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

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Is genealogy now politically incorrect?

I am old enough to remember when my legal secretary became my legal assistant. I can also remember clearly when waiters and waitresses became "servers." Now, it seems that the venerable old term "genealogy" is undergoing the same politically correct make-over in favor of "family history."

When my secretary became a legal assistant, nothing about her job changed, not even her salary. I have no idea if she was happier or felt more important when she went to her job everyday thinking she was now a "legal assistant" and not a mere secretary. This shift in terms is more than just a fashion or trend, it goes much deeper than that. We may joke about how garbage collectors became sanitary engineers, but this whole process is part of larger changes in our society, some of which are neither good nor desirable. One of the more visible socially and politically charged associations with some of these changes has to do with gender roles and perception. The change from waiter and waitress to server is a prime example. But the term "secretary" did not historically infer that the person was either male or female. There is a perception here that changing the label will somehow change the job.

I read a statement recently that clearly stated that family history was important because we learned the stories of our ancestors and not "just genealogy" finding names and dates. I have been doing genealogy for a really long time and that is exactly what I thought I was doing: learning the stories of my ancestors. But apparently, all of the history I have found doesn't count anymore because the term "genealogy" is now going the way of secretary and waiter and I am a genealogist.

But there is a much larger issue here. Genealogy has never been accepted as a valid part of the discipline of history. After all, history is important and genealogy is merely names and dates. Excuse me, but I thought all history was merely genealogy. I always thought those people who were only interested in the elite; presidents, rulers, kings etc. were the ones missing the boat. I thought learning about my family was important not just because they participated in some event considered important or were rich, famous or called themselves nobility.

I had the same thing happen to me when I was finishing my Masters Degree in Linguistics. One of the things I had focused on was the issue of "language universals" or those parts of language that are common to all humans. In other words, what makes language human? I wrote several papers pointing out the similarities between different language structures in unrelated languages. One day, one of my professors sat down with me and explained that at that time, referring to language universals was "politically incorrect," that wasn't the term he used, but that is what he meant. He told me that if I persisted in my interest in "language universals" I would never be able to get a job in the field of linguistics. In the end, that discussion was a major factor in why I ended up being a lawyer rather than a university professor. On that day, the world lost a linguist and gained another trial lawyer. In some cases, perception is more important than reality.

So should I just fold up my interest in genealogy and put it away in a drawer somewhere and quietly go about becoming a "family historian?" Maybe I should take up the politically acceptable pursuit of golf or shuffleboard? After all, aren't I entitled to an "active retirement?" Does that mean I have to change all my business cards and my email address? What I see as the danger here is not merely a change in terminology. There is something more important going on. It is the denigration of the basic function of genealogy; the verification of names, dates and locations, that is at issue. There is a not-too-subtle implication that you can do family history without worrying about such mundane things as names, dates and places. So let's abandon the term "genealogy" so people will be more willing to relate to and discover their ancestors.

Let me clarify, so there is no misunderstanding. I do not mind the term "family history" at all. What I do mind is the implication that somehow genealogists are not part of the "family history" community and that family history can be accomplished without resort to all that "genealogy stuff." There is a further implication that family history somehow magically appears; that stories and photos will continue to be available without the activity of doing all that stuffy, undesirable, old-people associated research. Rather than celebrating all the older participants in genealogy, it is as if the whole idea of "genealogy" is invalidated because its adherents are mostly older.

After all, young people have all those computer skills that automatically qualifies them to do complex historical research. No, I am not "down on the youth." Neither do I feel that I am insulting their intelligence when I point out that genealogy requires certain skills that are generally lacking in the younger population as a whole. But I do think it is time that genealogists push back some and help those who are not so inclined to accept the fact that historical research, no matter what you call it, is a complicated and challenging pursuit. There are those who do it well and those who do not. There are those whose only interest is names and dates, but they are the exception rather than the rule.

Don't throw the baby out with the bath water. Don't make genealogy a bad and politically unacceptable term in your zeal to promote family history. You might just lose the very thing you are seeking. What is the activity you are trying promote by abandoning the term "genealogy?"


  1. The people who are coming up with "new" ideas have too much time on their hands that could be used to do genealogy.

    When did this "political correctness" idea come from anyway? I would not say anything that is not polite or derogatory to anyone.

    Things are still the same no matter what you call it or them.

  2. You've got it exactly right! Family History's Star sounds stupid anyway. I used to be a Genealogist, now I am a Family Historisisst. Is that Historyist or Historist or what? Where is a linguist when you need one?

  3. James, is part of this distinction happening because some who don't do genealogy professionally don't feel comfortable calling themselves genealogists, so others are trying to make it sound less intimidating? Or, maybe because those who run genealogy websites and businesses (software, publishing, etc.) are trying to improve sales through less intimidating terms? (Not that you implied that businesses are the ones who are favoring the term family historian over genealogist.)

    Genealogy isn't just names, dates, and places. That's a big part of it, but it's so much more. It's finding our ancestors personal history and placing it within his/her story and a wider story (the community, national events, etc.) You need the method and skills of genealogy to make sense of the rest of it.

    When I think about it, I am working on my family history. But, I am using the tools that are found in the field of genealogy to help me piece that history together. Even if I am not a professional genealogists, I'm still using genealogy to find my roots. It's still genealogy no matter how you slice and dice it.

  4. I smell marketing behind the term "family history".

  5. Here's a fun discussion about the topic:

    Wikipedians want to merge the two articles "genealogy" and "family history" into one article.

    1. Very entertaining reading. I am not sure I could figure out what to do from that discussion. But, then again, maybe family history really is genealogy (or is it the other way around?). I think it is apparent from the comments to my posts, that most of the commentators have a very narrow view of both family history and genealogy. I wonder if those who attribute the term to the LDS Church understand the usage of the term "family history" in the UK?

    2. That's a good point. I think a factor that influenced the LDS Church's decision to switch to "family history" was knowing that's the terminology in the UK.

  6. Here's my take. "Genealogy" was what Mormons were supposed to "do," and the term took on unpleasant connotations because it was a guilt-laden duty. Most Mormons had no clue how to "do genealogy" but felt guilty about it. Many became allergic to it.

    In part to make genealogy appealing and to shake off the dusty, guilt-laden connotations, LDS genealogy authorities renamed it "family history." It always was family history -- and family history always involved genealogy. it was, indeed, a bit of marketing. (Marketing isn't necessarily evil.)

    The focus also shifted from mere name/date/place collection -- not unique to Mormons, but unfortunately common among Mormons -- to emphasizing understanding our ancestors and our history. This was a healthy shift, particularly as research became something people *could* do because of the availability of records and good software.

    The confound between professional and amateur genealogists is also part of the equation, but is mostly a concern to those of us who obsess over word usage. (Blessing, curse, blessing, curse...)

    The prominence of so many non-Mormons in genealogy has liberated many LDS church members from the unpleasant association between genealogy and guilt. Mormons can now see the enthusiasm and energy among those who love genealogy research for the right reasons -- not because it's a duty on which hangs their eternal salvation, but because it's a joy.

    It's infectious, whatever we call it.

  7. Could it be that the movement to have "family history" supplant "genealogy" is an effort to make everybody "feel good" - to give a stamp of approval to children of single parents, adoptive children of non-traditional unions, sperm donations, etc., so that what matters most is not just names, dates, and places, but how everybody is one part of the human family? And we all live happily ever after? And can't we just all get along?

    As if the facts of your biological heritage don't matter, as if your DNA is irrelevant to your medical conditions. As if adoptees don't have family medical histories. As if truth does not matter so much as feeling happy.

  8. Yes, it could be that there is a gentle attempt to make everybody "feel good" - to give a stamp of approval to children of single parents. This is becoming more obvious with self-proclaimed genealogists who have been unhappy with their place in the traditional family tree. But there are situations where the family tree is "trimmed" to make it beautiful in the eyes of those who create it. Two questions come to mind: (1)Could the passion for "trimmed" family history still viewed as genealogy? (2)Should our education system offer genealogy under their history curriculum?