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

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

A Step-by-Step Approach to Using Genealogical Cluster Research: Step One

Most genealogists, as they gain experience in doing research, evolve a methodology that reflects their own personal background. If you were influenced by traditional "paper-based" genealogy, then your personal methodology will usually rely on those techniques and methods you witnesses while working with your contemporaries. In genealogical terminology, a "cluster" consists of extended family members, friends, neighbors, and other associates such as business partners. Using the term expansively, a cluster could include anyone who would possibly come in contact with the person who is the target of your research. Cluster research is a research technique or methodology that is supplemented by "jurisdictional research" and utilizes the concept of beginning your research in the lowest or basic jurisdictional level. An early exposition on jurisdictional research was described in the following book.

Jones, Vincent L., Arlene H. Eakle, and Mildred H. Christensen. 1972. Genealogical research; a jurisdictional approach. [Salt Lake City]: [Printed by Publishers Press for Genealogical Copy Service, Woods Cross, Utah].

This book was later revised and published as follows:

Jones, Vincent L., Arlene H. Eakle, and Mildred H. Christensen. 1972. Family history for fun and profit. Provo, Utah: Printed by Community Press for the Genealogical Institute.

I have yet to figure of the profit part of genealogy and I am also skeptical about the "fun" part either. I assume the title was changed in an attempt to increase sales of the book.

The idea of focusing on cluster research is essentially the same as researching in the "home jurisdiction" as the term is used in the books cited above. Jurisdictional research expands on the idea of focusing on clusters and expands research outward using both geographically and politically defined areas. But it is important to understand the need to expand your current research methodology to include the target family's or person's relational surroundings.

By the way, most books on genealogy will never really go "out-of-date." The exceptions, of course, are those that focus on technology. Even though the two books listed above (really essentially the same book) were published in 1972, now nearly 50 years ago, all of the principles laid down in the books are still valid and useful.

The currently popular emphasis on the technological aspects of genealogical research, including, but not limited to DNA testing, has almost completely overshadowed the need to understand the valuable concepts developed over time by more traditional genealogists. That is not to say, that all of the methodologies developed by traditional genealogists are presently applicable. Computerization has dramatically affected most of the ways that the traditional genealogical community gathered, stored, and reported their genealogical research.

Traditionally, the research project was visualized as a circle. However, I believe that the circle metaphor is limited. A better representation would be a web. In order to understand how to implement cluster research, it is important to place close to research in the context of general historical or genealogical research. In describing the research process, depending on your proclivities, you could use from a few too many discrete steps. Despite the fact, that I can list discrete steps in a research process, I almost never follow this pattern. Research is organic. Every time you find a document or review what has already been discovered the objectives of your research change. However notwithstanding the fluid nature of research, here is my own simplification of the process:
1. The first stage of research is generally referred to as the survey stage. In a real sense, the survey stage is a continuous process because, in the technological environment that presently exists, there is no end to the amount of information developed by others in the genealogical community usually represented by additions to online family trees. Consequently, reviewing what has been done previously or recorded previously can almost overwhelm all of the other aspects of the genealogical process. 
2. As you proceed through the survey stage, hopefully, you will accumulate some information about your family that enables you to identify documents or records that may contain information about your family. The process of identifying records and documents and then subsequently discovering where they might be located is really the most time-consuming part of genealogical research. 
3. Once you have located documents as records which may contain information about your target family or individual, you must review the documents and records and extract the information and add it to whatever method you are using to record genealogical information. At this stage, it is also really important to review how any information obtained affects any other information and conclusions which you have already made. 
4. Once you have a corpus of information you must constantly review what you have already concluded and revise any conclusions based on the acquisition of additional information obtained through records and documents.
Inexperienced genealogists almost always focus on names rather than on the overall historical context of the individuals and families they are researching.  cluster research should not be thought of as a new way to do genealogy, it is merely an extension of whatever methodology you may have already adopted. It does, however, require that you become more aware of the historical context of each of the events in your target family or individual's life. Subsequently, I am not replacing any of the discrete steps in genealogical research however they may be defined, I am intending to augment those steps in a way that increases the possibility of finding the information being sought.

At its most basic level, the first step in implementing cluster research is to become aware of the historical setting and surroundings of the target family or ancestor. In this context, I am using the term "target" in the sense that the researcher will choose a particular family or individual to research. Of course, as I mentioned already, the target family or individual will evolve and change as you work through the research. It is entirely possible, but you will find out that you are not related to your target family or individual and abandon the research altogether.

Let's suppose that you were going to research a person such as Eliza Ann Hamilton. Let's further suppose that you had done some preliminary survey of the existing information and found that family tradition said that she was born and Kentucky in the early 1800s. Using today's technology, it would seem to be indicated to simply go online and begin searching in a large online genealogical database for an Eliza Ann Hamilton in Kentucky in the early 1800s. A search for that name on the website in the Historical Records Collections using a birthday range from 1800 to 1830 and a place of Kentucky will produce 4,262 results. It should be obvious at this point that searching for a name without a sufficient amount of context information is unproductive.

In order to move beyond the "search for a name" stage, it is necessary to add additional contextual information even if we want to utilize online search engines. So it is important to put the person into their historical context and utilize all known information about the family even if you are focusing on an online search.


  1. A Step-by-Step Approach to Using Genealogical Cluster Research: Step Two
    Did I miss Step 1?

    1. No, I had to republish Step Two, Step One is online.

  2. I loved your blogs about cluster research. This has given me some great research ideas for the final project in Research Methodology One, BYUI. Our focus ancestor was born in Minnesota on or about 1856. The strategies that you describe for researching fit perfect for this project. I am glad that I stumbled upon your blog through the "Visit The Family History Guide Association," link shown in The Family History Guide Blog. I just wanted to also mention how great the Family History Guide is. I thoroughly enjoyed taking the quiz to become a certified trainer. It really helped me learn the basics of the website. I am now working on scheduling training sessions needed to complete the steps required to be a certified trainer. Thank you for your dedication and blog.