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

Friday, February 14, 2014

Genealogy -- Art, Science or Neither?

Some time ago I wrote a post on this topic and a recent comment sparked my interest again in addressing the ideas I was addressing at the time, but perhaps from a more developed viewpoint.

Art is usually defined as follows:
the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.
Doesn't sound much like genealogy. But the problem is that there is no universal consensus as to what is and what is not art. So perhaps, it might be just as difficult to decided what is and what is not genealogy?

Now, what about science? Here is a one of the common definitions:
the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.
But on the other hand, science also has a multitude of definitions and one of them is:
a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject.
This could work. Genealogy might be a science if the term is used as generally as possible. If we take this one step further, we get the definition of "social science."
the scientific study of human society and social relationships.
Hmm. That seems to be getting closer to what I am thinking about. History is a social science, so how does genealogy relate to history? Here is the definition of history:
a branch of knowledge that records and explains past events
Sounds to me like we are on the track of something here. Genealogy falls into the category of history which is part of social science. Wait. I am assuming that history is a social science. Is it? After a bit of searching, there seems to be a lot of disagreement on that account. History, as a study, is sometimes lumped in with something called Art and Humanities. Wikipedia seems to think that history is a social science. See Wikipedia: List of social sciences. Let's take this a little further, quoting from the Wikipedia article on history:
History can also refer to the academic discipline which uses a narrative to examine and analyse a sequence of past events, and objectively determine the patterns of cause and effect that determine them.
There seems to be a fair measure of obfuscation and disagreement at each step in this investigation. I find yet another term; Liberal Arts and Sciences. So what are liberal arts and sciences? I decided to check out what my local university, Arizona State University, had to say on the subject:
Just as ASU is positioning itself as a model of the New American University, the college is redefining liberal arts education for the 21st century. Along with such traditional core departments as chemistry, English, physics and psychology, the college has created a number of transdisciplinary schools that facilitate the creation of new knowledge across disciplinary boundaries. Among these are the schools of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Earth and Space Exploration, Human Evolution and Social Change, International Letters and Cultures, and Social and Family Dynamics.
Apparently genealogy doesn't seem to be included in all that mumbo jumbo. A search on the term "genealogy" at ASU brings up a class in American Indian Genealogy which is part of something called American Indian Studies. I guess only Indians have genealogy at ASU.

Now what is the point of all this? And my usual question, what has all this got to do with genealogy? One of the recurring issues in the genealogical community is the acceptability of Genealogy as an academic discipline. Maybe we don't really want what we think we do? Maybe we don't want to be found competing with majors such as "Ethnicity, Race and First Nations Studies."


  1. The terminology is a mess, I agree James. At least part of the wall-building is to protect the intellectual standing of certain people. I spent a good few minutes thinking about your observation, though.

    In reality, science is more about the acquisition of knowledge, and the evidence-base approach to it, than the knowledge itself. That is, scientific study involves objective observation and measurement, together with an attempt to explain those observations, and maybe making predictions using that knowledge. From that point of view, scientific study can be applied to the fundamentals of the universe (physics), chemistry, biology, geology, history, genealogy, CSI, etc.

    Of course, whether this idealised mode of study is really practiced in these fields, and whether their reports clearly separate observation from conjecture, is an easy target for debate.

    1. I guess my point was that it may not be quite so possible as it seems to get "genealogy" accepted as an academic study if the academics can't agree on what they are talking about.

    2. I understood your point James -- I was just trying to look at it from a different angle. A scientific approach to study is something available and accessible to all of us, irrespective of qualifications and post-nominal letters.

      I wonder if genealogy will ever be accepted by the so-called academics. Did you ever read my very first blog post (it was on this subject, and covering the experience of a historian who was also a genealogist)? Because the field is populated by many types of qualified person (incl. history, genealogy, IT, science, law, etc), and is directly accessible to hobbyists of all levels of standing, then it seems unlikely -- unless, that is, that the academic edition can be distinguished by name, e.g. "micro-history".

    3. Yes, I did read it. I just feel obligated to bring up the subject from time to time :-)

  2. I believe your premises are all inclusive. This act of "discovering" is perhaps the most innate of all human qualities. To say it is either art or science is missing the point. The idea of art to say we are creating "something out of nothing" is incorrect, we are in fact influenced by our surroundings, tools we use, behavior at the time of creation, etc. to "physically" create what earlier was only a thought in our minds. On the side of science we are discovering the workings of the universe. They are already there we just need to find them. In genealogy we are discovering ourselves—our ancestors were there all along, we just needed the tools to allow that to happen.

    Art and science is just discovering taken at different angles. Genealogy is interesting in that we discovering ourselves in a way that attacks the root of the tree of who we are as individuals (pun unintended).

    1. Interesting comment. I always believed that genealogy was all about self discovery. Finding the ancestors was incidental to the greater search.