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
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: