Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Sociology of Genealogy

Noun.  The systematic study of the development, structure, interaction, and collective behavior of organized groups of human beings.

At least, that's according to Merriam-Webster, the company whose dictionary-publishing lineage stretches back to the 1843 purchase of the rights to Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language.

You may not have thought of genealogists as an "organized group of human beings" having any sort of "collective behavior." Granted, we do assemble ourselves into genealogical Societies—both local and national—but for the most part, these are much less formal associations than corporate structures fettered by ponderous legal restrictions. Who would want to launch a "systematic study" of the development and ongoing progress of such a loosely-knit group of people?

I do. After reading through pages and pages of emails I had exchanged with researchers from what is clearly a bygone era in the world of genealogy, I'm certainly giving it some serious thought. What I am reading has reminded me of the way things used to be among us researchers of the 1990s and earliest years of this century. Well beyond nostalgia for what seemed to be a golden era of researching—shaped by the letter-writing habits of bygone generations but supercharged by the exciting dawn of a computer age of genealogy—my curiosity has been piqued by what I'm recalling. These reminiscing moments have pulled back the curtains covering such incremental changes, over the years, and let me compare two very different eras under the same "modern" canopy of time.

I'm not really sure what produced the change, but this experience has prompted the question, and it's taken hold in those wondering-prone pockets of my rabbit-trail-induced thought patterns. Scatter-shot, memories about researchers I've known pop into my mind. I realize just how educated, talented and multi-faceted were some of these people I've come to know through my forays into genealogical pursuits. I've met doctors, lawyers, and college professors of various academic backgrounds. I've met lay-scientists and -historians whose avocation has been attended to with as much rigorous application as that of some professionals.

If you were to attend a genealogy conference this Spring, and run into speakers like Judy Russell or Steve Morse, you might assume you were standing among the giants of the field. And you would be correct. It would not normally be commonplace to meet adjunct professors from one of the nation's leading law schools—nor federal prosecutors, whether before the bench or in less intimidating surroundings. Or electrical engineers whose industry-changing design has become their occupational legacy.

The list of talented speakers goes on. Read the bios on any conference's speaker roster, and you'll see what I mean. But that is not only at the national or even state level. Just last week, our own genealogical society hosted a much sought-after speaker who turns out, in addition to her genealogical accomplishments, to hold a Ph.D. in physics.

Thinking these things over, one might assume that individuals like these are a class apart—a special subset of all genealogists, the ones who circulate on a much higher plane, breathing air far rarer than the common genealogical researcher. Perhaps that is so, today. But I'm not sure.

You see, in those days I'm remembering, back at the start of the nexus between genealogy and a nascent computer age, I discovered the same effect among the researchers with whom I enjoyed such email friendships as I mentioned yesterday. Back then, it wasn't the elite who had interesting backgrounds, glamorous accomplishments, or enviable resumes. It could be the person you just emailed, asking for details on a possible match in your pedigree chart.

In my mind, the question that is just screaming to be answered is: so, what made the difference? Why, twenty years later, don't we bump into these same people, as if they were just average Joes (except for a highly-honed fascination with genealogy)? Did the collective behavior of our organized assemblage of enthusiasts change? Was it just a change in modes of interaction? Or did the group, itself, undergo some changes? If so, what outside forces might have made the impact that initiated such a change?

Those, apparently, are the kinds of questions that would be examined in a sociological studyif any sociologist would consider those who self-identify as genealogists to be part of a group.

Well, I'm no sociologist. And it might be argued that, as loosely defined as the realm of genealogists might be defined, we're no organized group. But I still think pursuing those questions might lead to some interesting observations.   


  1. Just my opinion but I think "business" ( for lack of a better word) identified a new market, and removed the social aspect in exchange for cash. Then dumbed it down to the lowest common denominator. Reminds me of what happened to TV. Getting cranky in my old age!

    1. What's ironic about this evolution is that it stands in the face of the advent of Web 2.0 and all the potential for interactivity that that development ushered in.

      I don't particularly want to attach a sinister motive to what's unfolded here, but I do agree with you, Kat, that business entities have played a large--albeit likely unwitting--part in the change.

      I also think the key to any reversal of this is to first recognize what has happened, and then to address how it should be changed. Obviously, my choice would be to foster that participatory milieu once again.

  2. I have to agree with Kat on this ... Computer Interaction is missing something (besides good manners) - possibly shows signs of frustration with a world that doesn't seem to actually listen to anyone - and seems beyond the abilities of one to change for the better.

    1. What's ironic here, Iggy, is that unlike Michelle's comment the other day about her grandmother's letter exchange with other researchers, my experience occurred during the early years of online genealogy. Although we all had to be educated on such protocols as how to avoid being snared in "flame wars," we certainly reveled in our newfound online ability to connect and communicate with each other about our genealogical research quandaries.

      Your point about a world that doesn't listen anymore may be hitting the target, Iggy. I am wondering if that may be key to the change. There are all sorts of ways for people to get their "message" across, but not very many ways in which others know how to receive it, process it, and provide a thoughtful response.


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