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

Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Limitations of Genealogical Forms

Using pedigree charts, fan charts, family group records and other forms are ubiquitous in genealogical research. But the inherent structure of these forms is not just a convenience. In many instances, the way the information is displayed hinders, rather than assists the research process. The reasons for this hinderance are fairly complex and involve a preconceived bias towards a singe kinship system based on the English/Western European model. Because genealogists have been given these specific forms for so many years, the forms are used without question and have become the standard basis for most commercial genealogy programs.

Let me give a fairly simple example of where the forms break down in representing common family and meta-family relationships. In the areas of the world that have inherited the language and traditions of the Roman Empire (commonly referred to as Romance languages today) the standard form genealogical record is unsuitable. Here is a quote from George Ryskamp's book, Tracing Your Hispanic Heritage (Ryskamp, George R. Tracing Your Hispanic Heritage. Riverside, Calif: Hispanic Family History Research, 1984, page 268) made in the context of discussing research in original Spanish parish registers:
Some may ask, "Why not take notes directly onto family group sheets?" This is a very unwise practice for a number of reasons. First, the family group sheet does not always allow for all the information contained in the original records. For example, there may be no place to put the information about padrinos (godparents)and where they are from. The other reason, perhaps more important, is that part of the value of the original records comes in recognizing the relationship between the various items of information given, and the date on which they were entered. 
This issue is not confined to those people with Hispanic roots, many cultures around the world have the same issues. In my own heritage, many of my ancestors practiced plural marriage. The standard family group sheet is entirely inadequate to even acknowledge those relationships. Likewise the actual structure of a polygamous marriage is obscured by the standard pedigree chart since there is no way to differentiate between plural marriage and serial marriage except through careful examination of the dates of the marriages and the birth dates of the children. This issue extends to any other culture where the kinship tradition is outside the "standard" Western European model.

Why is this important? Primarily because the types of information recorded and analyzed by most researchers is confined to the format of the forms they use to gather information. Using the standard forms confines the researcher to one particular world view and thereby automatically eliminates much useful and necessary information about the family. I am guessing that many of the so-called "brick wall" type problems can be attributed to this narrow view of the family and its associations and the myopic focus on inadequate forms.

Presently, there is a huge push to add "stories and photos" to the family record. The primary impetus for this movement is the involvement of the youth in genealogy and to ostensibly increase involvement in family history research. But the current format of the standard forms works against this type of additional information. For example, in the standard pedigree model as used by's Family Tree, there is nothing indicating the existence of any stories or photographs about the family. That information is limited to tabs on individuals. Without looking at each individual in a family, and in my case that can be almost a hundred individuals, you cannot tell if any of them have stories or photos.

FamilySearch is certainly not alone in this limitation. Although most contemporary program allow photos and stories to be attached to an individual, most, if not all, focus on the individual and not on the greater family structure. In most case, the link to the to photo or story must be added to each individual in the family without regard to the greater family structure and there is no way to focus on a family unit, as such, to see all the photos and stories attached to the individuals within the family.

The effect of the standard format and forms is to isolate the individual from the family structure (including godparents and other relationships) and focus on a very narrow set of preserved records. If there are or were any stories or photographs the use of pedigree charts and family group records have obscured their existence for decades. Of course there are no records that are truly individual in nature, all human records ultimately lead to the family and then on to the kinship systems and the greater cultural environment. By focusing on only a small sub-set of this information, the genealogists are losing the exact information needed to do what they are apparently trying to do; preserve the family's heritage.

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