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

Monday, May 19, 2014

What is Genealogical Research? Part Two

Research is a very specific activity. It is more than mere searching. It involves a number of related skills. Although some people are better than others in their research skills, it is primarily a learned activity. The methods used to teach research skills in high schools are generally ineffective. They are really more anti-research than educational. There are no "learn research in ten days" courses because it takes quite an extended period of time to acquire the necessary understanding of the process and the skills necessary.

Before getting into an analysis of the skills involved, I think it is important to distinguish between searching on the Internet and doing research. Searching online requires its own set of skills, but do not think because you are adept at searching on the Internet that it automatically makes you a good researcher. Research skills have existed for centuries and do not depend on electronic gadgetry. However, if you are a good researcher, you can enhance those skills by adding the ability to search online. Online research mainly accelerates the process by opening up the ability to search a wider range of sources in a shorter period of time. But speeding up the searching process and making more sources available does not automatically convert into improved research skills.

In my previous post on this subject, I discussed some of the differences between legal, scientific and genealogical or historical research skills. In the genealogical community, there has been a consistent trend to overlay genealogical research with the terms and jargon used in both law and science. As I pointed out, there are fundamental differences between the objectives of the three disciplines. Attempts to apply the "scientific method" to genealogical research are misguided. Likewise, attempts to mold genealogical research into a legal model are also misguided. There is very little in common between these entirely different disciplines. If you are a lawyer, you might think it helpful to look at genealogy from a legal perspective. Likewise, if you have scientific background, you tend to emphasize the similarities between genealogical research methodology and the scientific method and begin to believe that genealogy can be done scientifically. In my opinion, neither law nor science have much to offer to genealogical research process even though they share some of the same specific skills.

Why am I flying in the face of the huge body of genealogical writings analyzing research in terms of law or science? I have spent a lifetime analyzing how and why I do certain things. I have a strong legal background and a moderately strong scientific background. I have been involved in genealogical research now for over thirty years and I guess I have had a considerable period of time to get opinionated.

One of the first steps in acquiring research skills is to learn to distinguish between theory and methodology. In theory, genealogical research involves the discovery and examination of a series of source documents with the intent of extracting a workable and consistent chronology of an ancestor's life. As documentary and historical evidence is accumulated, the ancestral story is refined. Traditionally, genealogists are viewed as focusing primarily on facts, such as dates, places and names, this may have been true for some researchers in the past, but recent trends have pushed genealogy towards including a larger and more inclusive view of the historical context of the complete ancestral story.

Methodology is primarily a body of practices, procedures and rules set down, in the case of genealogy, partially by tradition and partially by proscription. An example of a procedure with its attached rules would be the process of recording sources and the accompanying practice of citation. It is the common tendency of those who deem themselves to be the "authorities" in any given pursuit, to attempt to impose their own methodology on the entire discipline. Hence, the proliferation of guides and standards.

Those of a scientific bent would claim that the scientific method of postulating a hypothesis and then designing experiments to confirm, deny or modify that hypothesis (or theory) applies to genealogy. In fact, it is undeniable that every ancestor in everyone's pedigree existed. We all have two parents, four grandparents, etc. Until we have done the research into our ancestors' history, we cannot form any sort of hypothesis. The recent addition of DNA testing into the genealogical process has led some to believe that science can now take an active part in determining ancestral relationships. But the results of a DNA test even when compared to a huge body of the results of other tests, cannot identify an individual ancestor without the concomitant genealogical research. DNA is merely one more source of potential information and does not convert genealogy into a science.

The problem with any discussion of this particular subject is that the terms are slippery. For example, I have used the term "theory" in two completely different ways so far in this post. In the scientific sense, a theory is a logical explanation of observed events or facts. The other use of the word is when I referred to the difference between theory and methodology. In that context, the theory of genealogy is the objective the pursuit is trying to achieve. In other words, the theory of genealogical pursuit is the objective the activity is designed to achieve, that is, the story of our ancestors' lives with as much detail as it is possible to discover.

Each genealogical researcher designs his or her own objective.

There is one more genealogical activity that needs to be identified, that is the analysis of the discovered sources. Science and law deal with prediction. A scientist observes that an object falls at a measurable rate and then extends that observation into a hypothesis that all bodies will fall at the same rate if the circumstances are the same. The scientist then goes on to make predictions about unobserved falling objects. This brief example illustrates the huge gulf between science and genealogy. A genealogist could observe all the living people in the world and that would still tell him or her very little or perhaps nothing about the history of their ancestors. If you were to observe me today, there is no way, short of doing genealogical research, that you would know that some of my ancestors came from Denmark. Aha, you now say. Here is where DNA comes in. But wait. DNA testing can tell me if I have a certain percentage of markers that may indicate Scandinavian blood and predictions are that sometime in the future with enough data, they may be able to tell me what part of any given country my ancestors came from. But nowhere does DNA testing tell me anything about my ancestors as living, breathing, historical figures. Again, overlaying a scientific source of information onto genealogy does not may it into a science.

If we are going to fault genealogists for being interested in only "names and dates" then DNA is no help. It merely substitutes another form of specialized and limited data.

It is time to move on to a more complete definition of genealogical research. Let's begin with the concept of a source. Genealogical research is, in part, the process of searching for and examining sources. So, unlike science and to some extent, law, genealogy is inseparably connected to its historical sources. Since the human memory is one of these sources, and since these sources are records created by humans, they are not infallible. Here we see the distinction between science and genealogy. If I am measuring a physical event, such as the freezing point of water, this experiment can be reproduced by any other researcher and the scientific method relies on the reproducibility of such experiments. In contrast, in genealogy, there is no reproducibility. If I find a specific reference to an event in my ancestor's life, that is unique. Although, if I reproduce the document, other researchers cannot go out and go through some fixed process to create the same kind of document. In addition, the document may not be accurate at all. I may have to find several documents in order to establish a reasonable basis for establishing a birth date or I may never find such documents.

Think about this. What if a scientist was measuring the freezing temperature of water and the found that it changed every time the experiment was conducted (by the way this happens)? Anyone who wanted to explain the discrepancies could reproduce the same experiments and eventually, the issue of the changes in the freezing point of water would become explained (as they have been). But in genealogy, there may not be any further information about the birth of the ancestor. No amount of searching or discovery will ever answer the question. Why? Because genealogists are not working with physical reality, they are working with man-made records which may be both wrong and unique at the same time.

Because this difference in the fundamental nature of genealogical searches is not obvious, unless a researchers has experience in more than one type of research including genealogical research, this type of difference will be overlooked. No matter how you look at it, genealogy is far from exact. There is no predictive power in the research. People do very unpredictable things. People live and die at odd times and in odd places. Permit me another contrast. When I do legal research, I always know what I am looking for, that is, I am looking for wording in a legal case that supports my client's view of a dispute. I may or may not find what I am looking for. I may find that my client is wrong. But the subject of the search is always the same. The results are always predictable and the number of cases is always finite.

Historical records are entirely outside of this type of predictability. Was the record created? Who knows before a search is made. Was the record preserved? Again, who knows before the search is made. The answer may be written on a piece of paper and tucked away in a book or printed on a form from a school or church. Genealogy deals in generalities and possibilities. There is always the possibility that the subject of your search does not exist. In law, if no specific wording exists to support your client's position, you can create that wording yourself. When I was starting out as an attorney, I went to my father, who was also an attorney, with a legal issue I could not support by citing an existing case. After a short discussion, he asked me what I wanted to prove. I told him and he said then make your argument and then that will be the law on that subject. In other words, argue for a change or extension in the existing law.

No matter how much we would like this to work in genealogy, it will not. I cannot make up a birth date and then argue that is it correct. I can only draw conclusions from existing documents. I could argue that the birth date had to fall within a particular range of dates, but nothing I do will change the fact that the specific information is lacking. In law, however, when my case is decided in my favor, my opinion becomes the law. Of course, that will only last until the law changes again. There is a real, substantial difference here. In genealogy, I may find a document that answers the question and proves me wrong. In law, even if some judge somewhere disagrees with my opinion, my opinion will still be the law until it is overturned. So the law can change from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. But if my ancestor was born on a specific date, that is not subject to differing opinions. It happened. The fact that there is uncertainty in law, science and genealogy does not make them the same.

The next topic in this series deals with the concept of a search and how searching is expanded into research.


  1. Interestingly, you don't mention R&D (research & development) in the context of genealogical research James. It is tempting for this to be written off as 'software research' but the gathering of functional requirements, international considerations, and difficult "edge cases", all contradict this. I only mention this because there are precious few forums where people discuss this type of "research".

    1. This is a very long post and quite complicated. I am not really very far along yet. I will keep writing. Though I will probably lose my audience before long. :-)

  2. 1. Science is about generalisations - e.g. the behaviour of all particles when one reverses the polarity of the neutron flux (that is gobbledygook, by the way). Genealogy is about one person at a time - the commonality of their behaviour lies in biology or economics or something else. Not genealogy. So I think we'd agree there...

    2. The Scientific Method (at least as this ex-mathematician understands it) would consist of taking different possible explanations (hypotheses); ensuring that those hypotheses conform to current observations of reality; using each of the hypotheses to derive new predictions; and testing those new predictions against reality. If the newly discovered reality contradicts a hypothesis' predictions, the hypothesis can be discarded. When only one hypothesis is left standing, that is taken to be the agreed truth. Until it too fails to predict reality.

    All of which is rather different from genealogical research - as we seem to agree. For example, I certainly created 3 hypotheses about the father of my 3G GF, John C. But there was, in this case, no ability to make a useful prediction from each hypothesis. If his father was William C of Alsager, was there a specific document or fact that I would discover in that case and that case only? Well, no. I hope that I already had all the relevant sources (a "reasonably exhaustive search").

    So my research into John's own parents was not really using the Scientific Method - no predictions and no discovery of new data. Or in other words, by perhaps a slightly different set of logic - I agree with you.

    (And congratulations to those of you who read this far!)


    1. Yes, and wait until you see Part Three. Although, I may not get it finished before my extensive trip to Canada and Alaska and no Internet or phone connections.

    2. Oh, I almost forgot. How do you become and ex-mathematician?

    3. You give up using 'y', 'z', etc., as variable names. ;-)

    4. ... and it's when you forget which Greek letter is which!

      And you become an ex-programmer when you say "4 o'clock" and write down "4 p.m." - whereas a programmer will say "4 o'clock" and write down "16:00".


  3. Interesting, but exceeding narrow minded. Academic Globalization of "Genealogy Method" CURRENT USE DEFINITION of: "genealogy method" Method of investigative scholarship to establish all the valid
    generational relationships connecting any specialty, as used within or between all fields of knowledge. JUSTIFICATION: Genealogy Method procedures that discover and record connections of kinship, descent
    & marriage, can also be used to establish accurate understanding in all knowledge system properties, using diagrams, symbols and scholarly analysis.

    Academic usage of "Genealogy Method" in real time, within fields of research, vindicates the truthfulness of conclusions, as shown by historical comparison; "genealogy method", or "genealogical perspective"; is a scientific method of looking to the past, by using a
    "reverse" process of economic projection methodology. (Historical, computerized data sets extrapolated back in time)

    {The central theoretical basis of genealogy lies in the process of familial reconstitution. Beginning with a family the investigator uses certain principles and laws (the theory) to posit a possible source of additional relevant information. KEY Through instrumentation (the source) and experimentation (searching it out), the researcher discovers an actual source fitting the criteria posited. By using the theory again the investigator is able to establish the evidence as justifying an extension to the family and pedigree. He [she] --- is obligated to accept findings of scholars in anthropology, economics, geography, psychology, sociology, demographics, and history. Certainly he [she] should be well versed in some of those related disciplines. - There is [also] the search for new data, [with] the establishment of its relevance, the creation of hypotheses, and a proper consideration for previous research and for the findings of related disciplines. [Thus, the conclusion is made, that -- ] Genealogical research has four facets: (1) heuristic; (2) knowledge of area, (3) research analysis, and (4) compilation. Bruce D. Despain: "Bruce D. Despain" - Google™ Search- Works of Wonder}

    On the other hand: All man made materials are limited by a physical
    time differential that does not exceed the depth of the periods of time under consideration. The fact that all evaluations are made by physical properties that are subject to the laws of physics, makes each evaluation resource limited by the measuring device itself, which is subject to radioactive decay. Age calculating all instruments and placing them within their sphere as to time, relative to radioactive decay, means that they are each restricted to a measuring capacity, related to their own decay process. No material instrument exists that spans back to the time of the origins of the Universe. Therefore, the beginnings of time cannot be evaluated and any sequence of events proposed cannot be valid by itself, unless it undertakes the comprehension of the immediate whole of the known and unknown Universe. This is a very real impossibility within the framework of the finite, mortal human mind, for it is noted homo sapiens indeed are also subject to death, as well as other related human imperfections.

    Thus, I conclude (without being misguided - a pejorative statement) the issues facing scientific research are exactingly similar to those facing the competent generational genealogist, as Information presented relates to internal consistency within documents (tests), irrespective of the defined source designation, as well as cross comparison over generations of time (duplication of research).