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

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

What is Genealogical Research? Part Three

In Parts One and Two of this series, I have been discussing some of my thoughts on the definition of research and how genealogical research differs from both legal and scientific research. I have also opened a discussion of the difference between searching and research. In this installment, I would like to continue this discussion and elaborate on some of the unique issues that arise in the context of doing research in genealogy as opposed to other subjects.

From a genealogical standpoint, there is a commonly used outline, sometimes illustrated in chart form, called the Research Cycle. There are several different iterations of the Cycle involving a different number of steps or stages. One rather complex list of steps can be seen in a Research Wiki article entitled "Restart the Research Cycle." There are, at least, a hundred additional articles in the Research Wiki on the same subject. There are several issues when considering all of these different interpretations of the process, especially with the terminology; the words "search" and "research" are sometimes used interchangeably and the word "research" is sometimes used to define itself. In other words you do research by searching and researching. This is not really helpful. It is also evident that the genealogical research cycle is modeled after the scientific method of observation, induction, deduction, testing and evaluation which I have previously argued does not apply to genealogy.

What I am trying to do is get beyond circular reasoning and definitions and define genealogical research in a way that the definition reflects reality. What is it that seasoned or talented genealogists do to find the information they are seeking? Can we separate the theory of research from mere methodology? Is there someway to avoid brute strength searches or what I sometimes call "bulldozer searches" where we just keep going through records one-by-one until we find what we are looking for? Is genealogical research really nothing more than a semi-organized method of searching records?

I think that research moves beyond searching and I am not sure that adhering to the so-called research cycle is the final explanation. That is the reason for this series.

The initial part of the research process involves an awareness that both the objectives and the methodology of doing genealogical research are determined by the availability of records and the need to use those records to document events in our ancestor's lives. Records of a an event can take a variety of forms, but generally arise at or near the time of the event and at or near the location of the event. The jurisdiction of the event is also a determinative factor. So we begin our quest of understanding genealogical research by asking four questions:
  1. What was the nature of the event?
  2. When did the event occur?
  3. Where did the even occur?
  4. Who or what entity had the jurisdiction to report the event?
To illustrate this sequence, I can use the example of a baby born in 1924 in Arizona. At that time, state law required the creation of a birth certificate. So the four questions, are essentially answered by specifying the event, i.e. a birth in 1924, in Arizona, the State of Arizona. Here is a copy of a birth certificate illustrating the answers to the three questions:

This is an extremely simple example and very obvious. But in many cases identifying the event is the only simple part of the sequence. In contrast, the first step in the traditional "Genealogical Research Cycle" is to "Identify What You Know."  What is really meant by this statement is that you gather and organize the information readily available to you from your own personal records and documents. The irony of the statement is that the person to whom the injunction is directed doesn't know this information at all. For example, the budding researcher may not know the dates of birth etc. of his or her grandparents. But that information may be recorded on a document in the researchers possession if the person takes the time to look. I was once searching for my grandfather's military records and after a year or so of searching records, discovered is discharge papers in a pile of documents in box in my own home. The problem here is that I would not have recognized the need for searching for the document until I recognized the need for the information about his military history. I may have looked at the document several times, but until I needed the information, it meant nothing to me.

This example illustrates one of the flaws in the way that research is defined by the Research Cycle. How do you know information is useful until you start looking for it? We all need to begin the process of research by addressing questions raised by missing information. For example, if I note that my own birth date is missing, then I can begin by looking at that fact as an objective. I may or may not find the answer by searching my own records, but where I search is dictated by the nature of the event not simply by what I happen to have available. Can we start research by merely going out and searching? That is what the Research Cycle implies.

Now back to my example of the baby born in 1924. What if I ask the same question and change the date? So the question involves a baby born in Arizona in 1900. Just by changing the date, the answer to the question changes dramatically. The Arizona Genealogy Birth and Death Certificates website purports to have birth records from 1855 to 1938. What is not clearly explained by this website is that statewide registration of births in Arizona did not begin until 1909 and was not generally applied until 1926. This points out the need to address the fourth question above about the entity and jurisdiction.

In a wider sense, there is an inherent trap in sending people off to look at the records they already have recorded. In a real sense, this attitude is exactly what has created the tremendous proliferation of unsourced family trees, that is, copying and re-copying records. So one element of research is the ability to question the authenticity of any record, no matter how reliable it may seem to be. In its simplest form, just because Aunt Jane worked on genealogy all her life, does not mean that any of the information she recorded was correct. So there are two more issues involved in defining genealogical research: knowledge of the existence of records and the ability to discover inconsistencies and inaccuracies.

So now we have something that is uniquely different between genealogy and the other types of research such as law and science. That is our searching process is confined to records that are inherently unreliable to some degree and the only way we can progress is to recognize that unreliability and think in terms of historical consistency. In order to determine historical consistency, we need to have a much wider view of the types of historical records we examine. Here we move into the issue of the reasonably exhaustive search specified by the Genealogical Proof Standard.

So here are a preliminary question that need to be addressed before we can go on further with a definition of genealogical research:
In the historical, social and cultural context of the event, what records could reasonably have been created that would provide information about my ancestor?
There we have where we need to begin our research. The question of whether or not I personally have some of those records in my possession, really cannot be addressed until we know what types of records are important, otherwise, how do I know what records are important and which are not important.

A side note, how many of us are aware of valuable documents that have been destroyed because the people in possession of the documents did not understand their importance in relationship to genealogical research?


  1. Again, another thought provoking post. I was hoping a bit for some magical "research" process that would cause me to change the way I do things.
    I have struggled with the "standard published" research cycle some. Partly because I have found it too slow and requires too much paper. And partly because it seems to have been entirely foreign to those whom I have helped. It seems the fastest way to discourage a newly interested person.
    Personally I like to look for a missing bit of information, find something similar or related and then gather all the info in that area.
    Kind of like the difference between "Googling" something or looking in an encyclopedia. When Googling, you find what you are looking for. In the encyclopedia, you find many things you were not looking for, but may be very relevant.

    1. "I have found it too slow and requires too much paper"
      I can't claim to be familiar with the standard cycle. However, when documenting any process, the danger exists that making it explicit, results in a text that is ten times more lengthy than it takes to actually do the work by instinct. No competent process writer would expect their words to be written down and explicitly ticked off.

      Another aspect of process writing is probably not familiar to most normal people - a process should say "what" is to be done, not "how". The "how" comes when the process is made more explicit as procedures or instructions and it's only at that stage, that anyone should even think of introducing requirements to put something on paper.

      The mark of a good process is that it is equally appropriate to digging a ditch as to digging the Channel Tunnel. Sure, you might not have massive health and safety documents when digging a trench in your garden but I'll bet you decide to put some sensible footwear on before walking into that briar patch, rather than go barefoot.

      What I'm trying to suggest is that you should look at the standard process in terms of thinking about *what* you do, not *how*, and not whether you've written it all down. A research log, for instance, is actually something that should only come in at a more detailed procedural level. If what you're doing is so simple, then ask yourself the question - Can I keep this in my head? If so, why create a "paper" list?

      The other impossibility in writing processes is that anyone doing something in reality will always be hopping back and forth - finding a bit which raises a new question that needs to be answered. Explicit lower-level procedures always get in the way of this back-and-forth flow of work.

      So - use the standard process as *guidance* for *thinking* - if it doesn't need explicit paper for what you're doing, that's fine by me!

    2. Interesting thoughts. Skipping back and forth and using what is found to immediate suggest further searches and so forth is more my style than following any kind of format set down as a research cycle.