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

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Elements of Research -- Part Five: The Search Continues

To begin your genealogical research, it is vitally important to understand the difference between methodology and theory. Doing research is not just a rote set of actions, it also requires a extensive realization of the end product of the endeavor. The researchers must resolve the question of what they are ultimately trying to accomplish. It is easy to get caught up in the mechanics of "doing your genealogy" and approach the subject as if it were nothing more than an exercise in filling in blanks on a form. The extreme example of this is the common practice of copying and adopting an existing pedigree without further examination, a practice that is also called "name gathering."

Methodology is the systematic use of procedures and actions. To be effective, any methodology must be directed by an overall understanding or "theory," that is, a system of ideas and understanding based on general principles. I am not using the concept of a "theory" in the scientific sense of a hypothesis, but in the general sense of an idea used to substantiate the need for a specific action. By writing about research, I am intending to investigate the limits and bounds of what is and what is not genealogical research. This investigation comprises my "theory" of genealogical research. At the same time, I am formulating a series of methodologies that support my overall genealogical theory.

Blindly gathering names is antithetical to research. If research must involve a process of moving from what is known to discover what is not known, there is an absolute, implied requirement of knowledge before there can be any further discovery. In genealogical investigations, this begins with one's own parents. Hypothetically, there are several initial conditions that can exist in any genealogical research project:
  • The identity of the researcher's biological parents are known and the relationship is positively verified
  • The identity of the researcher's biological parents are assumed, but not positively verified
  • The identity of the researcher's biological parents are partially identified
  • The identity of the researcher's biological parents are unknown
I begin with this example because in my experience, it has not been uncommon that a beginning researcher did not know the identity of his or her parents or only knew the identity of one parent. Genealogists acknowledge this possibility with the categories of adopted, foster, guardian and grandparent relationships. The ultimate reality of genealogical research is that the consideration of actual biological relationship is in question at every single step in the ancestral or relational links. For example, are you sure that you or some or all of your siblings were not adopted? As a side note, in the United States, the existence of a "birth certificate" is not conclusive as to a biological relationship. In many cases, the adopted child has been provided with a birth certificate showing the adopted parents as their "biological" parents.

There is a serious issue concerning what is actually known about our ancestry. Unfortunately, relying on sources is not an absolute guarantee of accuracy. This difficulty is generally analogous to what is known as the Uncertainty Principle in science. Just as there are limits to the degree of precision available in the scientific world, there is a concomitant limit to the accuracy of any historical research; we are always limited by the accuracy and availability of historical records. Although, I must observe that we can achieve a far greater degree of accuracy and precision than is commonly demonstrated in genealogical research.

Back to the issue of methodology vs. theory. Much of what is taught about genealogy involves methodology. For example, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of classes taught about "how to organize" your genealogy. Another example is the abundance of "tutorials" on the various genealogically related programs. There is an assumption that knowing how to use a certain program will enable you to "do your genealogy." If genealogical research were nothing more than methodology, then it would be relatively simple to create a computer program that would automatically provide each person with their own genealogy. Despite the fact that there are programs out there that purport to do just that, the reality is that those programs, of necessity, are based on inaccurate and incomplete data. Until and unless computer programs can replicate the activity of the human brain, human evaluation of the products of computer programming research will always be needed.

Where does that leave the genealogically inclined researcher? Perhaps the answer is in this quote attributed to Albert Einstein:
Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow. The important thing is not to stop questioning. See Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory
Previous installments of this series include:


  1. I have two thoughts regarding this thread and will post them in two separate comments. First, research goals often change as one's knowledge base increases. For example, my first research goal to go get every line to immigration to determine my ethnicity. My family is convinced we are totally white but I look in the mirror and see an olive complexion and high cheekbones and have always wondered what else is in the mix. But what I did not take in to account was migration patterns in Europe. Especially due to religious persecution, many Swiss moved all over Europe and ended up immigrating to the New World from Prussia or Germany. But they were Swiss. And they often spent time in France. Scottish lines often spent a generation or two in Ireland before immigrating on to the New World. So my cultural identity was more elusive than I expected. My interest in research has evolved to an interest in the women in my tree. How they lived, cared for family and community as far as home making and medical home remedies. Recipes and cooking from the past are fascinations with me. But I have not formulated a clearly stated new goal yet.

  2. My second comment has to do with biological verses paper trail connections. Even if it isn't a case of adoption there can be believed connections that are incorrect. Birth Control is only 50 years old and even with its onset of the pill there are still many mistakes made as far as conception. My brother is the DNA genealogy person in my family and our first attempt at DNA was an ethnic identification from the sample. My paper trail identifies us as Western European. Our Ancestors being Swiss, German, Scotch Irish, and that PA Dutch Mix that is common. Our DNA says we are the largest percentage Romanian and Hungarian. There are two possibilities. Either our ancestors had lines that migrated to Eastern Europe in addition to the the lines that came to America. Or we have an undocumented band of Gypsies in our background.

    1. If you do some research into the Gypsies, I think you will find that they originated in India. They are not Western or Eastern European. The real Gypsies are the Romani or Romany. See Romani people

  3. Yes James you are correct. But the Gypsies "roam" all over. There is a good chart toward the bottom of the page at the wiki link you posted that shows the percentages in the various European areas. The Eastern countries have a higher concentration. The dark complexion is from the origins in India.