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

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Comments on Complex Families

I am often confronted with questions involving complex family relationships. There is always a tendency when confronted with a new situation to immediate assume that a new system is necessary to account for the unfamiliar circumstances. In genealogy, the questions most often come from familial relationships that might be characterized today as "nontraditional." Unfortunately, this attitude towards traditional vs. nontraditional does not take into account that the so-called non-traditional family is anything but new. There are no familial relationships that have not been long present in societies around the world.

In a recent blog post entitled "Happy Families" Tony Proctor explores some of the implications of the present-day nontraditional family arrangements.  Like many topics concerning genealogy there are no definitive answers. The fundamental issue is rather simple, the vast majority of our genealogical traditions from a Western European standpoint are a reflection of our shared kinship system. The whole structure of Family Group Records and Pedigree representations assumes a nuclear, Western European model. Likewise, the online family trees and the majority of the software products reflect those traditions. In writing about kinship systems in the past, I have pointed out that many cultures, including some actively present in the United States, do not fall neatly into the Western European mould.

Online family tree programs also reflect the cultural bias of their sponsors and creators. This is neither a good or a bad thing. Genealogy deals with history, i.e. what really happened, and so our genealogical recording systems should be able to handle any possible kinship system. Well, they don't. Mostly, they break down when the system has relationships such as those present in the Diné Nation, commonly referred to as Navajo Indians. The question is whether or not, as genealogists, we feel it necessary to preserve both cultural and social history?

Genealogy has become a world-wide endeavor. The online family trees do not observe political or social or cultural boundaries. Merely translating the Western European model of a genealogical representation into a different language do not allow for the diversity or complexity in existence in non-European cultures. Focusing on our present-day political and social issues concerning "non-traditional" marriage relationships is decidedly short-sighted.

I personally come from a decidedly non-traditional ancestry. Many of my ancestors practiced plural marriage, commonly and incorrectly called polygamy. Fortunately, this particular type of marriage arrangement is easily accommodated in the present genealogy programs. But the existence of this type of concern illustrates the issues raised in this post. First, as genealogists, we need to be knowledgeable about the various familial arrangements of our ancestors. Second, the tools we use to record our ancestry should accommodate the entire scope of our cultural and social heritage. Third, we should not be attaching or imposing our present cultural or social biases as we record history.

Of course, the amount of information you preserve about your family reflects not only your social and cultural bias, but also the amount of information allowed by the type of genealogical program you choose to employ. If we insist on a purely biologically derived model for recording family information, much of our rich family heritage will be lost. I am reminded of some of the books published by my relatives that have virtually eliminated any reference to our common ancestors' plural marriages. There are still people who have a problem recording this type of information. If we have a very narrowly defined genealogical concern, then our present programs are more than adequate. But as genealogy becomes more and more international in nature and as we trace our lineage back into countries and societies that do not have the same kinship structure as the programs assume, we are in danger of losing much of this valuable heritage to trivial representations.

Meanwhile, focusing on how we are going to represent a current "non-traditional" family is a myopic view of the overall concerns that we already have in representing similar relationships in the past.


  1. I have to correct you on your reference to my post James since I believe you've misunderstood my overall gist.

    I did mention multiple genetic contributions, which is a modern-day issue, but I never suggested that issues such as same-sex unions, multiple partners, and non-biological family relationships are new at all. In pages such as I've previously stressed that these variations can be found in other time periods as well as other cultures.

    The very usage of the term "non-traditional" reinforces a myopic view of history since what is traditional for you or me may not be traditional for everyone else.

    My point was that in *all* cases, conflating the concepts of lineage, family grouping, and bonding ceremonies ultimately leads to confusion. There is no suggestion of "trivial representations". In fact, the Group entity used for representing "families" and the Event entity used for representing ceremonies are both open-ended and neither constrained nor trivial.

    1. Sorry, I guess I oversimplified the issue. You are right that trying to use social and cultural based terms in a general way leads to confusion. It also leads to leaving out a goodly portion, if not all, of the details of the specific culture under consideration.