatives" I have been able to contact through my family history research, the closest are those that have memories of the same shared events or people -- not those with shared surnames, or shared DNA, or any other type of commonality. When I compare this with my social networking contacts, the same connection is evidence, but we don't usually call that genealogy, or family history, even though the shared events are part of our personal history. Interesting train of thought...