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

Sunday, April 21, 2013

What is Research? Looking beyond the survey

I recently asked the question, "What is Genealogy?" Now I ask a more difficult and important question, "What is Research?" I think it is easier to think of activities that are not genealogical research than the other way around. Let me start with a hypothetical example:
I very well know my own birthdate, but to confirm that date for government purposes or whatever, I dig out my birth certificate or request a copy from the State Department of Vital Records where I was born? Am I doing research? Even though I already knew the date?
How you answer this question depends on your understanding of the research cycle and the goals of research in general. For much of this discussion, I am going to rely on ideas and concepts covered in that fundamental genealogical reference book,

Greenwood, Val D. The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy. Baltimore, MD: Genealogical Pub. Co, 2000.

Greenwood defines research as follows:
An investigation aimed at the discovery and the interpretation of facts and also the revision of accepted theories in light of new facts. 
So, it seems to me, that research is something more than simply confirming an already known fact by doing some investigation. So let me change my hypothetical example a little and see where that take us:
I think I know my father's birthdate and we have celebrated his birthday every year on a certain date, but when he dies, I find his birth certificate among his personal papers and the date is different than the one we had always celebrated. 
(By the way, these fact situations are purely hypothetical and do not reflect any of my own family situations directly)

Did my chance finding of his birth certificate constitute research on my part? Does research depend on my prior knowledge at all? Does research involve something more than correcting misinformation? Does it matter that I wasn't looking for a correction to his birthdate? Is the second example closer to research than the first example?

Let's move on to another more complex hypothetical.
I have only a vague idea about my family. I know my parents' names but only know some of the names of my grandparents. I find a book in my parents' home that talks about my father's family going back many generations. I am fascinated by the book and borrow it to copy out some information about my family.
Is my examination of the book and copying out information considered to be research? At this point, I think many, if not most, of the genealogical community would say yes. I have started to do research. But if we look at Greenwood's definition carefully, I think we would have to answer this question differently. This takes us into what is commonly referred to as the Research Cycle. It also brings up some important differences in what is considered research by those involved in the scientific community as opposed to those who are in the humanities including history. But in either case, the scientific or the historical, research involves an important preliminary step, usually called the survey. 

In a survey, we are trying to determine what is already known. In genealogical research this involves reviewing what our family has already preserved or accumulated. The fact that I, personally, do not know those facts is irrelevant to the issue of research. I am not plowing the field for the first time, I am merely following where others have already gone before. Research involves more than copying what others have already discovered. Any search for information can only be considered to be research when it moves beyond what is presently known. But, you argue, if I don't know a fact, isn't my search really "research" for me? Well, we could argue that for days, but merely copying what has already been written or published is not considered research. 

That is the reason the survey. Let's carry the hypothetical a little further.
As I read the surname book I found in my parents' house, I discover that the date given for my father's birth is not the same as the one on his birth certificate. They are off by years, not merely a day or month. I immediately assume that the book is wrong and forget about the issue. 
At this point, we get to the issue of sources. Why do you automatically reject the book and believe the birth certificate? Could the birth certificate be wrong and the book reflect the correct date? The answer to this question is surely yes, but here is where, for the first time in these hypotheticals that we move into the realm of research. But in most cases, despite the conflict, the researcher is still in the survey stage.

Looking to wording from the Genealogical Proof Standard, a reasonably exhaustive search assumes the examination of a wide range of high quality sources.  Is my examination of a birth certificate and a surname book, a reasonably exhaustive search? Not likely. Quoting again from Greenwood, page 6:
Another thing we can readily observe from this research cycle is that many would-be genealogists do not use all of the steps required for complete research. Too many spend their entire efforts on secondary research, thinking they are all that can be and needs to be done when they are copying the records of others and searching old family histories. 
This statement certainly applies today to those who merely copy online family trees and think they are doing genealogical research. There is a lot more to be said on this subject, now that I am started in on it again. During the month of May, I will be teaching a number of classes at the Mesa FamilySearch Library that could be considered to be a research series. There are thirteen classes scheduled and I will be reviewing those classes and my preparation by writing blog posts during the next few days and throughout the month of May. If you are in Mesa, you are invited to attend some or all of the classes and we can discuss these issues more fully. 

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