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.

Prosopography and Genealogy

A prosopography is a form of collective biography; the historical view of a group, rather than of an individual. It is not a collection of biographies but an analysis of a well-defined whole. It can, and most often does, provide the groundwork for a particular biography, however. This sort of study is invaluable to genealogists because it lays out some primary source material with which to begin a research project.

A distinction between genealogy and prosopography is:

Genealogy can be useful for prosopographical research. But a lineage or a family may also be chosen as the subject of a prosopographical study. The difference between a genealogical study and a prosopographical study of a family or lineage is that in the case of a genealogy the internal family relations are prevalent, whereas the research focus in a prosopographical study is on the relations of members of the family with the outer world; the contacts (through functions, services, marriages, networks etc.) they have outside their family and the way these affect the history and influence of the family. Attention is not only directed towards family members but also towards in-laws, friends, clients, business contacts and so forth. Even one-time contacts may be important.

(“A Short Manual to the Art of Prosopography,” by Koenraad Verboven, Myriam Carlier, and Jan Dumolyn, p. 40 [p. 6 in the PDF])

This comparison shows how much detail modern genealogists need to consider in their research. The social networking facet of prosopographical research, in particular, is more important these days, as shown by the recent publication of the last volume in Robert Charles Anderson’s The Great Migration series of books.

K. S. B. Keats Rohan also discusses the usefulness of genealogy and prosopography complementing and being distinct from each other in “Biography, Identity and Names.” The author is of one of the sources cited by Mr. Anderson in his “Joys of Prosopography” article.

Mr. Anderson’s article “The Joys of Prosopography: Collective Biography for Genealogists,” in the American Ancestors magazine, discusses applying the principles of prosopography to genealogical research with his own Great Migration study, Marsha Hoffman Rising’s Ozarks study, and Henry Z. Jones’ Palatine study as examples. (American Ancestors, Winter 2010 (Vol. 11, No. 1), 25) [see the New England Historic Genealogical Society site]

The Unit for Prosopographical Research, at Linacre College, Oxford [this site uses frames] has quite a bit of useful information, besides the two papers cited above. They focus their work mostly on classical and medieval historical studies, but include materials relevant to more modern times, as discussed in part in the two papers. They also have an extensive bibliography at their site.

Prosopography is not for the faint-of-heart, nor for the casual researcher, as discussed by all of the authors above. This sort of research can take years of effort and involves a level of detail not often seen in genealogies. Mr. Anderson’s task, alone, took 23 years to complete. The benefits of a well-done study are immeasurable due to the inclusiveness of the materials covered and new information provided. The Great Migration series will live far longer than Savage’s Genealogical Dictionary has.


© 2011 N. P. Maling – Sea Genes Family History & Genealogy Research

[updated 24 November 2022 NPM]

Social Networking With Your Ancestors

Just as with the modern practice of social networking in genealogy is the practice of networking ancestral families and their associates.

Many times a particular problem of identity can be solved by analyzing an ancestor’s associates in detail. In-depth research of this sort requires the serious genealogist to document the ancestor’s neighbors, business associates, and in-laws. The latter may be the most important, and potentially the easiest to document as the families are related. With common names, and people of the same name in the area, familial relationships are also important. In-laws and relatives are the people to focus on when examining wills and land transfers. In business dealings such as personal property item transfers, such as when an estate is distributed, a neighbor probably bought an item.

When it comes to neighbors and business associates, it may be necessary to document an entire neighborhood, or even a village. I recall one article in Forensic Genealogy (ISBN-10: 0976716003 ISBN-13: 978-0976716006) which detailed one woman’s efforts to document her earliest known ancestors in a French village. It was a fascinating account of documenting the lives of people who lived through a difficult migration, famine, and pestilence.

Other groups of people, such as church members, are also sometimes important, too, beyond just those whom the ancestor lived and worked with. A minister, for instance sometimes performed marriages for cousins and other relatives in other communities which shared a minister. In some instances, it may be possible to document the minister’s relationship to the family through church records. If the minister’s records have been preserved in a seminary or society collection one may be able to find the records of other members of an extended family. A real goldmine of information would be to find lists of best men and women, and bridesmaids for each marriage in a churches records.