Sunday, 6 March 2011

Genealogy versus Family History

I’ve recently been watching episodes of the second US series of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ (WDYTYA) and following reactions to it through Twitter and on GeneaBloggers Radio. I was particularly struck by the response to the episode featuring Kim Cattrall which seemed to be (from some quarters at least) that, although very interesting, it didn’t include much genealogy and that therefore WDYTYA was not the best place to feature such a story. 

The episode, in which Kim discovered what happened to her maternal grandfather after he left his wife and young family, was originally shown as part of Series 6 of the UK WDYTYA and this perhaps explains why it sits a little uncomfortably with the rest of the US series. In the UK, WDYTYA has gradually evolved from the early series, which did tend to be a straightforward tracing of family lines generation by generation, to the most recent ones which often follow a more biographical format, featuring perhaps just one or two ancestors of the featured celebrity. 

Although I’m not without criticism of these episodes (which often seem to be chosen because of their ability to wring the maximum amount of emotion out of the participant), I do think that this shows one of the strengths of the programme, namely in demonstrating how wide-ranging the study of family history can be. WDYTYA shows that family history can be about recent generations, what your grandfather did in the war or why no one ever talked about great uncle so-and-so, as much as about tracing your surname as far back as possible or collecting as many names and dates as you can. 

In my professional research I’m often fascinated by the range of what clients want to find out about their ancestors and, conversely, what they are not interested in. For example, one former client was very keen to trace all the brothers and sisters of their grandparents, including property records, wills, newspaper reports and passenger lists. However, when I suggested it would be possible to trace the family another generation or two back they were not interested. For them, tracing their family history meant discovering more about the people they had grown up hearing stories about; beyond this they felt the connection was too distant to be worth pursuing. 

Then there are those clients for whom the goal is to trace the family line as far back as possible and when a record suggests a possible avenue for research (e.g. a census return may indicate an ancestor spent time in an institution for which records survive) they are not interested in pursuing it, but are instead content with locating births, marriages and deaths. In this case, the attitude seems to be that once you go back a few generations you have so many ancestors that you can’t possibly find out everything about them all and that therefore it is best to stick to the basics. 

Of course there are plenty of people whose interests fall somewhere between these two, and in the case of paid research (or indeed any research) the cost involved is a factor in determining how much research can be done into any one individual. However, these varying attitudes can perhaps be summed us as the difference between genealogy and family history. 

The terms genealogy and family history are often used interchangeably (a genealogy society and a family history society are pretty much the same thing, for example) but can also mean slightly different things. A family tree chart showing the names of all your ancestors going back four generations with their respective dates of birth and death records your genealogy, but tells you little about your family history. 

Where did your ancestors live? What jobs did they do? Were they wealthy or in receipt of poor relief? What were their lives like? These are all questions the family historian seeks to answer. Whereas genealogy can sometimes seem a narrow field of study (only being interested in someone if you are descended from them), by contrast the family historian seeks to understand the past through the lives of their ancestors and so the range of what constitutes ‘family history’ is almost endless. 

These days the trend seems to be increasingly towards family history and away from simple genealogy. Perhaps because, as more records become indexed and available online, finding births, marriage and deaths has become a lot easier than previously, meaning researchers have the luxury of concentrating on everything that went on in between. 

So, was Kim Cattrall’s search for her grandfather a suitable subject for WDYTYA? Well I suppose that depends on whether you view WDYTYA as a programme about genealogy or one about family history. But, as a family historian, I would definitely say yes!


  1. I agree with you wholeheartedly. I recently wrote a blog that included the difference between pedigree charts and genealogical research. I categorize genealogical research to include a the profile of your family history (their lives, their social history, etc). At a3Genealogy, we outline in our final reports what is possible, and interesting.

  2. Excellent points. Every time I mention to someone that I am researching my family history I always get the question "how far back have you gone?" My goal is not to find out how far I can go back, but to found out the "meat" of my family. I found it extremely interesting to learn that one of my great uncles was born deaf and lived at the Donaldson's Hospital in Edinburgh or that my grandfather had a penchant for pinching trousers from the taylor's window! Yes, I like to collect names and dates, but once I've achieved that, I want to know about the person's life - and not just my direct ancestors either.

  3. Yes - I agree with you too. A few people I know who watched Kim Cattrall in the UK said it was very moving and interested those for whom 'genealogy' is a closed book. I know the social history of my family is far more important to me than finding out I can get back x number of generations.

  4. The best episode of WDYTYA in my opinion remains to this day the very first - when Bill Oddie tried to understand his mother's mental illness. You can follow family history to discover the stories of the great and the good (or the unknown), or be a genealogist and simply harvest names and pat yourself on the back for getting as far back as Adam and Eve. But where family history really works is when you can learn something about yourself - otherwise is there really a point? Bill Oddie's programme wasn't about family history or genealogy - it was about identity - understanding what happened in his past to understand himself. It is for this reason that I always thought BBC4's Family Ties was a much better series. WDYTYA today has become nothing more than the modern version of This is Your Life...

    Must admit - I hate the term genealogist, I much prefer "family historian", or more simply "researcher". I much prefer telling clients how someone once lived, rather than telling them simply when they were born, married or died. It's like knowing the names of the England football team in 1966 at the World Cup final - or being able to describe the true drama and passion of the game. The story's the thing!

  5. I agree that social history is the most interesting part of family history. Some of my clients just want to go back another generation or two or three, but most also want to 'put flesh on the bones' with social history, photos, samples of great-grandfather's handwriting, etc. Either way, the best approach is often to thoroughly research the siblings of a direct ancestor. This applies especially if one sibling stayed in the UK and another came to Australia. Australian marriage certificates and death certificates often give the father's name and occupation and mother's maiden name (information that may not be so easily found in UK sources).

  6. Excellent points. I am having a hard time moving my research back beyond my great-great grandparents because I am finding so many interesting things about them, even though I know who many of the more distant ancestors are.

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  9. For me, it's a mixture of the two. I enjoy seeing how far back I can extend my tree but filling in the bones can be fascinating too.

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  11. Excellent article, Kirsty. While I enjoy learning the names and the factual details of my ancestor's lives, based on your description I clearly fall into the "family historian" camp.

    Standing alongside the building where my firefighter grandfather saved a would be suicide leaper, standing in front of an ancestral hearth in Ireland or uncovering the story of my great grandfather's journey to America are moments that have always had an enormous impact on me.

    I suppose I subscribe to historian Shelby Foote's thought: "So you get that thing and you get the weather, you get the soil and you get the coloration of things; get the true feel of it.

    Thank you for your thought provoking words.

    Charles R. Hale

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  13. Really interesting post. Like most who've commented, I agree that the broader scope of family history holds more appeal than the "straight" genealogy approach (I have "genealogist" in my ID only because I was struggling to find a Twitter-length name combining feminism and family history … not very satisfactory but oh well).
    Slightly disagree with Chris, though, about there not being much point to the research unless it tells you something about yourself. Lots of family historians find it fascinating to research other families; I certainly do, although they’re nothing to do with my own identity. It’s not pointless IMO because it leads you down all sorts of fascinating historical byways that you’d be unlikely to encounter otherwise, and adds to your understanding of the past and of the bigger human picture.
    Surely the value of family history is largely in its ability to expand our view of the world, to make events and places outwith our own experience seem more vivid and more significant? The "what does it tell me about myself" approach just seems a bit limiting to me. Not to mention the irritation factor of people hearing about the fantastically tough lives of ancestors and saying facile things like "Well, that must be why *I'm* such a strong woman" (cf Jane Horrocks on WDYTYA).
    I'm sure I've run with the point far beyond what Chris really meant, but it's a bugbear of mine :) Anyway, well done on all the blog awards!

  14. Oh, that worked, good! Sorry, I can't seem to post using the profile-selection options, owing to the Blogger issue I mentioned to you. It's MsGenealogist from Twitter here - apologies for seeming to post incognito.

  15. I haven't watched this show yet ... I always forget when it's on.

    Happy blogoversary :)

  16. Some very interesting points made here. As a professional I do find a huge variation in what clients want to find out. I was particularly frustrated recently when one of my clients' ancestors turned up in prison - and I suggested getting trial documents - but she didn't seem to want to know! I was really disappointed because I love coming across interesting stuff like that!

    I love WDYTYA and find the more biographical programmes just as interesting as the ones where they trace back several generations.