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

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What is an ethical genealogist?

I think I will return to the issue of "ethics" and the pursuit of genealogy. I am not sure we have adequate definitions for either of the two concepts. With respect to the term "genealogy," I have heard prominently reported comments that doing "family history" does not require one to be a genealogist as if the labels made a difference in the basic activities and skills involved. This type of statement is usually directed at the issue of the degree to which the skills needed for adequate research are necessary or required. I am reminded of the thousands of books, articles and other publications that employ the term "easy" or "for dummies" or whatever. We have our examples in the following:

Barratt, Nick. Researching Your Family History Online for Dummies. Chichester: Wiley, 2009.

Chupurdia, Vickie. “The” Book on Genealogy: Easy Steps to Tracing Your Family Tree. Two Harbors, MN: Autumn Leaf Publishing, 2010.

Dieterle, Diane. Easy Genealogy. Mableton, Ga.: Roots Pub. Co., 1977.

Helm, Matthew, and April Leigh Helm. Genealogy Online for Dummies. Detroit: Thorndike Press, 2009.

Kyle, Noeline. How to Write and Publish Your Family Story in 10 Easy Steps. Sydney, N.S.W.: NewSouth Pub., 2011.

———. Writing Family History Made Very Easy. Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 2007.

Sipe, Karen V. Genealogy Made Easy. Mineola, N.Y.: Dover Publications, 1998.

Swanson, Wendy W. Family History & Genealogy: Easy Steps to Build Your Family Tree, 2014.

Szucs, Loretto Dennis. Family History Made Easy. Salt Lake City, Utah: Ancestry, 1998.

I am in no way denigrating these efforts at simplifying genealogy, I am merely pointing out that there is a distinct segment of the genealogical community that feel that there is an easy solution to what is, in reality, a very complex subject. At the other end of the spectrum, we have books with hundreds of pages of complex analysis of very limited genealogical issues. A good example is the very valuable reference book on English genealogy.

Herber, Mark D, and Society of Genealogists (Great Britain). Ancestral Trails: The Complete Guide to British Genealogy and Family History. Baltimore, Md.: Genealogical Pub. Co., Inc, 1998.

This book has 674 pages and I would observe that every single page is densely filled with information that is helpful in finding records and doing "genealogy" or "family history" in England.

When I attended law school, within a few hours of the first few classes I attended, I realized I had stepped off into a different world. The legal world of law as presented in a law school was so intimidating and complex that the dropout rate was noteworthy. Some students did not last the first full week. There are some subjects that just cannot be made easy or simple. Genealogy by its nature is difficult, challenging and complicated. All attempts to "simplify" genealogical research fail to explain or include the parts that are not simple and definitely not easy.

I am presently ploughing my way through thousands of early Mississippi deeds looking for the name of one ancestor for a friend. I have spent a solid three hours staring at the microfilm and I am not through the first half of the first of two long rolls of microfilm. I may not find anything I am looking for. How do I tell someone who needs to do a similar task that genealogy is easy?

Now, let's think about ethics. Most of the time when the subject of ethics comes up it is because someone is upset with some activity or attitude that they personally find objectionable. The term "ethics" like the term "genealogy" has no uniformly accepted definition. What I think is "ethical" or "unethical" is highly subjective, just as my definition and experience with genealogy is based on my own experience. In today's world there are two opposing views of the concept of ethical behavior. One side takes the position that person's ethics are determined by the situation (situational ethics) at the other end of this continuum, there are those who believe that ethics are immutable and very fundamental to human existence. Much of the time, the issues of ethics are mixed in with religious beliefs or the lack thereof.

In our current society we also have arbitrary rules of conduct imposed by organizations for their own benefit and conduct. What is and what is not ethical is defined by the usually self-appointed, governing board of the organization. These rules apply to professions, trades, and social organizations. Many times these rules are called "ethics" but they cannot be universally applied unless a person becomes a "member" of the particular organization involved. For example, the rules of professional conduct for attorneys do not apply to those who are not attorneys.

There are those who would like to impose their own views on the issue of ethics on the entire genealogical community. As we exist now, we have no such universally applied rules. Except for a very few and relatively small "professional" genealogical organizations, there are no commonly accepted rules of conduct for anyone professing and interest in family history or genealogy. Instead, the genealogical community is subject to the same level of ethics as the general population of the world.

For example, I personally think it is "unethical" to copy an entire pedigree without determining the accuracy of the entries. Obviously, there are millions of people who believe otherwise. We can also get into involved discussions of copyright law, plagiarism, dishonesty, fraud and other issues that are common in our society and certainly not absent from the genealogical community. But when we come right down to the heart of the subject, we have to realize that there is no separately defined, specific code of ethics that applies to genealogists as opposed to their role in the society at large. Unlike disbarred attorneys, we have no mechanism for excluding non-compliant, unethical behavior.

So far, genealogists have yet to agree on a common research standard or any other standard for that matter. Perhaps it is time to start talking more about ethics as the term applies to genealogy, but before we do, perhaps we need to establish or re-establish some ethical rule in the general population?

Here are some books on the history of ethics that you might find interesting.

Becker, Lawrence C., and Charlotte B. Becker. A History of Western Ethics. Psychology Press, 2003. 

Davidson, Arnold I. “Ethics as Ascetics: Foucault, the History of Ethics, and Ancient Thought.” The Cambridge Companion to Foucault 2 (1994): 123–48.

Irwin, Terence. “The Development of Ethics: A Historical and Critical Study,” 2009.

MacIntyre, Alasdair. A Short History of Ethics: A History of Moral Philosophy from the Homeric Age to the 20th Century. Routledge, 2003.

Sidgwick, Henry. Outlines of the History of Ethics for English Readers. Macmillan, 1892. 


  1. "For example, I personally think it is "unethical" to copy an entire pedigree without determining the accuracy of the entries." - This comment is interesting when you put it in the context of a one world tree like Family Search Family Tree or wikitree. If I add a person that I have researched and through a merging process combine him with another that has its own generations attached (that I have not fully researched), by a strict reading of your statement, I have done something unethical. Yet, I doubt you would call what I have done unethical.

    1. I am not sure how you come to the conclusion that I would think what you describe as unethical.

    2. I wouldn't think you would. But merging individuals in a one tree model is effectively copying a pedigree without determining the accuracy of the entries beyond the merged individuals (which is what you wrote you personnally think is unethical). I may determine the accuracy of the person being merged and possibly the parents of that person, but I doubt anyone merging does research on 4 or more generations of the merge to confirm that the individuals are the same.

      My point is that what could be seen as unethical in a separate tree model (copying trees to your own without substantiation) is part of the basic structure of how a one tree model works. In practice, about 90% of the merges I have done are orphan trees (individuals not connected to anyone or only connected to their parents or a spouse) so researching all of the people involved is not difficult. But I have also merged people that have several generations attached, in which case, I am looking for enough information to confirm that the merged individuals are the same, not that every person in the extended pedigree is correct.

      In short, ethics in genealogy is not as clear cut as some other fields (like law). As with any hobby, ethics rarely becomes an issue in genealogy. I don't worry about how ethical I am in coin collecting. When I sell coins I am honest about what they are, but I wouldn't put that in a special category of coin collecting ethics.

    3. Actually, what you are describing is another issue. If I follow your line of reasoning, how could I ethically work on a unified family tree? In the case where there is an extended pedigree, I did not add those names to the tree. If I find that they are not appropriately added, I can delete the relationship and let the unsourced tree float off to be attached again some time.