Prosopography — Inductive and Deductive Uses

I’ve been thinking of starting a prosopography project. The reason I want to do it is to find out who the Mellen folks William Barry said “lived on the fields …”. The problem is that this is a deductive project while a prosopography is an inductive project.

What’s the difference? Inductive research is developing facts or information from the specific to the general. Deductive research means generating facts from the general to the specific. Barry’s register of Framingham, Massachusetts residents is a deductive, or inclusive listing, working from the general, a place, to the specific, who lived in that place. If I were to go the opposite direction, I’d end up with how many people, of what ages, and so on, lived in Framingham.

If I were to build a database of all the folks listed in Barry’s genealogical register, and add a different data set, like the vital records set (the tan book), I’d have a base set of data for generating inductive statistics. These two sets would act like a census enumeration. From them, I’d be able to separate names, birth, marriage, and death dates, what they did, and so on. I’d then have a basis for guessing, or actually determining, who he didn’t include in his register. This is inductive: from the specific to the general. The difference is that instead of numbers, I’d have some possible names of people to research.

Going further, by adding land records, wills, and other such records to the mix, I’d be able to determine more specifically, who lived where, based on proximity (the land boundaries), and relationships (the wills). These two sources are more specific (and primary) than, just the derivative genealogical register and vital records (it is a compiled [secondary] source, but “official”).

These four sources, a register, the vital records, the wills, and the land records, are a good start for building a universe of people at a given place during a given time. The data are specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-limited (SMART). They are very specific about who, what, where, when, why, and how (the five Ws and H). From this data one could start querying in a general sort of way to find out who were the elite and who were the lower classes for sociological purposes; who were well-off and who weren’t for economic purposes; who lived longer and who died young for medical purposes; and so on. These are the classic goals of such a prosopographical study.

A further idea for a data study of Framingham residents would be to glean at least part of the data from Robert Charles Anderson’s Great Migration (GM) project books. This is a massive data set which was done as a sort of prosopographical study. Whether I’d be able to query the data the hard way from the books is one question I’ve not answered yet, though. The GM study covers immigrants over an earlier period than Framingham’s existence, for one thing. The descendants of those listed in that study, however, may be notated as living in Framingham, which is where their most valuable contribution from the GM study lays. It is worth looking into already done projects, such as this one, before embarking on your own time-consuming database project.

Social networking research among these data is also possible. From such a genealogical database, you’d be able to find connections to an ancestor’s neighbors, business associates, and extended family members. Using a program such as The Master Genealogist (TMG), you’d be able to tag all of the data in such a way as to find, from TMG’s witness and associate view screens, who knew whom.

Building a prosopographical database using TMG first, and not using a product such as Microsoft Access or other general-purpose database makes sense. The increased value of the data from the get-go expands the possibilities of its use from just a specific researcher to a global audience. TMG offers comma-separated value (or tab-separated value) export files, so just a subset, or the entire database, could be exported for use in a general-purpose database product or spreadsheet, which is what works best for statistical analysis of inductive data.

TMG’s data analysis, however, works best for genealogical purposes. You can make groups of persons for further research and/or tagging as a particular demographic, for instance. The to-do feature allows you to gather in one place any and all data for future research into a family or a group. Try that in a general-purpose database and you’d be using a totally different program to hold the to-do data. By keeping the database and metadata (sources, to-dos, etc.) intact, you are better off with your research as there is no possibility of its loss by separation from its source.

While prosopography is not genealogy and genealogy is a subset of a prosopography, the data is pretty much the same. The primary difference is that prosopography does not make the person-to-person connections that genealogy does, reducing its usefulness to a genealogist. The data from a genealogy project, on the other hand is extremely useful to a prosopographer.

To get back to the Framingham project, the goal: “find out who lived in the fields below …”, becomes easier since the relevant data is in one source data set or another. Knowing who these people are from extracting their information from the overall data set makes them easier to research as the significant starting data is now available (their names, and birth, marriage, and death dates). From all the data a new genealogical project emerges. The possibility then arises, that from all the data could emerge a new, expanded, and perhaps, more accurate, local history of Framingham emerges.


Find out more about prosopography at the Prosopography Portal.

Find William Barry’s history of Framingham at the Internet Archive or at Google Books.

Find the Framingham vital records at the Internet Archive or at Google Books.

Find out more about the Great Migration project at its website.

Find out more about The Master Genealogist at Wholly Genes’ website.