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

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Developing a metageanalogy

As metaphilosophy is the study of the nature, aims and methods of philosophy. I would submit that, in the same vein, a metagenealogy would be the study of the nature, aims and methods of genealogy. I did not originate the term "metagenealogy" but its previous use, as far as I can determine, has not included a development of the use of term as applied to the practice of genealogical research. I propose to develop a more rigorous set of definitions consistent with the idea of moving the study of genealogy from its presently unstructured state into a more focused and defined practical and intellectual discipline.

Val D. Greenwood in his book, The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, [Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000.] offers a definition of genealogy, "That branch of history which involves the determination of family relationships. This is not done by copying but rather by research." From this, we can begin to define the nature of genealogy. Greenwood considers genealogy to be a branch of history, I would disagree, I believe history to be a branch of genealogy. Ultimately all history is nothing more or less than the actions of individuals, all of whom were born into families of one sort or another. In the past, genealogy had a bad reputation because of its practicioners who disregard any semblance of systematic research in favor of fables and lies. In this regard, however, genealogy is no worse or better than the study of history in general.

So, if I begin by defining history as that branch of genealogy that focuses on the records and actions of large units of individuals and families, I can further define genealogy as the overall study of human relationships on the earth, including their activities, beliefs, records, lives, politics, wars and all other activities in general. Most compiled histories have ignored family relationships in all but a very superficial way. You can read almost any popular history of the United States, for example, and other than noting some outstanding family relationships such as father and son politicians, the family is all but ignored. On the other hand, most compiled genealogies also ignore history. Genealogist love to tell you how many names they have in their database, but seldom know anything more than a few superficial facts about all those listed ancestors.

Remarkably, historians and genealogists use some of the same sources. Until recently, historians were more concerned with the larger picture, wars, political movements, technological changes and other sweeping generalizations rather than the day-to-day life of the common people. More recent historians have focused more on causative histories and the interpretation of people's daily lives. The speculative philosophy of history focuses, in part, on the question of what is the proper unit of study of the human past; the individual, the polis or city, the sovereign or finally, the civilization as a whole. (See Wikipedia). From my perspective, each of the units beyond the individual and family are merely steps up in complexity rather than a change in emphasis. A city is nothing more than a larger group of families.

In that sense, history in the larger scale, is nothing more than choosing which families you wish to emphasize. It is apparent that the family is often treated in the more academic world as something to be studied like the history of computers or coal mining, the central nature of the family to all historical investigations is ignored. Although we hear a lot of discussion on the viability of the family, I am not talking here about any one form of family relationship. This is not an issue of traditional vs. non-traditional families or any other aspect of the family organization. It is more an acknowledgment of the importance of kinship relationships, more in the anthropological sense than is usually admitted to historical discussions. If the family (in whatever form) is the basis building block of more complex societal functions, as I maintain, then all history is literally family and all history is literally genealogy.

So, going back to the metagenealogy's concern with the nature of genealogy. What then is genealogy? A mere compilation of names and relationships? Or, as I maintain, the study of the basic underlying structure of all societies no matter at what scale. To use an analogy, physics can either be the study of the large structures of the universe such as stars and galaxies, or it can be the study of the sub-atomic nature of matter itself. In this analogy, genealogy is characterized as the study of the sub-atomic, while larger historical concerns are aimed more at the stars and universes of collections of families, when in fact, they are the same, only dependent on a difference in scale. Neither is genealogy genealogy without history and neither is history history without genealogy. In the same way that small particle physics is essentially the same physics as astrophysics, genealogy is the common study, while history mainly defines itself only as the study of the larger structures.

The separation of history and genealogy is entirely artificial. It is no more reasonable, or less so, than any of the other artificial divisions of academic disciplines. If we define genealogy as the basic pursuit, then it is easier to see how it is impossible to artificially restrict genealogy to a mere listing of names.

Next, more on the nature of genealogy in the metagenealogical sense.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for thinking deeply about this discipline of genealogy. I am fascinated by the interaction of and tension between micro- and macro-. You have suggested that "units beyond the individual and family are merely steps up in complexity rather than a change in emphasis. A city is nothing more than a larger group of families." One of the dynamics of complexification seems to be that the "more complex" is often more that just the sum of its "less complex" parts. Characteristics emerge in complex systems that cannot be explained by the characteristics of of that system's component parts. I would agree that relationships are the primary building blocks of society, but not necessarily just kinship relationships. Society is about the web of relationships between those who are near-by (that is, neighbors) not just kin). While all people in the business world or in the education system are indeed part of families, kinship relationships are not primary in those systems. I would therefore offer the following definition of genealogy: "the study of one of the basic underlying structures of all societies." I look forward to hearing more.