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

Friday, February 13, 2015

More about Genealogical Methodology vs Proof

I have posted on this same topic previously, see Methodology vs. Proof in Genealogy

There is substantial amount of confusion in the greater genealogical community over terminology. In many cases the words used by different genealogists vary both in meaning and application. There is also a tendency, as there is in the larger social and political communities, to alter both the meaning and usage of certain words to justify a pre-determined goal. Occasionally the meaning of a word will be changed and then the changed word vilified, thereby rendering the usage of the word's original meaning socially or politically unacceptable. For example, in the U.S. there are those the view the term "genealogy" in a negative way, while at the same time promoting an artificial difference between the terms "genealogy" and "family history." Where the words in this example have essentially the same meaning, the vilification of the word "genealogy" could be justified from an historical perspective, but few of the abuses of the past are still evident. Whether you view the activity as family history or genealogy, the objectives and methodology are the same.

The question that motivates the title to this post is whether or not a carefully crafted genealogical methodology supersedes the need to "prove" an ancestral conclusion or even the concept of "proof."

Methodology is defined as a set of procedures for resolving a particular inquiry. Genealogical methodology is what you actually do as opposed to what you think you do when you are doing "genealogical research." Differences in the accuracy or completeness of any two pedigrees can be partially attributed to differing methodologies.

What is genealogical methodology? Genealogists ask certain questions. Who are my ancestors (or my client's ancestors)? When did these ancestors live? Where did events in their life occur? Why did certain events occur? Working from what they know about their ancestors, they search for records (sources) to answer these and other questions that arise from the records they find. Success is defined by the information they discover. A vital part of this process is learning where to find the documents, records or sources that answer the questions posed. Genealogical expertise consists of the ability to find, evaluate and use the information from the records and to find more information based on what is found. Genealogists are recognized for their ability to find certain types of records.

It is my contention that most of what genealogists do in pursuing or investigating (i.e. researching) their ancestors falls into the category of methodology. There is very little need for theory, as such, since the conclusions derived from the sources examined are primarily based on the conclusions reached by the individual researcher. Historically, genealogy has been used for social and political reasons to justify or reinforce a certain status. There is a common tendency for societies to regard certain lineages as more "important or prestigious" than others and so there has always been ample motivation to spend money or time proving a certain ancestry. This tendency is even pervasive today, with immensely popular television programs based on examining the ancestry of rich or famous people.

Presently, the methodological basis of genealogy has been obscured by pervasive references to the quasi-legal concepts of evidence and proof. The application of the basic genealogical methodology is also obscured by the tendency of some genealogists (family historians) to ignore many of necessary steps in producing a validated genealogical conclusion (often called a proof).

Adopting a set of terms from science, law or some other source tends to obscure, rather than elucidate genealogical methodology. The use of this terminology serves the purpose of enhancing the credibility of the researchers. It is more impressive to say that a certain lineage has been "proved" than to express an opinion that the researcher merely believes his or her conclusions to be correct.   However, changing the collective lexicographic usage of an entire community is nearly impossible.

The greater genealogical community is often depicted in the form of a pyramid with the dedicated professional at the top and the varying  degrees of integration into the community as larger segments. As I have written previously, there is a tendency in all human activities to evolve into a stratigraphic culture. We always have our experts, champions, generals, presidents etc. Genealogy is not at all immune to this stratification. We have our genealogical celebrities, just as there are prominent lawyers, doctors, politicians, athletes etc. The terminology of genealogy, just as in other pursuits, is to a large measure, determined by the prominent participants. In essence, we use the words we hear from our most prominent participants.

This mixture of societal pressures and agendas into the genealogical research process sometimes obscures the fact that genealogy is basically very intense and difficult work. Success, in the form of finding an elusive ancestor, can take years of dedicated work. Many of the best genealogists are entirely unknown and in fact, vilified by their own families and associates. On one hand, we have comments about the universality of interest in families and family history and on the other hand, we have a very real social and familial rejection of those involved in the process.

If we truly want to make genealogy more popular, we need to focus more on these issues.


  1. Thank you, James, for setting forth this perspective. It does all come down to the abilities of the human brain.

  2. I regard genealogy and family history as two very different things. Genealogy is about names, dates and places, and reconstructing family trees. Family history is not just about compiling the family trees but also about reconstructing the lives of our ancestors and putting their actions in context.

    1. Well, I think my great-grandmothers, who did genealogy all their lives, would have disagreed with you when they included, letters, stories, photos, history, and preserved the lives of my ancestors in their "genealogy." If you want to see my family's genealogy, look at You will see stories, photos, history, letters and documents. The distinction is very artificial and being made to denigrate genealogy and genealogists.