Genealogy, Family History, or Something Else?

The LDS church is getting out of the family history business, even going as far as removing the word history from it’s products. It’s getting into the data mining business, instead.

Ancestry, Inc. doesn’t even know the definition of genealogy. You can’t find an explanation of it on their website.

A frequent result on the search term “family history” is discussions of medical issues more properly called medical history – health information. These are matters appropriately discussed with one’s own personal physician. It’s not family history. It’s not genealogy.

Tamura Jones has an excellent two-part discussion of what genealogy is. He’s left the matter open to fault-finding and improvements, so I’ll take a crack at an improvement.

Genealogy is the study of family, human family, relationships. Medical history is a subset of genealogy. Religious history is a subset of genealogy (albeit based on unfounded and impossible to resolve assumptions). Good, solid, generational history, as E. S. Mills once wrote, is based on information gathered from diverse sources and merged into a whole by skilled researchers. There is no bias in it, nor is there any favoritism or branding of one generation or person as better than another. Family history, as Mr. Jones puts it, doesn’t care about biological, or religious, history. It does care about legal and other “official” facets of human family relationships.

The term stemma is more technically proper to the results of someone’s research into biological, or religious, history. These areas are more amenable to the sort of “pedigree” and “ancestry” results that textual analysis involves.

Biblical scholars have a very long history of doing such textual research. Have they found conclusive proof of someone’s descent from [insert your favorite deity/planet/galaxy here]? The Christian belief system “stems” from unproven assertions and assumptions based on archaic written materials. Are they able to prove a genealogically solid family history?

Medical researchers, too, have a long history of recording their research results, building huge databases of genetic data and long, involved histories of various conditions. Their work, with all of its jargon, Latin most of it, fits well with stemma. Truth be told, most human medical conditions “stem” from genealogically significant events.

Stemmata of this sort can fit into a family history, if it is appropriately labeled as such, and not mis-qualified as genealogically significant. Questionable representations that one person is of another sort should be qualified as such and held to a high standard of proof. A responsible genealogist uses facts, not fictions.

History, the study of human relationships, is also a subset of genealogy. Historical information is something the LDS church apparently doesn’t care about anymore. Historical information is something Ancestry, Inc. is marketing as a commodity. History is the story of lives, it has no ownership or monetary value. One doesn’t need to go to a church to get a biased view or go to a publicly traded commercial endeavor to get historical information. A genealogist doesn’t need those things. A genealogist relies on his or her own smarts in making a family history work, not the opinion of someone who’s selling something. Facts, not opinions, not money, make family history worthwhile.

Family history, all of it: biological, religious, historical lore, and so on, are part of a genealogist’s work. The facts and the fictions merge into a whole. Whether the genealogist calls it a genealogy or a family history depends on which way the results hang together, mostly facts, or mostly fictions. A genealogically solid research product is a balance of both: the truth, with no unnecessary qualifications or favoritisms toward one facet or another of someone’s existence. A smart genealogist has reliable facts, with excellent sources backing them up.

Responsible genealogists have standards and ethics. There are groups devoted to upholding those standard and ethics. There are other groups which try to counter-act these standard-bearers but their members can’t rightly be called genealogists because of their biases and agendas. Only people who follow solidly grounded research practices can produce quality family histories as described above. If you aspire to be a genealogist you need to study and abide by recognized standards and ethical beliefs. If you don’t, you are just making more fiction for the rest of us to wade through and debunk.

Are you making a genealogy, a family history, or something else? Let’s hear it.

Standard-bearers for genealogists:

Association of Professional Genealogists

Board for Certification of Genealogists

National Genealogical Society