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

Friday, August 9, 2013

Is there a difference between Genealogy and Family History?

I have always considered the term "family history" to be a politically corrected version of the term "genealogy" for the purpose of sanitizing genealogy for the general public and increasing its appeal. Not that this is at all a bad idea, but sometimes the implications of politically correct terms are more serious than just a name change. This is an issue that refuses to go away. The question is raised again by Nathan Murphy in an article on the FamilySearch Blog entitled, "What is the Difference between Genealogy and Family History."

My concern about the change or adjustment in the terms is the current expression of the subject by many people that they are glad that we don't have to do genealogy any more because we have family history. In this context, the people making this statement are insinuating that the practice of genealogy is no longer desirable and that switching to "family history" will avoid all of the negative associations of genealogy: i.e. work, research, sources, accuracy, ancestors and all that.

As Nathan states however, the use of the terms may reflect regional or ethnic differences also. Quoting from his article:
Another interesting idea – how are the terms used differently in British English and American English? In the United Kingdom, a society dedicated to discovering one’s ancestors is called a “family history society.” In the United States, the same group is referred to as a “genealogical society.” Are there any real differences in the activities and purposes of these organizations? Or is this simply a difference between British English and American English?
The comments in response to Nathan's article are predictable with some attempting to distinguish the two by attributing an emphasis to stories to the term "family history" and making the assumption that genealogy (and genealogists) somehow ignore the "fun or interesting" parts of the family for the dry old stuff like names, dates and relationships. To the extent that those who consciously use the term "family history" in an attempt to denigrate genealogy, the term is not just a harmless alternative. There is a marked division by some of the comments that the lives and stories of our ancestors has no part in "genealogy." To this extent, the attempt is to make genealogy go away as a negative and hardly useful activity.

In a response to a comment, Nathan says, "I’m wondering if the idea that there are weird people out there only interested in pedigrees is a myth." I assume this is a question. My answer is that if it is a myth, it is a really alive and persistent myth. I used to think people avoided me because I was a lawyer. Now that I do genealogy virtually full time, I realize that they are avoiding me because I am a genealogist.

To those who believe that the term genealogy should disappear, I would suggest they rethink their opinion and understand that the terms are essentially and for all practical purposes referring to exactly the same thing. On the other hand if they think genealogists should disappear, I suggest that ask themselves where all the stories are going to come from if no one does the research?


  1. We should all remember that political correctness is nothing more than censorship. As Rush says, "words mean things".


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  3. Thanks for continuing the conversation James!

  4. From the Society of Genealogists at

    "Many, including the Society of Genealogists, use the terms genealogy and family history interchangeably. However there are slight difference in definition:-


    Establishment of a Pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next. (In essence, this means the discipline of the construction of a valid family tree)

    Family History:

    A biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived. (In essence, this means the writing of a biography of a series of related ancestors of common genealogy. Family History incorporates Genealogy)"

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  6. I tend to think of genealogy as names & dates and of family history as the story of who they were and how they got where they are. But perhaps genealogy is the larger term and the history as just a part of that.

  7. Certainly in its literal sense, Genealogy is different from Family History James, although "all things genealogical" has become rather a loose concept that encompasses more.

    You can find a few of my own references and quotes on the subject at:

    Most of the discussion concerning the merging of the Wikipedia pages for Family History and Genealogy discussion can still be found on the 'Talk' pages for the Genealogy page (

  8. From the UK's side of the Atlantic, yes there is a difference between "genealogy" and "family history", but in practical terms, they mean much the same thing and no-one worries much about it. But I am seriously not sure what Americans mean by those two terms.

    In the UK, so far as I know (and this is all unsourced, personal opinion!), genealogy was the original term. Genealogists of the 1800s and earlier virtually all studied titled families or other landed gentry. I remember reading of one noted genealogist who'd recorded gravestones in a churchyard. Such records from that far back would have been gold-dust. Alas, after just half-a-dozen stones had been listed, he finished with the phrase "No other persons of quality were noted." Gee thanks.

    About the end of the 19th, start of the 20th, a number of UK genealogists felt strongly that the genealogies of ordinary people could be just as interesting. They advocated studying the complete stories of these people - their social situations, work, involvement in military matters. This wider view was called "family history".

    I guess the genealogies of the Great And Good (and not-so-Good) didn't need to cover their family histories as they were already there in "proper" history books.

    So, over here, genealogy, as a term and practice, became replaced by family history, so much so that the original meaning of genealogy is generally lost and only occasionally would anyone make a deliberate distinction. As Nathan said, most societies over here are Family History Societies.

    The switch in emphasis between genealogies of titled and landed families to family histories of ordinary people is exemplified by the library of the Society of Genealogists - a rare use of the G-word. In living memory, volumes like Burke's Peerage held centre stage in the Library. Today, they are so seldom consulted that they are stuffed away in a corner to allow easier access to more popular works.

    I confess to being quite confused over the USA's use of the two terms. Unlike the general situation in the UK, where no-one seems to worry much about it, the USA does seem to draw a distinction quite often. From where I'm sitting, there seems little difference in what the two groups study - rather, it's how the study is done. Genealogists are the ones with Elizabeth Shown Mills open on their desk. They have qualifications. And yes, I'm sorry, but one or two have looked down on family historians who simply collect names in Ancestry. At least, that's how it looks to me. Sadly, I think there's also a converse that people who regard themselves as family historians.... Well, you said it James, at the top of your post.

  9. Great article. I wondered that myself.

    Laura Hedgecock

  10. While I almost always agree with you, this is one time I can't, sorry. To me Genealogy is the science, it's the who's related to who, where were they, etc, it's the skeleton or the basis that Family History is built on. But, to me Family History takes it a step further, it is putting family in time and place, pictures, stories, and everything else that makes people alive, it goes way beyond relationships. I consider myself a Family Historian, but the basis that Family History is built on is the science of Genealogy.