Can genealogy actually help to unite us?

What role does family history play in shaping our worldview? For me, that can be  perplexing question because learning more about our ancestors can have very two very different effects on how we look at society and our place in it. Consider, first of all, that family history is just that, family history. That means that the people we spend our time studying will, to put it bluntly, be very much like us. They may have lived in a different time, they may have earned a living in a very different way, but they will belong to the same ethnic group that we do, probably speak the same language, and very possibly believe very much the same way we do. This means that we can end up with a very narrow view of the past. For many years, I didn’t have much interest in researching my genealogy and, in retrospect, I can see that this is a big part of why. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up in a world that values diversity, and in which people have the opportunity to learn about different cultures, different religions, and different value systems. Why then should I be interested in focusing on white European immigrants (and, in my case, largely Mormon pioneers)? There are obvious answers, of course, beginning with the fact that the people I was learning about are my family, and preserving information about our families and our history is a worthy undertaking. But there is still an obvious tension here between the values of multiculturalism and diversity on the one hand, and studying our genealogy, and our blood lines (a term that still makes me cringe a bit), on the other. Truth be told, as a teenager and young adult, genealogy was also a bit boring to me! It’s all well and good to make a high-sounding argument about why we shouldn’t be interested in a subject when, truth be told, we’re just bored.

On the other hand, genealogical research can tell us a lot about what we have in common. Many of my ancestors go back to Colonial America, some of them came from England much later (in the nineteenth century), with still others coming hear from Scotland or Ireland. But they all have something in common: they were immigrants. Immigration has become a divisive issue in recent years, and those of us whose families have been in America “forever” all came from somewhere, and learning about our ancestors can help to make the immigrant experience real to us in a more personal way than historical accounts of people with whom we have no immediate connection  does. As an aside, I should note that I’m not thinking about the experience of Native Americans, or the original inhabitants of other parts of the world. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Traditional genealogical research is vulnerable to what is called confirmation bias. Put simply, we may start out with certain assumptions about our ancestry. We may think of ourselves as being from New England, Canada, France or India. We may (and likely do) have something more specific in mind such as  Mayflower descendants, Pennsylvania Quakers, Mormon pioneers, or Irish immigrants (say in the wake of the potato famine). Then when we start looking for evidence we tend to find what we are looking for. Confirmation bias occurs when we start out with a belief and then think see that  the evidence favors our belief, while overlooking evidence to the contrary. If we have a particular story in mind, it’s easy to go looking for evidence to back up that story, and this can create for us a skewed view of our heritage. In my case, I came across the name Bradford while researching something else and couldn’t help but be curious as to whether this was the same Bradford line we know from history. It turned out that the answer was yes, I am a descendant of William Bradford, governor of Plymouth and signer of the Mayflower compact. But trying to connect ourselves with famous people is just one of a number of genealogy pitfalls. It can be fun, and those people are part of our ancestry, But starting with a particular conclusion in mind and then trying to find evidence that will bear it out is not the right way to get a realistic picture of our ancestry. Worse, it can lead us to ignore important evidence, and come to conclusions that aren’t really accurate, or at least balanced.

Fortunately, changes in technology and the sheer number of records that are available online and indexed are leading to greater accuracy and coverage (the extent to which there are not gaps) in our family trees. Using just traditional methods, search tools, such as those at will often provide us with extensive lists of potential matching records. It makes it harder to miss large branches of our family tree because we don’t know how to get started. To be sure, the potential matches need to be evaluated, we need to identify and document our sources, and identify multiple sources of evidence where possible, but it’s hard to overlook entire branches of our family tree when they’re staring us in the face on our computer screen. Another area in which technology tends to keep us from overlooking information we may not have been looking for is the use of DNA techniques in genealogical research. A funny thing about our DNA is that it’s not vulnerable to confirmation bias. We are going to find out whether our ancestors go back to Europe, Africa or are Native American (for example) whether we like it or not. Now, the amount of detailed information we end up finding depends on what is available for the DNA sequences to match, but general information on ethnicity (at least for some 4 or 5 generations) is pretty much unavoidable. What that information means to us is a different matter. And regardless of the methods we use to learn about our ancestors, what our newfound knowledge means to us is, well, pretty much up to us. Still, I can’t help but wonder if improved research methods and greater knowledge about our ancestors will tend to break down barriers, and we will end up feeling more connected to people we might not otherwise meet and, finally, that greater knowledge of who are ancestors are will tend to be positive influence. This won’t always be the case. Unfortunately, some people will only find their prejudices reinforced, but we can hope this will be the exception rather than the rule.

Can it really be that easy?

If you’re like me, you have watched commercials for with considerable skepticism. After all, genealogy is supposed to be hard work, involving countless hours digging through library stacks and perusing microfilms. On television, on the other hand, we see people entering only as small amount of information and then seeing a leaf appear indicating that a clue to further information is available. Can it really be that easy? I thought the obvious answer was that it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. So, for the longest time, I just ignored these commercials and didn’t even consider trying it. Well, of course, family history research is not easy, it can be hard work, it can be frustrating. But I eventually decided to try it out and was surprised at how fast I was provided with information about my ancestors. Now, it really isn’t my intention to make this into a testimonial, but suffice it to say that I now use Family Tree Maker and as one of primary research tools. Now, to be fair, I’m part of a Mormon family that goes back to pioneer days, and have many ancestors from Colonial America (one sort of implies the other), so there are a lot of people who have been looking into my ancestors’ family lines for years. So, it might be argued that I’m not a very good test case, of course the information will be out there for the taking, and of course a family tree on will only grow, and grow quickly.

But is that really right? First of all, we should note that data in the form of pedigree charts, family records and published genealogies are out there, but how much information does that raw data really provide us with? Data can be thought of as a collection of statements, the source and reliability of which may or may not be known. Of course, data comes from somewhere and designers of repositories of data known as databases are usually careful to record the source of the recorded data, and this information (known to database professionals as metadata) can be very valuable to us as we analyze the data and try to  glean useful information from it. Okay, that’s a lot of terminology. Let’s break it down. First off, data is pretty much anything that can be written down. It can be unstructured (like a journal) or structured (like a list of names and birth dates in a parish registry). What we know about information is called metadata (or “data about data”). Before I go on, I should make it clear that this terminology is taken from information science, not genealogy. So, if you get funny looks from other researchers if you ask about metadata, you’ll know why. That’s actually not quite the whole story: metadata is generally systematic recording such things as authorship, language, time recorded and so forth. One thing that metadata is not, though, is evaluation or even interpretation. A document may list  3 Jan 1840 as the birthdate of Mary Williams, but how confident are we? This is a bit of a digression, but if the information source is a birth certificate, we can be fairly confident, but if it’s a death certificate, it has to come from some other source. The type of document from which we get our data is yet another issue to consider when interpreting that data. As an aside, I’ll note that it’s not uncommon to see the date of birth and christening date for a person to be listed as the very same day? How likely is that? It is certainly possible, but is certainly not expected. If the date doesn’t come from a primary source it is possible that, somewhere along the way, someone needed a birthdate but the only information they had was the date of christening. We also need to consider the cultural context. Was the christening considered the more important event? Was it more important to record that information correctly or the date of birth? The point is that there is a necessary analysis phase that may be described as trying to ascertain what the available data is telling us. At this point, the question isn’t whether it’s true or false, but simply what it means. When we have performed this task, the analyzed data becomes information.

But to return to the topic of online genealogical research, we’re likely to find ourselves confronted with a wealth of often conflicting information (at this point, I’ll stop being pedantic about the distinction between the two). My genealogical database is full of alternative dates and places for what should be a single event, and I imagine yours is, too. Of course, we work hard to resolve these discrepancies, but that’s not always easy. This is why a technology can seem to give us a lot of answers very quickly, but then we find out that we’re not as sure of the information in our charts (or electronic databases). Does that mean that online search tools and social media just give us a false sense of knowledge, leading us to believe things that have yet to be proven? It would be easy for a cynic to take this position, but I think it is a mistake. The Internet is a powerful tool, and can be extremely helpful to us as we dig into our family history. It’s not a panacea, though, and we have to be critical of the information we’re able to find using search tools. We just need to do the work of evaluating, cross-referencing and verifying that information. This isn’t really so different from genealogy in the pre-Internet days. The difference is that instead of getting our raw data from microfilm or microfiche, we are likely to get it from a web-based tool. The amount of time we spend performing these various tasks may change, but the tasks themselves do not. Modern technology really can help us to find information more quickly, but we do need to be careful and methodical in our analysis if we want to avoid mistakes.