26 April 2013

Genealogy is Anthropology

Genealogy, as a discipline, has often taken it as a given that it should be allied with history. [1] Family historians [2] have lamented and tried to remedy genealogy's perceived lack of intellectual rigor, mused on why academic historians have no respect for us, or encouraged researchers to make history part of their family's story. When encouragement didn't seem to work, chastisement often followed. I believe that there is good reason why genealogy is not universally accepted by historians as a branch of history. We've been barking up the wrong tree. Genealogy/family history is anthropology.

I first encountered kinship charts and the study of the role of kinship relationships in my undergraduate anthropology classes. I recall coming home for a visit when I was in graduate school, sitting at the kitchen table with my parents and building a family tree. I knew how to do that because I'd studied anthropology.

In graduate school I researched and wrote a class paper on a comparative analysis of kinship patterns among several southeast Asian societies. The upshot was that marriage patterns (i.e., restrictions on who people were allowed to marry) could be predicted by groups' subsistence land use patterns. This is one way of understanding a society. Anthropology embraces others, as well.

As a student of archaeology (a subdiscipline of anthropology), I was familiar with resources and data (similar to what is encountered in genealogy) that could not, in and of themselves, tell the entire story. Much of my graduate school education entailed learning to build the links between the data we might collect and the context within which the item or pattern would have been created during the lives of those we were studying. 

Research methods and techniques are the trappings of a discipline. But, it is the underlying mission that tells the story. Anthropology is the study of culture and how cultural constructs help humans to live in and adapt to their environments. It defines who people are.  

In studying our ancestors lives, anthropology informs us that they lived not only in a different historical time, but also in a different culture. It is our understanding of those differences and similarities and how they may account for the facts of our ancestors lives that make their stories compelling.

I had not really thought much about the influence of anthropology on my research until a couple of months ago when another genealogist with an anthropological background contacted me after reading my article published in Avotaynu. [3] When she'd first read the article she did not know of my academic background. Once she learned of my anthropology training she recognized its influence on my research methodology.

I had to agree. I had not merely studied individuals, but taken a community approach to understand my findings. I looked for patterns. I continue to do that with my studies of my paternal shtetl in Ukraine. Cluster genealogy and the FAN principle are no-brainers. People are best studied and understood in context.

And isn't that really the crux of it all? Genealogy is a discipline that researches individuals and tries to understand the context of their lives. This context may include the historical events that may or may not have influenced their choices. It may include the cultural norms of their society - the ones they embraced and the ones they rebelled against. It may include environmental influences. It may include the songs they sang, the food they ate. It may include truths about human behavior that we are still trying to understand.

No, genealogy is not history. Nor is it anthropology. It is context. There are many facets to that context. And there are many avenues to deciphering the context of our ancestors' lives.

1. The most recent example is a post by James Tanner of Genealogy's Star. But also see:
Greenwood, Val D. Chapter 1: "Understanding Genealogical Research," The Researcher's Guide to American Genealogy, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company), 3rd Edition, 2000.
Mills, Elizabeth Shown. Chapter 1: "Fundamentals of Evidence Analysis," Evidence Explained, Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Company), Second Edition, 2009.

2. There was a time when genealogy meant dates and begats. Those who craved more substance, to differentiate themselves, started to use the term "family history." These days, I think the substance people can declare victory. Those who merely collect names and dates are not taken seriously by serious researchers. Therefore, I use the terms interchangeably here.

3. Garber, Emily H. "Using Landsmanshaft Burial Plots to Discover and Confirm the Location of a Family Shtetl," Avotaynu: The International Review of Jewish Genealogy, Volume XXVII, Number 1, Spring 2011: 3-9.


  1. Very wise! What has confused me is that the anthropological kinship charting method is different from that used in geneology and in counseling. I keep getting back to that equal sign for marriage!


  2. Well, even one's genealogy software offers many options for graphically depicting relationships. I'm not interested in fan charts. And I stick with my Reunion program because it allows me to produce trees that comport with my notions (perhaps anthropological) of what a tree out to look like.

  3. Oh, and thank you, Peter, for the kind words. :-)

  4. By the way, I too have an anthropology background with a Masters Degree in Linguistics. You are probably more correct than trying to get genealogy accepted in history departments.

  5. Thanks for your comment, Jim.

    I think part of the desire to have genealogy co-habitat (if you will) with history is that genealogy grew up at a time when anthropology was not a well-developed discipline. History was. Times have changed. Most people still do not understand what anthropology does (except for Margaret Mead and the Leakeys).

    Genealogy can really learn from many disciplines and inform others. I am always amazed at the variety of backgrounds of some of the most accomplished of genealogists.

  6. Really interesting point that I hadn't thought about previously. Thanks for presenting it.

  7. Thank you, Susan! This has been rolling around in my head for a while. Finally got it to roll in the correct direction. :-)

  8. Thanks, Emily, for an interesting view. It seems a no-brainer for everyone, except those who don't realize what context really is. History is only one point on the spectrum of context.

  9. Thank you, Schelly. And some of what may be included in history today would not have been considered by historians 100 or even 50 years ago. Disciplines must keep growing.

  10. I think genealogy does not fit into other discipline's boxes because it is multi-disciplinary. Genealogy/family history is gaining academic recognition here in the UK as 2 universities offer Masters degrees - Strathclyde does an MSc and Dundee does an MLitt.

    I recently graduated with the MSc. The list of journal titles I consulted for my disertation breaks down into the following subject categories:
    Multi-disciplinary 13
    History 13
    Geography 8
    Law 3
    Medical 2
    Technology & archives 2

    This list includes a chunk on geography because my study focussed on maps, and under-represents technology which I found online.

    I agree we are influenced by our backgrounds and think one of the strengths of the genealogical communty is the variety of backgrounds.

    Now, I'm going to have to include anthropology in my reading!

  11. Dear Sue (FamilyFolklore):
    Yes, the list can go on and on. I would imagine that two different genealogists writing the family history of the same family would produce very different stories. So much depends on what the research brings to us and what skills and background we bring to the research.

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts.

  12. Hi Emily,

    Excellent conclusion! I have a bachelor's degree in anthropology and I do genealogy too. Both of them complement each other and combine my love of research, history, historical archaeology and culture.

  13. Thank you, Tara! Anthropologists definitely see the links. We're trained for this stuff.

  14. I'm another anthropologically-trained genealogy / family historian. I use Radcliffe-Brown's pater & genitor to explain the relationships for my ancestors (enslaved and postbellum) who may have had a genitor who did not contribute to the child's upbringing and pater for the father who raised the child as his own regardless of the NPE. This comes in quite handy. My Community Page: www.sankofa.tribalpages.com

  15. Wow! There are quite a few anthropologist/family historians out there! I'm so glad to hear from you.

    The institution of slavery definitely introduced huge complexity to lives (and society) both during its enforcement and after its demise. Yours sounds like a fascinating story and a worthy application of anthropological methods. It's satisfying to have the skills and knowledge to deal with understand the complexity.


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