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

Saturday, April 20, 2013

What is genealogy?

We like to think of ourselves as part of a genealogical research community, but what is genealogy and what is research? Sometimes we accept classifications without focussing on what the definitions of the terms used. When does a person become a genealogist? If I were going to call myself a dental hygienist, there would be a pretty well-defined criteria for inclusion in that category of workers. The same would be true for attorneys, Realtors (TM), and other business related jobs or professions. Is genealogy a profession? We do have professional genealogists and even professional genealogy organizations. If it is a profession, then why do so many of us do it for free?

I look at the term in the same way as I have with other avocations such as stamp and coin collecting. When does one become a philatelist and not simple a stamp collector? When does one become a numismatist and not merely a coin collector? Aren't those names just a highfalutin way of trying to be exclusive?  So is the term "genealogist" just an exclusive way of referring to people who collect information about dead ancestors?

Unfortunately, the term "genealogist" has abundant negative connotations. In Spanish there is a saying, "He lies like a genealogist" (Mentir como un genealogista). The use of this phrase was in conjunction with those who tried to improve their social and economic status by "proving" a relationship to nobility. With such an inauspicious history, it is no wonder that the modern term, genealogist, is depreciated.

To avoid these historical connotations of unreliability and untrustworthiness, those trying to promote ancestral research have chosen to call the activity "family history." They then spend time and effort to make sure that the public doesn't mistake family historians for common untrustworthy genealogists. In addition, there is a concerted effort by many organizations, both commercial and otherwise, to recast the role of the genealogist as a family historian with an expanded area of activities to be more inclusive that just merely establishing a pedigree. The problem with this approach is that there is even less of a definition for family history. From the promoters standpoint, "family history" is a perfect term because it can be anything you want it to be and how can anyone be against families and history?

When does this change in terminology become a problem? We see this type of activity all the time with what we call "political correctness." Common terms such as "secretary" and "waitress" become unacceptable because of their connotations to the status of women. Garbage dumps become "sanitary landfills" and the examples could go on and on. Did the responsibilities or activities change? No. But the terms can no longer be used in polite society.

This trend is even more pronounced in the world of advertising where huge cultural shifts have occurred merely because of the use of a term. How many diseases and social problems do we have today merely because someone decided they were problems?

Now, is political correctness going to invade the genealogical community? Is it going to become politically incorrect to refer to what we do as "genealogy" because it might be offensive to some market segment or another? In the beginning I ask the question "When does a person become a genealogist?" Now, I ask a similar question, "When and how does a person become a family historian?" Are the two terms inclusive or exclusive? Can I be a family historian and never do any "genealogy?" Do we as genealogists really exclude family history activities. Which term is the more inclusive?

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