Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Genealogy Research is NOT Bunk!

The article titled "The Family Tree, Pruned" by Richard Conniff, which appeared in the July 2007 issue of Smithsonian Magazine, (no link to the article is available) has caused a stir in the semi-staid world of genealogy and family history. The front page of the magazine quoted Mr. Conniff as saying "...Genealogy is Bunk."

The article highlights some of the "pop culture" aspects of genealogy - the claims to and glorification of royal or notable ancestry, the invention of pedigrees, the purportedly fictional Roots story, the reported stalking in pursuit of DNA, the "we are all related to each other" argument, and other episodes in genealogy lore. I found the article humorous and fairly dismissive of genealogy as a hobby or vocation. He's entitled to his view. I disagree with it.

I decided I had better understand the words here, so I looked up:

1) Genealogy = A study of family and identification of ancestors and their pertinent information (birth, death, etc.) .

2) Bunk = nonsense: a message that seems to convey no meaning. A ludicrously false statement (IMHO, these are the ones closest to the use in the quote).

My opinions on this subject include:

1) The search for one's ancestry and family history is honorable and is interesting and fulfilling to most people that pursue it. Performing this search and investigating a family's history can be educational and exhilarating, and can put a person in contact with other people who share the ancestry and can add to the collective family knowledge.

2) Knowing the names, relationships, birth, marriage and death dates and locations for ancestors is just the start of the ancestral search. Understanding the history of the times, the social interaction between ancestors and other people, and life events of the ancestors (education, employment, service, interests, hardships, accomplishments, etc.) provides social context and a sense that each individual had some worth and contributed to their community and country.

3) The ranks of genealogists range from amateurs interested in finding only grandma's gravestone to academics and professionals who are trained and certified in the field. Most self-proclaimed genealogists are in between those poles - they have some education, some experience, and lots of enthusiasm and interest in finding out about the lives of their ancestors.

4) Just as there are bad "actors" in our present society, there were bad "actors" throughout history, and probably in every family. Some researchers revel in the discovery, and others are ashamed by it. Likewise, some researchers pursue their links to royals or notable people, and when they find them they brag about them. Some people in our modern society brag about knowing celebrities, or worship them from near or far, and connect their identity to them. It's human nature, eh?

5) Many genealogists make misteaks. The errors are mainly due to lack of information, too much conflicting information, and, in rare cases, intentional distortion or fabrication of facts and stories. All other professions have the same problem - in politics, engineering, journalism, science, medicine, law, and education negative issues are often highlighted and publicized. Nobody's perfect - not me, you or Mr. Conniff.

6) The increased volume of online genealogy data - in free and commercial databases, on social networks, and on web sites - has increased the frequency of the "finds" of links to celebrities or notable people, and therefore added to the "pop culture" perception of genealogy. What used to take weeks to find or obtain (e.g., a census record, a naturalization record, a military pension file), or required a visit to the musty archives in courthouses in a faraway state, now may take only minutes using online databases and services. Technology is wonderful, but most researchers understand that they have to critically evaluate all information in the context of time and place.

7) The use of DNA in genealogy research is actually helpful in determining whether one is descended from a distant ancestor. If males of a given surname do Y-chromosome testing and have the same results, then they may prove that they are descended from a common ancestor. If they can identify that common ancestor (say, a 9th great-grandfather) through traditional research methods in recent history, then the paternity of those males since that common ancestor has been proven. DNA testing may prove, by test results not matching - a "non-paternity event" - that two persons are not related to each other.

8) Up until the 1960's, the traditional family of mom and dad with the kids, a car and a TV, with grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins living nearby, was the norm. Many families are now separated by divorce, location, attitudes, etc. I am not surprised by the yearning of many people to know "who am I?" "where did I come from?" and "how did I get here?" Genealogy research helps satisfy those yearnings.

Genealogy research offers opportunities to reconnect with lost family members and help people feel connected to their heritage. The study of one's ancestry and family history can be enlightening and uplifting for those that choose to pursue it and accept the outcomes.

So -- is Genealogy Bunk? NO! By all indications, NO. It is not false or nonsensical. It makes sense when done well and can be a means to learn more about family members, history and sociology. I still think that genealogy research is FUN and fulfilling.


Moultrie Creek said...

Great article! I'll have to read the original over coffee at Barnes & Noble this weekend - even knowing up front it will tick me off. Your article did a wonderful job describing genealogy to someone who appears to be clueless.

Janice said...


Thank you for the great article. I'd like to add that genealogy also helps make history itself relevant. I recently lectured to several local grammar school classes about the profession of historian. The vast majority of the kids admitted to not liking history at all. I believe that incorporating genealogy into history class would help these children "connect" with history.


JMK said...

Well put Randy. Genealogy is not bunk and we have the t-shirt to prove it! Lets get this bandwagon rolling.... Genealogy Is Not Bunk!