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

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Can Genealogy Become a Recognized Field of Academic Investigation?

I guess one of the first questions that needs to be addressed is whether anyone cares about genealogy becoming an academically recognized discipline? Next, what would be consequences of the acceptance of genealogy in academic circles? Why is genealogy now considered to be outside of the academic purview? I ran across a Mission Statement of the International Institute for Jewish Genealogy and Paul Jacobi Center at the National Library of Israel, Givat Ram Campus of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem that states:
The International Institute for Jewish Genealogy is committed to developing Jewish genealogy into a recognized field of academic investigation, within the realm of Jewish Studies and in association with a broad range of other sciences on an inter-disciplinary basis. 
It seeks to do this by conducting scholarly research into all aspects of Jewish genealogy, both independently and collaboratively with other institutions and social scientists, as well as by promoting the teaching of Jewish genealogy at university level. 
In so doing, the Institute aspires to enrich and advance the work of family historians and, at the same time, make a meaningful contribution to the future of the Jewish People by nurturing and enhancing its roots.
I also found an expansion of this idea in a paper entitled, "Jewish Genealogy - The Challenge before Us," by Neville Lamdan. I was interested to find out if there are any other academic institutions or organizations with the same or similar goal? In the Lamdan paper, he makes the following comment:
For many here this evening, possibly most, it may be almost self-evident that Jewish Genealogy is an academic discipline. But let's be honest with ourselves – this is by no means the prevailing view at universities in Israel and around the world. 
I would certainly agree with this assessment. I have written in the past about some of the underlying reasons why genealogy is not generally accepted as an academic discipline. For example, a recent book on the history of genealogy, Weil, François. Family Trees: A History of Genealogy in America. 2013, was written by a French scholar. I think this was likely the only way this type of publication could be written given the atmospheres of the academic community in the United States about genealogy and its acceptance as a valid discipline.

I am sure there are those that fear that establishing genealogy as an academic discipline will adversely affect its popularity as an activity for the "masses." But is this even an issue? I can be as interested as I care to be in the history of the United States, but it is also a valid inquiry for academia. I don't see acceptance as a valid discipline lessening genealogy's appeal. I see acceptance as an academic discipline and a fundamental step in establishing some generally applicable realistic standards of proof and evidence.

This discussion is not taking place in a vacuum. See the following for another example:

A White Paper, Theory Development and Historical Antecedents in the Field of Generational Family Matrix Research by Carl Edwin Lindgren, DEd, FCP (London), FRAL, FRSA and LaWanna Lease Blount, PhD, FColT.

I can guess that you might question my involvement in this type of discussion given some of my previous comments about "people with letters after their names" but since I happen to be one of those people, I feel I am qualified to enter into this type of discussion.


  1. It is amazing to see the power of the Internet at work. James Tanner has picked up on an address I made on the viability of genealogy as an academic subject, at a symposium held in Jerusalem in September 2006. However, the debate on the topic has moved on since, mainly among Jewish genealogists (as far as I know). Here is a brief selection of articles that have appeared on the issue:
    Elizabeth Shown Mills, Samford University Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research, “History and the New Discipline of Genealogy: Prospects for Synergism”
    Wagner, H. Daniel, “Genealogy as an Academic Discipline”, Avotaynu, xxii, 1 (Spring 2006), 3-12
    Jones, Thomas W. “Postsecondary Study of Genealogy: Curriculum and Its Contents”, Avotaynu, xxiii, 3 (Fall 2007), 17-23
    Lamdan, Neville, “Jewish Genealogy: Moving Towards Recognition as a Sub-branch of Jewish Studies”, Avotaynu, xxv, 2 (Summer 2009), 3-8
    Lupovitch, Howard, “The Jews of Óbuda, Miskolc and Pest: A Grassroots Genealogical Approach”, , RESEARCH/Hungarian Protocols/final report (June 2011)
    Hershkovitz, Arnon, “Leveraging Genealogy as an Academic Discipline”, Avotaynu, xxvii, 3 (Fall 2011), 18-24.
    As a practical matter, it cannot be judged whether the discussion has influenced attitudes in the academic world, especially among historians and social scientists. However, there are some positive signs:
    1. University courses in genealogy are being offered more frequently (although they remain sadly few and far between).
    2. In the Jewish case, there is growing acceptance of Jewish genealogy as a legitimate field of study at major conferences on Jewish Studies.
    3. Some academics working in the exact sciences have taken up the challenge and set out to demonstrate that genealogy can be conducted scientifically – witness , for example, Daniel Wagner (ed.), Selected Lectures on Genealogy: an Introduction to Scientific Tools (Weizmann Institute of Science, Rehovot, Israel, 2013).
    It would be of interest if others can point to additional publications on the issue and also to other signs of changing attitudes in academia.

    Dr. Neville Lamdan, Chair, Executive Committee, International Institute for Jewish Genealogy, Jerusalem

    1. Thank you so much for the links. I will see which ones I can find and read. This is very helpful. I will likely have more to comment on.