Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Who Should Be On the Family Tree?

The New York Times published "Who's On the Family Tree? Now It's Complicated" yesterday (note, the article may disappear soon) describing modern family structures that include blended families, surrogate mothers, sperm donors, adoptions, etc.

So just who should be included in our genealogy and family history research?  Several genea-bloggers discussed this in June - see my post More Thoughts on "Scientific" and "Traditional" Genealogy and linked posts to other writers for the discussion. 

The Association of Professional Genealogists (APG) have a Public Mailing List (see Archives here) and have been addressing the Times article over the past two days.  There are several threads in the July 2011 posts.  Some of the interesting and challenging posts include:

Michelle Kemper has three present-day examples
Ray Beere Johnson suggests "Cultural," "Biological/Medical" and "Legal" definitions
Jacqueline Wilson notes that, as an adoptee, she is prohibited from joining some lineage groups (e.g., DAR) on her adoptive parents lines
Gayle A. Livecchia thinks the DAR rule is disgusting and discriminatory.
Joan Young explains that the DAR membership is based on blood lineal descent.
John Wiley notes the "the-husband-of-the-mother-is-not-the-father-of-child" percentage may be about 10%

The discussion continues - I selected some of them above, please read all of the threads in the Archives for content and context.

Some of the discussion on the APG list went into an "inclusive" vs. "exclusive" argument about rules and membership criteria (gee, just like the current American cultural discussions, eh?), but done in a civil manner (good, the APGen list has rules too!). 

I like Ray Beere Johnson's categories of "family types" (my interpretation):

1.  "Cultural" (or "Emotional," "Private" or "Social") -- those in a "family" structure (married, unmarried, adoptive, same sex, sperm bank, surrogate, etc.)

2.  "Genetic" (or "Biological") -- those with DNA from the provider of the sperm and the egg.

3.  "Legal" --  those specified in a legal document (e.g., birth record, marriage record, adoptive, probate, deed, etc.)

My opinion:  I think that every genealogical researcher should know the differences between those three categories, accept them as such, and perform whatever research they choose to follow.  Genealogy software and online trees should be inclusive and permit identification of the correct relationships and permit reports and charts to reflect what the user desires.  Genealogists who enter data on forms, into software and family trees, or books, articles, manuscripts and websites should be truthful, but sensitive about "family secrets" and information about living people.  Private groups can create whatever rules they want to, and people can choose to apply or not. 

What say you?  Do you agree with the three categories above?  How would you better describe them, or categorize them? 

Isn't it interesting how a human interest story about two children who are step-siblings and cousins can lead to the genealogical community discussing the broader issue?

The URL for this post is

(c) 2011. Randall J. Seaver. All Rights Reserved. If you wish to re-publish my content, please contact me for permission, which I will usually grant. If you are reading this on any other genealogy website, then they have stolen my work.

UPDATED:  Edited and added some terms in my definitions. 


Tamura Jones said...


Ray Beere Johnson's three categories as you describe them are similar to four categories used in scientific genealogy:
1. biological in biological genealogy
2. official in official genealogy
3. legal in legal genealogy
4. social in family history

While genealogists rarely need to distinguish between official and legal, the three categories you mention do not distinguish between legal and social.

Note that adoption and same-sex marriage are not only social or cultural events, but legal events too. Only events that are neither biological, official or legal are "merely" social.

- Tamura

Unknown said...

I too like Ray Beere Johnson's categories and will begin to use them in my family tree I will append Tamura Jone's ammendment as soon as I am sure I understand it. I also agree with your summation that private individuals and groups may set their own rules.
My only restriction would be that my (or my groups) rules should not seek to dominate other rules. (The only organization mentioned — the DAR — does not try to make rules for other groups.

Wendy said...

On a related issue, I wonder how transgendered people will be accommondated in future genealogies? In many (most?) states, transgendered individuals can legally change their gender on all official forms.

David Newton said...

That's simple enough: an event for gender reassignment will become standard in genealogy programs. The programs will support different genders for different periods of a person's life.