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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Do Genealogical Brick Walls have cultural roots?

I am perfectly aware that the title to this post is an outrageous mixture of metaphors. But it does say what I wanted to say. The issue is whether or not our ability to research ancestors is limited by our cultural world view? I would submit that in many cases, our ability to do research is limited by a number of concerns, but ultimately by our culture.

Whether or not we become interested in any particular activity is highly culturally based. In some cultures, there is no concept of "free time." If you are living at a subsistence level and working each day to feed yourself and your family, you do not have the luxury of spending time on an economically non-productive pursuit such as genealogy. Our culture in the United States, to the contrary, has produced an abundance of older people who are essentially forcefully moved out of the economic system and warehoused, thereby giving them ample time to make decisions about their "leisure time" activities. For example, in the United States we start paying people at age 62 to get out of the work force. Presently, young adults graduating from colleges and universities are being advised to "plan for their retirement." OK, that's probably enough to set the stage for this discussion.

Lately there has been a huge amount of discussion in the genealogical community about involving a "younger" group of people in family history. Unfortunately, the activity of genealogy has become firmly established as something people do after retirement. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the statement that "I will start doing my genealogy as soon as I retire." I just did a genealogy presentation at one of these age related cultural manifestations of our society; a retirement community. I have never been asked to speak to a group of people under the age of 30 from any type of organization about genealogy except "youth" who have been brought as a group to a FamilySearch Library. This activity, of course, was initiated by adults.

We have a culture that is saturated with the concept of "retirement" and for better or worse "genealogy" in its entirety has become intimately associated with the retirement culture. But I want to carry that pervasive cultural bias one step further. I submit that many of the problems associated with genealogical research are also culturally affected. These cultural influences extend way beyond the retirement culture into multiple aspects of our society.

Let me define a genealogical "brick wall." I define a brick wall as the inability to formulate a continuing research plan that includes documents that will produce evidence about an ancestor. Giving up is not a brick wall. Our cultural bias often precludes us from viewing individual ancestors as they existed in the greater communities of which they were a part. For example, I had a patron in a class this week comment that he "never looked a land records because they were too hard to decipher." Our culture does not emphasize researching in libraries and online as a "leisure" activity. To many of my friends, genealogy looks too much like work and that is what they are looking forward to avoiding in retirement.

Another cultural barrier that adds to the "brick wall" issues is the woeful lack of formal education in history and geography. In Mesa, a student can get through four years of high school and take only one class in U.S. history and one half year or less class in geography. We make education choices in our society based on our cultural values. Add this to the fact that very few of us live anywhere near the homes of our ancestors and we create a situation where the present day population of the U.S. has little or not sense of the past. I frequently see statements in the news streams about a current situation being the first time something has happened such as a scandal of some kind, when with a little bit of historical perspective the person writing the article might have recognized that the present situation was not nearly as bad as some historical instances of the same behavior.

So what we get from this and other cultural issues is an inability of researchers to see beyond the names and dates to the historical and social setting of their ancestors. When I suggest they might want to read a county or state history before they continue researching, they look at me like I had suggested they do something awful and totally unacceptable.

Our cultural biases become an impediment to our research. Now I am writing generally not specifically. There are always exceptions. I may be the last adult male in the U.S. who has never seen an entire professional football game.

I can keep going on this topic indefinitely.

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