Thursday, January 19, 2012

Which is Better? History or Genealogy?

The other day I was talking to someone who carefully explained to me that genealogy wasn’t real history.  This person was referring to my business, and was obviously unaware of my education and background in history.  He went on to tell me that history is “merely” an art form and not to be taken seriously, and that genealogy is a bastardization of history and so is to be taken with the same degree of seriousness as one would palm reading or astrology.  (my apologies to all the palmists and astrologists out there)
Rather than amuse myself by using my rapier-like wit to pierce his foolish points and arguments, I merely nodded and said “Really?  Do you think so?” and left it at that.  Miss Manners would have been so proud.
But it got me to thinking about genealogy and history and their similarities and differences.
There are those who tend to agree with my acquaintance:  genealogy isn’t real history.  And there are, amazingly enough, those who, like Michel Foucault and Michael Haitt, seem to think that genealogy is superior to history (see his article /
I think they are both wrong.
Hear me out.
Genealogy is the study of our ancestors and their descendants, and usually it results in a chart or list.  Very specific information is sought in genealogical research – the precise name of that father, and the exact birth date of that mother. 
History, on the other hand, is the study of events in the past, and usually results in a narrative history.  History usually speaks in generalities, unless it is biography.
It is easy to see why the two camps could be at war.  They seem to be fundamentally opposed to each other, seeking very different outcomes.
In my mind a good historian is a good genealogist, and vice versa.  Let’s be honest here:  no one really likes reading a pedigree chart.  They may be fun to unravel to the end to see how far back you can go, but they have no stories, no personality to endear their subjects to us.
Similarly, no one likes to read a giant stack of generalities.  We want to know the details of the story.  We want to know what it means to me.
This is why the history I have taught for the past 20 years has been in the form of a story.
And why the genealogy I do is also in the form of a story.
Whether it is history or genealogy, my methods are the same:
·         I compile the facts to arrive at the truth.
·         I create a specific person’s life story.
·         I use generalities to breathe life into the facts.
·         I use primary sources whenever possible.
·         I also use secondary sources whenever necessary.
My goal in genealogical research, whether for myself or for my clients, is to find the truth, regardless of what it is, and then tell the story of that truth.
This is often a hard thing to face, which is why I broadcast my philosophy everywhere that a client might look (I don’t want there to be any misunderstandings about what I am doing!):

My purpose is to know, understand, and celebrate the events that relate to our families.  While delving into the past may produce some less-than-savory ancestors (or put an end to a family legend) I believe that a sense of humor and a desire for truth will enable us to celebrate our families as they really were and are.

1 comment:

  1. Great article. You've hit upon something close to my hear - I love both and have a deep background in them too. Personally I don't believe one can exist with the other but that's just me.