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

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Eliminating projecting our preconceived prejudices into the past

When I was in graduate school in Linguistics at the University of Utah,  the Anthropology Department hired a new secretary. At the time, the Linguistics Department was associated with Anthropology. This new secretary had an interesting accent, especially to linguists, because she was from South Africa. Shortly after her employment, the head of the Linguistics Department, Wick Miller, and a few of the graduate students were talking in the area near her desk. The conversation turned to the Zulu language. Zulu is spoken by about ten million people and about a fourth of the population of South Africa. The new secretary listened to the conversation for a few minutes and then asked a question.

"Why are you studying Zulu. Everyone knows that those people have no language and can only speak a few dozen words?" Her question stopped the conversation cold. I seem to recall that we all just stared at her. Finally, Wick asked her a couple of questions in response. It became painfully apparent that she actually believed what she had said. Let's just say, she did not have a job in Anthropology Department by the next day.

Understand that this was back in the 1970s. Long before the end of apartheid and long before the revolution in South Africa. But I would venture to guess that I could find people who believe the same thing about other groups of "primitive" people in the world. If you don't understand our reaction to her question, maybe you have some of the same prejudices. Let me clarify the issue by stating a known fact, all natural human languages have essentially the same degree of complexity.

My point is this, we acquire a world view through our own experiences and background. As genealogists, we are hampered in our investigation of the past to the extent that we impose our personal preconceived prejudices into the past. But how do we even know we have such prejudices? That is the question.

Overcoming these ingrained notions of propriety and reality can only be accomplished through a constant process of expanding our knowledge with a mind open, not only to new information, but also to new interpretations of old information. The poor girl from South Africa was so caught up in her society's world view that the concept of studying a "primitive" language was beyond her comprehension. Especially a language which she did not consider to be human.

When does our world view interfere with our historical and genealogical research? Anytime we draw conclusions from the data based on our own experience and not based on the contextual experience of the time. I recently read an article in the Arizona Highways written by an "Archaeologist" who expressed the opinion that siege warfare did not exist among the early inhabitants of Arizona because they had not "discovered that concept." I will not dignify that opinion by giving the citation to it.

We all have the tendency to project simplicity into the past. Historically people didn't have (fill in the blank) therefore they lived much simpler lives than we do today. Remember, in a few years, what we say and do will be history.

There is also a fallacy which I call the fallacy of multiplicity. That more is some how more complicated than less. A statement incorporating the fallacy would say that, "we live in a modern society with millions of people, therefore and only because of the number of people, our society is more complex than an historical society with fewer people."

There are two fundamentally different issues here, disorganized complexity and organized complexity. Here is a statement hinting at the difference:
One of the problems in addressing complexity issues has been distinguishing conceptually between the large number of variances in relationships extant in random collections, and the sometimes large, but smaller, number of relationships between elements in systems where constraints (related to correlation of otherwise independent elements) simultaneously reduce the variations from element independence and create distinguishable regimes of more-uniform, or correlated, relationships, or interactions. Wikipedia
Let me give you a specific example of how this problem intrudes itself into genealogical research. Let's say I had a distant ancestor named John Smith, two of the most common names in the English language. I decided to do a search in for my ancestor. What do you suppose would be the results? Doing such a search produces over 1.8 million responses (a disorganized complexity), sorted by relevance. I may just throw up my hands and quit at this point, or I can begin to ignore my present world view of the commonality of the name and begin an investigation of the individual in his historical context. In my example, with that name, it is possible after placing the individual in the historical context that I would have more than one choice, but continued research of the associated time will at least drastically narrow the search (an issue of organized complexity).

What is it about my world view that prevents me from examining the contextual relationships and period history? I may simply believe that the effort is not worth the time involved. But from another standpoint, we may be afraid to explore the past because it will change our world view. As one friend expressed to me in a statement that he had discovered that one line of his ancestors were slaves in America. That discovery challenged his world view to the extent that, I am sure, he needed to evaluate whether or not he wanted to continue to do research.

I think I have not given enough analysis to the issues as yet and will probably continue this post in the future if just to clarify the references to complexity.


  1. Another excellent post, James! Thanks!

  2. I find it interesting that in many tours of ancient ruins, the guides all talk about how marvelous it is that such primitive people could figure out how to build such amazing buildings. Implied is that because they lived 1900+ years ago, they were less intelligent than we are. I always thought that was insulting, since I am sure they were just as smart as we are, just with expertise in different areas.