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

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Challenge of Genealogical Complexity

Complexity can take a variety of forms. We have systems that are complex because of the number of elements involved. For example, it is a more complex challenge to have a family reunion with 100 people than it is with 10. Looking at that same family reunion, it may also be complex because of the relationships between the various members of the family. These two types of complexity have been defined as disorganized complexity and organized complexity. See Wikipedia:Complexity. In order to discover our ancestors, we must be able to manage both types of complexity.

The Great Divide in genealogy is between those who have the skills to work with complexity of both types and those who do not. We sometimes perceive these skills to be associated with intellectual ability or literacy, but the necessary skill set is far more subtile and also far more complex than any simplistic division. One of the major problems I have been writing about now for years, is the failure to view genealogy (i.e. the process of discovering one's ancestors) as a complex, many layered system. Hence, there are statements made that view parts of the system as "easy" and other parts of the system as "challenging" when, in fact, both evaluations are "true" in the sense that genealogy is a system, some parts of which are less complex than others and therefore can be viewed as "easy" while other parts of the same system are overwhelmingly complex and difficult.

One definition of a system is a set of parts or elements that have relationships among them differentiated from relationships with other elements outside the relational regime. See Wikipedia:Complexity. Here the "relational regime" is the activity of discovering ancestral relationships and the accompanying details of those ancestors' lives. In participating in this activity, we "incorporate" elements from other complex systems. Where the complex system of genealogy intersects with other equally or even more complex systems we have our greatest challenges as genealogists. Because we are investigating "people," in a real sense our research can conceivably encroach on almost every other complex system in the world. Truly, there is no end to genealogy's complexity and its interactions with almost every other complex system.

Looked at from this standpoint, it is practically a miracle that anyone can adequately master the complex genealogical systems as a whole. But in reality, this is not necessary. Each person is only required to approach a sub-set of the whole complex genealogical system. Therefore, some individuals cam become highly trained and competent in their chosen area of inquiry. What is a major tragedy is the failure to view the entire field of genealogical research and preservation as one complex system. The consequences of this failure include the commonly expressed antipathy by some genealogists towards those who upload their family trees online without proper "documentation." Rather than investigating a way to include this phenomena in the overall system, they would exclude those "family trees' from the system. In effect, each participant in the overall genealogical system, has a tendency to view the entire system as composed only of those parts that they personally understand and with which they have a reasonable familiarity. The classic expression of this tendency is the fable of the blind men and the elephant. In a real sense, we are all blind men examining the genealogical elephant.

The disorganized portions of genealogy involve the huge numbers of elements composing the system. Some of those elements include the number of anyone person's ancestors, the number of documents in the world, the number of online websites, and so forth. We are faced with this type of complexity daily. It is also evident that any one individual's ability to handle this type of complexity varies greatly. There are those researchers who feel overwhelmed when they have a family file with 100 people, while others routinely deal with thousands of ancestors at the same time. At the same time, we also deal with organized complexity in the form of the Internet, computer systems, libraries, archives and so forth. It is the individual's capacity to absorb and integrate these varying levels of complexity that determines their ability to make progress in discovering and recording their family history. It is in this area of the ability of the individual researchers to adapt to these varying demands of complexity that it the true division between those who are frustrated with genealogy and those who thrive in the pursuit.

In fact, the disorganization of genealogy as a system approaches chaos. Genealogy is high-dimensional, non-linear and very difficult to model. Because of these factors, all current attempts to characterize the entire genealogical community fail, some more miserably than others. This effect can be seen in the attempts of many entitles within the system, both individuals and business entities, to approach genealogy from an entirely populist viewpoint, making the entire system seem to be something people can do in the "spare time" without any preparation or training. As people become aware of the complexity of the overall system, they feel betrayed by the simplistic portrayals and in a real sense "turn off" further involvement.

The real failure here is not in the individual participants' lack of awareness of the complexity of the genealogical system, but in the failure of those who have the ability to see and appreciate that complexity in communicating the need to allow for that complexity to be acknowledged. It is also a failure on the part of those who ignore the overall complexity and fragment the elements of genealogy in order to make it appear more simplistic than it is in reality. For example, presently there are a number of people and organizations working on the issue of digital preservation. However, these same individuals have no connection with or communication with the mainstream of genealogists. One reason for this is that "digital preservation" impacts genealogy but also impacts many other systems and disciplines.

Another example of this lack of system awareness is the large online genealogical database programs' attempts to exponentially increase the size of their collections without adequately providing for ways to organize those vast online databases in a way that the potential users of the databases can comprehend. In particular, the online database programs provide an automated search technology, but ignore the basic fact that their online search technology cannot search images, so the real effect is that the user tends to believe that the "databases" have been search when in fact, only a very small percentage of the huge number of documents online are actually included in such searches. This is evidence of the lack of awareness of the overall genealogical system. This particular problem is then "fixed" by relying on indexes generated by unsophisticated participants who have no idea who will use the index or how it will be used. I use this as an example of the complexity of the system, not to disparage the contributions of the indexers. In fact, the "index" simply adds one more complex and little understood system to the overall complexity of genealogy as a whole.

In writing about this and other related subjects, I almost always feel like I am talking to a brick wall. The genealogical community does not incorporate anything approaching a meta-genealogy where those who are involved in the level of providing services and defining the direction of the separate elements can discuss any type of overall theory about how the whole system works (or doesn't work). The entire community seems to run on its own inertia. I am convinced that there is a need for a review of the overall complexity of the genealogical system and the development of a genealogical complexity theory to account for the interactions of the various components. I am certain that there are those people out there who understand what I am writing about or I would not keep writing about this subject.

A final note, I use Wikipedia for examples because it is a convenient way to get into any particular subject. I would expect that following up on any reference to a Wikipedia article would necessarily involve moving on to the sources cited as well as others.


  1. I agree about the complexity, James, but rather than it being like talking "to a brick wall", I would suggest it was more like some "soft, nebulous wall" that cannot be pushed and which isn't offering any specific resistance.

    The source citations you mentioned in your previous post are definitely a good differentiator. People without an academic background may not be aware of the rules/conventions for written citations, but then why should they be bothered unless they're writing a book, article, or research report. If they were educated about the need for source references, and the software made it "click easy", then the quality of their data would improve. Unfortunately, as you say here, the big online providers make it too easy to find bunches of names rather than attaching source information for a record the user selects. That source information could be in some digital form from which a traditional printed version could be generated if necessary, but it should be easy and not confusing to the user. Ideally, it should also be possible for the user to click on the same digital source reference and be taken to that original record -- something I haven't seen in any of those online tree builders and yet many beginners would welcome it for their own benefit.

    1. I like your analogy or soft and nebulous better than my brick wall. I also agree that getting the documents doesn't help if the document is an index and there is no citation to the original.

  2. James, I find it hard to keep up with all of your brilliant commentary. You mention, "We sometimes perceive these skills to be associated with intellectual ability or literacy, but the necessary skill set is far more [subtle] and also far more complex than any simplistic division." I totally agree. Help is on the way, as Adam and Eve, who had the only pure language that was placed on the earth, will return and save the day for all of their righteous posterity. This we are all promised. In fact, it is interesting, but nevertheless true, that the records show, contrary to all modern, worldly science, that Adam and Eve had and have exceedingly great intellectual ability or literacy; indeed, the only ones to come to the earth not in a total state of ignorance and illiteracy. Even Jesus Christ descended below them all, and as a Son, had to grow up from grace to grace, and received grace for grace, until He became as One in power, with the Father of us all.

    So, if you want to really tackle the idea of genealogical complexity, note that I and you and all children of Adam and Eve are born totally illiterate, as to learning the communication process. So we are all on equal footing, everyone illiterate to some degree, greater or smaller, depending upon our opportunities. There are over 7,000 languages used in the world today and since I am not Chinese, I am also in the minority. I do not comprehend what billions of people speak today. I survive on the fringes with Google Translate. I am slightly literate in a few sub dialects of American English and slightly familiar with computers. I know from my son's computer science education, that this field, having also sets of language technology, is fragmented (and though pedigreed, cannot be comprehended by any one individual on the macro level, as every sub language has its own use and purpose).

    Going back to the simplest form of learning, I return to my learning, by hearing on my mother's knee. Currently, it has been publicly broadcasted as scientifically proven, as a best practices model, that the earliest childhood stimulation of the brain, by speech usage, or reading, significantly advances a child's ability to become a wordsmith. Since the whole world lies in jeopardy of being cursed, if the principles of genealogy and family history are not applied to unifying families, the living and the dead, I suppose it would be of value, as heretofore suggested by me, to begin by working with the illiterate. This includes all of us, in one way or the other. Thus, begin to teach through the process of oral history studies, to our children in their infancy. In other words, recite your own family history in your own language to your own children, from the time of their birth. Sorry, fairy tales and fiction are no longer fashionable; out of date. Then the spirit of Elijah will be placed in the hearts of the children, before the age of eight, (as was done by my own mother to me; who gave me a love of my own heritage and beginnings, which cannot be removed or replaced later, except by one's own negative, willful choice). It was confirmed too, at a later date, by my own stake patriarch. Critically important ordinance as all little children on the earth deserve a father's blessing, no matter what the religious affiliation of the parent caretaker.

    That is it in a nutshell. And of course, it is mandatory for honesty in your dealings with your fellow man or woman, or children, to give due credit, when credit is due; which is called source your origin of your information (honor your father and mother). Have a great day, James. I would suggest, if this simple formula is followed, statistically, as it pertains to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in my own opinion, "five wise virgins" would rise up and family history activity would increase to circa 50% of Church membership. Tithing and fast offerings would rise exponentially, and missionary work globally would increase. I know I am nothing; dust of the earth: a professional opinion.

    1. It sounds to me like you should be reading my other blog, Rejoice, and be exceeding glad... Thanks for your comments.

    2. Interesting thought. Too late for me, my children are all grown.

  3. Agreed. I also believe this complexity is compounded by the fact that in genealogy people tend to evolve, some quickly, others more slowly. Also the level of interest ebbs and flows during life. This is unlike our occupations, vocations or avocations where we embrace a more specific field or fields and devote less time to non-interesting things. I was a farmer, now I am a truck dealer. I really don't expect a chemical engineer to spend time learning how to sell a product.
    Just asking those who have an interest in genealogy or family history will result in nearly as many different answers as the number of persons asked.
    And then i find those who think that genealogy databases, either online or desktop, should be designed specifically for their individual needs, until of course their needs change.

    1. Yes, everyone has their own opinion. I find that more and more as I get older.