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

Sunday, May 18, 2014

What is genealogical research? Part One

Before we can improve our own genealogical research skills or teach other, we need to have a basic understanding of the research process. Next, we need an understanding of how that research process is implemented using online sources. Finally, we need to move beyond a theoretical knowledge of the subject and practice the process until we obtain the skills necessary for mastery. To start on this path, the first step is understanding research. What is research and more particularly, what is genealogical research?

During my life, I have been involved in a lot of different types of research. For more than forty years, I did "legal research." This particular type of activity was mis-named since there was little or no actual research involved. What passed as research in the legal community was searching for cases that supported your client's position in a lawsuit or potential lawsuit. This was based on the concept of stare decisis, inherited from the English Common Law. The idea is that when a judge in a court of record makes a written decision, the opinion expressed in the decision becomes binding on judges making subsequent similar decisions. So, the job of the legal researcher is to find support for his or her case. One limitation is that ethically, the legal researcher cannot ignore or fail to call to the Court's attention cases that oppose the one being researched.

This is essentially the antithesis of what we are talking about when we use the term "genealogical research." In addition, genealogical research differs substantially from scientific research despite repeated attempts in the genealogical writings to claims of using the scientific method or research in genealogy. Simply using the same terms to refer to an activity does not make them the same. Legal research is not the same as scientific research and scientific research is definitely not the same as genealogical research. The similarities are sometimes emphasized at the expense of twisting the terminology into submission to a particular opinion.

One thing the different types of activities collectively referred to as "research" have in common is the idea of searching. The searching part of research is the methodology used by the people participating in the activity. The activity is defined by its objective. In other words, the type of research you are doing is determined by what you are looking for. In the legal profession, as in every other type of activity branded as research, there are extremely varying degrees of ability and success as researchers.

Another concept common to all types of research is the idea of moving from the known to the unknown. However, the key difference here is the quality of the unknown. In Law, the unknown is merely a collection of relevant cases. In our modern age, nearly every possible legal authority is exhaustively reproduced online. A complete transcript of every single case ever recorded is available to be searched on huge database programs such as West Law. The amount of information in these huge online databases is staggering. It has been some time, but I have pointed out in the past, that a West Law search can have valuable genealogical content.

This idea of moving from the known to the unknown is really one of the very few things the different types of activities called research have in common. Stripped down to their absolute essentials, here are the objectives of the three types of research I have mentioned so far:

Legal Research - the objective of legal research is to find case law (wording in certain cases) that supports the claims made by an attorney's client in a legal dispute.

Scientific Research - the objective of scientific research is to discover the laws that govern the physical world and then understand how those laws function in order to predict how the laws apply to our physical existence.

Genealogical or historical research -- the objective of genealogical research is to gather specific information about specific individuals from historical records and organize and preserve such information.

All types of research are by their nature repetitious activities. The research does essentially the same thing over and over again, until the objective is obtained. Presently, legal research deals with a finite body of records that are growing each day as new law cases are decided, new laws passed and new regulations made. But every last case can be completely searched using the powerful online tools available. Legal research is nothing more or less than citing law cases. There are very, very few surprises, only innovative new arguments. But there is enough new law all the time to make the process mildly interesting.

Since scientific research deals with the unknown, unrecorded and untested, it is substantially different. An experienced lawyer almost always knows enough about his or her own area of the law to accurately predict what the case law will say on any given controversy. Scientists seldom know anything about the objects of their research and new discoveries are constantly overturning established theories and assumptions.

Genealogical research consists of searching historical documents for clues and information about individuals and families. It differs from legal research in that the corpus of the research is scattered around the world and is far from being entirely known and available for easy access. Even the largest genealogical database programs have only a small percentage of all the available records. In this, genealogical research is much, much more interesting than legal research. In genealogy, there is always more information to discover. In Law, it is all cut and dried. The cases are all there and the only differences between attorneys are their individual abilities to find those cases and then exploit them.

From my standpoint of doing both legal research and genealogical research for many, many years, I can say absolutely, they have little in common other than the idea of searching records.

So, now we do have some general things we can say about all of the differing types of research.

1. They all involve searching.
2. They all involve moving from the known to the unknown.
3. They all involve making a record of what is found in some fashion.
4. They each require a set of learned skills that vary according to the experience and ability of the researcher.

In some ways, legal research and genealogical research have more in common than scientific research. There is one part of the scientific research process however, that is similar. The scientist has to do a historical review to see what other scientists have already discovered about the subject under investigation. This review or survey is also a common activity, but very limited in scope in the scientific community and not the objective of the research at all. Whereas, in both law and genealogy, seeing what has already been recorded is the objective of the search.

So, genealogical research is a structured activity aimed at discovering the content of records and documents scattered around the world. It is distinctive from other activities called research in its objectives and the corpus of its search efforts. But it is also fundamentally different than research in the legal and scientific fields.

Stay tuned for Part Two.


  1. Stephen J. Danko, PhD scientist with many years of experience conducting bench-level experimentation, notes in "Applying The Scientific Method to Genealogical Research (Part 2)"; that: "But, when can a researcher apply The Scientific Method to help answer a genealogical question? The answer is simple. The Scientific Method can be applied to any genealogical research problem for which the researcher can develop a testable hypothesis. First, one needs to have some information and resources from which to form the hypothesis. This information may be in the form of some anecdotal evidence, in the form of primary information obtained from an original source, or in the form of any one of many other sources. The hypothesis should be expressed as a statement of fact, so that one may later determine whether or not the results support or refute the statement."

    When one performs the experiment and collects the data in a genealogical study, one doesn’t generally go into a laboratory and conduct an experiment on the laboratory bench top. The experiment in a genealogical sense is usually a search of the relevant records, although other methods such as interviews or mathematical calculations may also be appropriate. The genealogist then analyzes the information obtained, interprets the information, and draws conclusions from the information."

    1. You are anticipating my next post, but I must say that I will show how I disagree with your quote. Sorry. We all have our opinions.