How would you complete the statement “A genealogist is . . . . “ ? Start with the word itself. Genealogy comes from two Greek words – “genea,” or descent and “logos,” or discourse.
Follow with a standard dictionary definition, from Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language:
Page 944: “1: an account or history of the descent of a person, family or group from an ancestor or ancestors or from older forms; an enumeration of ancestors and their descendants in the national order of succession. 2: regular descent of a person, family, or group of organisms from a progenitor or older form. 3: a study of family pedigrees and the methods of investigation of them.”
Page 1315: “Lineage. 1.a. descent in a line from a common progenitor.”
Morgan (2012)  defines genealogy as the “study of a family’s line of descent from its ancestors.” (p. 3). He differentiates this from a family history, defined as “the study of a family’s history and traditions over an extended period of time and may involve documenting some or all of the facts.” (Morgan, p. 3). A genealogist “place[s] family members and ancestors into geographical, historical, and social context.” (p. 4).
Genealogical research includes concepts and strategies from multiple disciplines such as anthropology, geography, history, psychology and sociology. Williams (1960) included biography, law, medicine and linguistics.  What do each of these disciplines contribute to genealogy? Here’s a summary with my personal definitions:
- Anthropology is the study of groups of people within their natural environment. Focus is the group’s culture, physical environment, and interpersonal / family/ group dynamics. To better understand the person and family from a genealogy perspective, explore their physical address (urban vs. rural, neighborhood), geographical location (country, county or parish, town), family traditions, and personal accounts of events in the lives of individuals. Consider people’s behavior within the context of the place and time in which they lived. Anthropology also seeks to understand the perspective of the people being studied. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a hospital was viewed as a place to die; today, a hospital is generally viewed as a place to regain health.
- Biography is a person’s life history. Genealogy “adds background”  to the person’s story. A biographical profile for an ancestor records a chronological history of that person. For some of my female ancestors, the frequency of births and deaths of their children seemed overwhelming when I placed all of those birth and death dates on the woman’s biographical profile. I did not realize that James D. Posten’s mother died when he was only 12 years old until I filled in James’ biographical profile.
- Geography is the study of the physical environment in which we live. The effects of drought, such as the 1930s Dust Bowl, is one example. Dramatic changes in the land itself resulted in many families leaving the Midwest during that time. Boundary changes reflect the study of geography. How many of your ancestors lived in the same town for decades but are recorded as living in three (or more) different counties? A major flood changes the course of a river and subsequently results in an entire town being destroyed. A town with the same name develops 5-10 miles away from the original site. Trace family migrations with geographical maps.
- Historical events profoundly affected the lives of our ancestors. Consider the decision of men and women to fight (or not) in a particular war. The experience of Black families in the South during the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s was different than the experience of White families who lived in the same place. Was an ancestor part of the Women’s Suffrage movement? When did the women in your family tree first register to vote?
- Law may be used to establish relationships. Legal documents and processes are often primary sources of information. Probate records may include an actual death date and the names of heirs. Birth, marriage and death records can hold treasures or no new information. A court case involving a land dispute gives insight into family relationships.
- Linguistics is the study of language. Terms used by our ancestors provide clues to national origin. Surnames were often derived from a particular location, occupation or relationship. Johnson originally referred to the “son of John”.
- Medicine studies disease and how to cure, prevent, and treat them. Today, we focus more on genetics, a specific branch of medicine. Look at the causes of death for your ancestors. Relate the cause of death to specific outbreaks of disease or natural causes in the locality. Compare photographs of your ancestors with your family today. What physical characteristics do they have in common?
- Psychology is the study of the human mind including mental processes and behavior. In general, the individual is the focus of study although ‘group think’ also falls under the purview of psychology. We often ask, “What was my ancestor thinking when that decision was made?” or “What did my ancestor think about . . . ?” Personal diaries, journals and letters provide insight into their perceptions of events and people. Other documents such as newspaper articles and legal proceedings give clues about the person’s state of mind. Membership in a particular group shows a glimpse of our ancestor’s values and beliefs. This aspect of genealogy is most evident when we begin to write our ancestor’s story.
- Sociology is the study of the structure, interactions, and behaviors of groups of people or, broadly, the study of human society. Families are the often the focus. Sociology and anthropology overlap in that each studies groups of people. Anthropology focuses on culture while sociology focuses on society. Placing families within their social context is one tool used by genealogists. A family’s religion or ethnic background or nationality often influenced where they lived in a particular community. Values and belief systems change as society changes.
Now, you are probably asking, “What does all of this have to do with my genealogical research?” All of these disciplines follow similar research methods. Research in each discipline involves the careful, systematic review of documents and information. Information may be obtained first hand or through other sources. Research occurs in the field, in buildings and online. Specific methodologies and analyses involved in each discipline are beyond the scope of this blog. Genealogy also requires the careful, systematic review and evaluation of documents and information.
To summarize, a genealogist is anthropologist, biographer, geographer, historian, legal analyst, linguist, medical scientist, psychologist and sociologist as well as detective. These perspectives broaden your view as you copy facts and develop a more comprehensive analysis of those facts and the sources from which the facts are drawn. So, dust off your school text books and add more perspective to your genealogical research!
Other sources consulted for this post:
Desmond Walls Allen, “Family history detective,” Family Tree Magazine, 28 October 2011 (https://www.familytreemagazine.com/premium/family-history-detective/ : accessed 11 March 2019.)
Michael Erben, “Genealogy and sociology: A preliminary set of statements and speculations,” Sociology, 25(2), 275-292, 1991. Abstract . Sage Publications (https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0038038591025002008 : accessed 11 March 2019).
Emily Garber. “Genealogy is anthropology.” (going) The Extra Yad, 26 April 2013 (http://extrayad.blogspot.com/2013/04/genealogy-is-anthropology.html : accessed 11 March 2019).
Jeanne Kay Guelke and Dallen J. Timothy (editor), Geography and Genealogy: Locating Personal Pasts, E-book edition (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008. Chapter 1: Locating personal pasts: An introduction by Jeanne Kay Guelke and Dallen J. Timothy. (https://zodml.org/sites/default/files/%5BDallen_J._Timothy_and_Jeanne_Kay_Guelke%5D_Geograph.pdf : accessed 11 March 2019)
Arnon Herskovitz, “A suggested taxonomy of genealogy as a multidisciplinary academic research field,” Journal of Multidisciplinary Research, volume 4, no. 3 (Fall 2012): 5-21; image copy, JMR (http://www.jmrpublication.org/portals/jmr/issues/JMR4-3.pdf : accessed 11 March 2019).
Sheila O’Hare. “Genealogy and history.” Common-Place, Vol. 2, No. 3 (April 2002), (http://www.common-place-archives.org/vol-02/no-03/ohare : accessed 11 March 2019.). 4 parts.
Need lighter views? Read these two blog posts:
Alona. “Are you a genealogist or a family historian?” Lonetester, 21 March 2017 (https://www.lonetester.com/2017/03/are-you-a-genealogist-or-a-family-historian/ : accessed 11 March 2019.
Lorine McGinnis Schulze, “What kind of genealogist are you?” Legacy Family Tree News, 30 October 2015 (https://news.legacyfamilytree.com/legacy_news/2015/10/what-kind-of-genealogist-are-you.html : accessed 11 March 2019).
I am still in kind of a fog after the death of my husband’s father last month. Even genealogy doesn’t interest me much. I can’t seem to stay focused. So, here is an article that I started last year. Yes, I rechecked all of my sources. For my next post, I plan to tell a story about a female ancestor in honor of Women’s History Month.
What I learned: Start articles when I think about a topic. Keep adding to these articles.
What helped: Having an almost complete draft of this article on my computer. Re-discovering an old genealogy ‘how-to’ book on my bookshelf. I bought this book about 2 years at an estate auction.
What didn’t help: Anxiety about what to write. Wanting to stay on track with posts every 2 weeks.
To-do: Pick a female ancestor from husband’s family tree for next post.
©Susan Posten Ellerbee and Posting Family Roots blog, 2019
 Ethel W. Williams, Know your ancestors: A guide to genealogical research. Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1960.
 Philip Babcock Gove, editor-in-chief. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Springfield, Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster, Inc, Publishers, 1993.
 George G. Morgan, How to do everything genealogy (3rd ed.) New York: McGraw Hill, 2012.
 Williams, Know your ancestors pages 11-13.
 Williams, Know your ancestors, page 12