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!