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By Daniel Hubbard | February 26, 2012

The other day my older daughter was talking with a friend about what her parents do. She told her friend that I’m a professional genealogist. After a moment the friend replied, “What does he do, study lamps?” When I heard the story it took me a moment, or perhaps two, in order to realize that she was thinking of the genie from Aladdin’s lamp.

Aladdin working on his genie-ology or perhaps his genie's genealogy

Whenever two adults meet there is a familiar ritual that plays out. “What do you do?” It is a very useful question and I ask some version of it myself but it is one I’ve always had trouble answering. Physicist was an answer that was almost guaranteed to cause people’s eyes to glaze over. This was especially potent in the undergraduate version of the question, “What’s your major?” I always wondered if I could arrange some system of kickbacks from the local opticians.

“Genealogist” often doesn’t do much better as an answer to the question. When the question comes back, “what do you really do?” I realize that I need to give a bit of an explanation.

I’m getting ready to give my Introduction to Genealogy presentation a couple of times in the next few weeks and it has got me thinking about how to define it. Not just what it is that I do but genealogy itself. The Oxford English Dictionary’s fourth definition is

4. The investigation of family pedigrees, viewed as a department of study or knowledge.

Not bad but not good either. It lacks quit a bit and is not really something that will help a person understand.

Quibbling over Yin and Yang

Perhaps saying that genealogy is the study of a family’s history would help and yet that often leads to quibbling about the difference between family history and genealogy. Some will say that genealogy is purely the study of the blood and marriage relationships between people.  That coincides nicely with the OED’s definition. In that view, family history consists of what is left after the pedigree has been reconstructed—all the stories and little facts that don’t relate to birth, marriage and death. I’ve come to the conclusion that the better one is at either enterprise the smaller the difference there is between them.

Yin and Yang- one requires the other

Genealogy is not so cut and dried that one can be regularly successful at it without learning as much as possible about the people, their close relations, then perhaps their distant relations, their neighbors and associates; their times and the places where they lived. Sometimes “small” details are the key to proving the obvious to be wrong. Other times, every facet of an extended family needs to be understood in order to figure out what the next generation back is likely to be. Writing a narrative surrounding a certain research problem can send a researcher back into the records because the story just won’t add up.

On the other hand, try to produce a family history without being able to correctly reassemble the family from records and it won’t be long before the family history is hopelessly wrong. Genealogy and family history are two sides of the same coin. Neither is complete without the other. They are yin and yang. Both may be wrong without the other. So, I don’t quibble.


That brings me back to explaining genealogy to people. If it isn’t just a matter of investigating pedigrees, if it doesn’t just involve the names and dates of  few individuals who are of primary interest, then it gets much harder to explain. Perhaps it is the reconstruction of the lives of a set of individuals and their historical context to such an extent that the relationships between a subset of those people can be considered to be proven.

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