Genealogy - What's the point?  

Posted by Abba-Dad in , ,

I haven't put up a post in a while for several reasons, but mainly because I haven't had much time on my hands lately. My mom came for a visit, my daughter was on winter break and I've been pondering the point of genealogy in general. So I decided to share my thoughts on the subject and see what some of my readers have to say on the subject. I am sure that this has crossed peoples' minds in the past during the course of their own research.

And you're going to have to excuse the messy thought process because I am just writing things down as they pop into my head. So if none of this makes sense to you - sorry :-)

I was thinking of a way to put all these ideas into some kind of structure and eventually decided to take a look at Maslow's hierarchy of needs. I think we can safely skip the physiological and safety needs and take a look at love and belonging or in other words social needs.

I would venture to say that for some people genealogical research is a way to feel a deeper connection to their family, whether it be their immediate or extended family. That is certainly one of the reasons I started researching my family's history. Living so far away and not being in contact with relatives caused me to forget who's who and how we're all related. I don't know if it was an actual "need" but perhaps more of a curiosity and a way to stay connected to my past. I also wanted to be able to tell my daughters about my family at some point in their lives and I knew that without some sort of system I was going to forget a lot of people. By creating and sharing an online tree on Geni I've also managed to bring the rest of the family closer together, but that was not my original intention.

I am sure that most of the geneabloggers are fulfilling some sort of social need as well as getting their research out there for others to enjoy and potentially find a connection. And many have also taken to social networks to expand their reach and interactivity with others. Many researchers enjoy the social aspects of the various genealogical conferences, workshops and cruises as well. I've enjoyed this sort of interaction too, but I don't think this has been a leading driver for me. I would probably categorize it as a fun byproduct. This also brings up specific interests like old photos, ethnic background research or even military history.

I think we have to go higher up Maslow's pyramid. The next level is esteem.

I am certain many serious genealogists have a need to be respected by their peers and enjoy a sense of achievement when breaking down a brick wall. And then bragging about it. But once again, that is not the main reason I enjoy this hobby. So next and final step - Self-actualization.

I think the desire to know and understand our past is probably the main driver for genealogists. Where do I come from? How did I get here? What chain of coincidences and historical events came together to give me this life? These are some of the questions we ask ourselves as human beings from time to time. As genealogists, we try to answer those questions through systematic research.

But I think there's more past Maslow's pyramid. A lot more...

Some people just enjoy the historical aspect of it all and genealogy makes history a little more personal. If you can place one of your ancestors in a significant historical event, then you have a personal connection to it. I especially like this side of genealogy. That's probably why I enjoy reading biographies or general historical non-fiction about people and places.

But sometimes there are some flaws in this reasoning. Let me explain my thought process.

There are several levels to understanding your past. There's oral history that you hear from your parents, grand-parents and maybe great-grands. That will probably bring you back about 100 years. That's also where most of us will end up with old photos unless you have some rare items dating back to the 18th century, but those are few and far between. Then there are a few other research milestones.

My Jewish genealogy is probably going to end somewhere in the middle of the 18th century anyway. There aren't many records kept or left and most of my ancestors and their relatives perished in the Holocaust. Looking for descendants is a bit of an interest, but while finding a 4th cousin somewhere is great, it's not like we're going to be really close. I barely keep up with my 2nd cousins as it is.

On my wife's side there are a lot of long American lines that date back to colonial times, but eventually the all end up in Europe somewhere and that's where the research will end unless there is some noble or royalty and that's pretty much genealogical vanity. So we all know the origins of our ancestors after a short amount of research and that's that.

So is it the process that we like? Is it digging through archives and finding a clue that leads us to a "new" discovery? Well then we could do that sort of research for pretty much anyone, right? Because my 8th great-grands are so far removed from me personally that they might as well be strangers. Why don't we research strangers? Why don't we just randomly open up an old city directory, pick a name and research that person? Well, some of us do. But most won't want to invest time and money on complete strangers.

Some people love cemeteries. Some people love archives and old libraries. Some people love to travel to ancestral homelands or figure out an old plat from a recorded land deed. Some people want to find parallels in their past to their own lives.

Anyway, I've been rambling long enough. I think that for me personally, I have accomplished several things through genealogy:

1. I can now easily name pretty much all my living relatives out to my 2nd cousins.
2. I managed to get the family a little closer together.
3. I've been able to build a family tree for my daughters to enjoy later in life.
4. I've enjoyed the research process and connecting ancestors to historical events.
5. I virtually-met many interesting people who share my hobby.

I'm sure there's a lot more that I'm forgetting to add at the moment, but I think this post is long enough, don't you?

What's the point to your genealogy research? Let me know in the comments. I hope I gave you some food for thought.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 19, 2010 at 8:41 PM and is filed under , , . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .



Very well said ! Agree with every word !

January 20, 2010 at 10:07 AM

Why do I?

Curiosity, for one thing. The "Who am I and where did I come from?" questions.

To get to know my father, for another. He died when I had just turned seven years old, so I did not have much chance to get to know him. Through genealogy, through finding records between here and England, where he spent some time during World War II, I have come to know him better.

I enjoy the detective work, and I also am a research nerd. I love sitting in a library or archive poring over dusty old books and documents.

And I am also researching strangers right now, in addition to my personal researches into my own family history. I have decided to inquire into the Spanish colonial lineages of Florida, simply because it coincides with my university studies (history and Spanish major, specializing in Florida history) and for that good old real-estate reason: location, location, location. I live quite near to several repositories of original and derivative sources on the subject (and quite far from my family's stomping grounds). I'm a genealogical writer, and I am hoping to get a book out of my research, which is partially funded by a small grant from my university, and as part of which I am currently doing a directed individual study (DIS) under my favorite history professor here.

And that's why I do it.

January 20, 2010 at 10:09 AM

I love puzzles and I like history so genealogy is perfect for me. I guess it's "the thrill of the chase." With my letter transcription project I find myself researching several families that I am not related to but were somehow connected to my ancestors and I find that just as rewarding.

As for blogging, it is a very social thing. I do like to brag when I knock down a wall but I also like to cheer on others as they knock down theirs. It's great to have friends/peers that you have something in common with.

January 20, 2010 at 11:18 AM

I have always been interested in history. Genealogy allows me to bring history alive by connecting my family to historical places and events.

Genealogy also allows me to learn more about myself, my family and the struggles my ancestors would have went through just to keep their genes alive.

January 27, 2010 at 4:03 AM

Thanks for all the great comments! Good luck to all with your research goals.

January 28, 2010 at 10:12 PM

I agree with most if not all of what you say. The why am I here question is the most interesting one. If I could go back in time and ask my grandfather, why did he leave India and came to Fiji. I now live in Canada but was born in Fiji and I now have a 4 month old son, one day he will ask me why did I come to Canada an dleave Fiji? I need to document this so that my story will be told and my son will not have the question of why hanging over him.
Great blog, keep it coming, you make a whole lot of sense

February 5, 2010 at 3:41 PM

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