Modern Software Experience

2010-10-19

recording family structure

traditional design

The Core of Genealogy points out that the core of genealogy consists of individuals and their relationships to each other. This observation stands in stark contrast to GEDCOM and many traditional genealogy applications, which put the traditional nuclear family at the core of their design.

traditional mistake

Although The Core of Genealogy already explained that it is wrong to do so, Family in Traditional Genealogy Software continued to discuss some of the many problems and limitations caused by that design mistake. It also made an interesting observation; such ostensibly family-centric software does not really put the traditional nuclear family at the centre of its design, but merely puts that family structure, a couple with children, at the centre of its design. The ostensibly family-centred genealogy software has a rigid data structure at its centre, but has no concept of family at all.

scientific genealogy software

Scientific genealogy software is genealogy software that support scientific genealogy. Scientific genealogy software is based on the Genealogy Framework, and in general, on scientific thinking. It does not confuse biological and official genealogy, it does not consider an official document as evidence of a biological relation and it does not attempt to force a fluid concept such as family into a rigid data structure. It places the individual and its relationship at the centre of genealogy.

family

A genealogist should record what a family was. A genealogist cannot dictate what a family is.

Genealogy is about relationships between individuals. The family as a unit is a social and legal concept.

Many traditional genealogist force their own notion of family onto the traditional genealogies they create. That is wrong.
A genealogist should record what a family was. A genealogist cannot dictate what a family is. A scientific genealogists accepts that a family unit is whatever the social convention of the time or the applicable law says it is - perhaps even what the members of the family itself say it is.

family within scientific genealogy

The family unit is a social and legal concept; it belongs in legal genealogy and family history. Individuals within biological and official genealogies do have genealogical relations to each other, but there are no family units within biological and official genealogy.

It is within legal genealogy and in family histories built on top of it, that family units exist. The family units within a legal genealogy do not need to correspond to genealogical relationships in the official or biological genealogy.

Genealogy does not need a definition of family unit.

definition

The family unit is a social and legal concept, so it is to sociology and law, perhaps economy, anthropology and psychology that we should turn for a definition. Such attempts at definition mention various characteristics of a family, such as supposed kinship, being a social group, living together in a single household, and forming an economic unit, but no definitive definition emerges. Some people say their dog is part of their family, and quite a few definitions would agree.

Sociologists, lawyers, economists, anthropologists and pyschologists may all use or debate definitions of family unit that are significantly or subtly different from each other, genealogists don't need a definition at all. Genealogy does not need a definition of family unit.

harmful

Genealogy does not need a definition of family unit, because it isn't a genealogical concept. In fact, it is even undesirable to try and define it for genealogy, as a limited definition could easily prove harmful to a good understanding of genealogy and good genealogical practice.
Any somewhat authoritative but limiting definition of family unit could easily lead to the same mistake so pervasive in traditional genealogy; a prejudiced and distorted view of the world that prevents practitioners from seeing things as they are.
Any overly rigid perception of family could easily reintroduce a major design mistake of traditional genealogy software; an overly rigid structure that makes it impossible to record and present the facts as they are.

The family unit isn't a genealogical construct, but a social and legal one.

independent

The family unit isn't a genealogical construct, but a social and legal one. Genealogists understandably want to record family structures, but cannot define what it is.

Family history must consider historical context to make sense of facts. Genealogy must remain independent of present-day social mores while finding and recording facts. Genealogists cannot decide for their ancestors what kind family they should have been, a genealogist must be satisfied to record the facts as they are.

Scientific genealogy does use official legal documents to construct official and legal genealogy, but remains independent of official authority and law. Scientific genealogy must be independent of law; genealogists must be free to record all genealogical facts, legal or illegal. Likewise, scientific genealogy must remain independent of social conventions and culture.

Genealogy software should allow genealogists to group individuals into families as they see fit.

family in software

It is easy to place family within the Genealogy Framework. The family unit is a social and legal construct, so it exists within legal genealogy and family history.

It is not strictly necessary for genealogy software to support a notion of family. In fact, as Family in Traditional Genealogy Software discussed, lots of ostensibly family-centred traditional genealogy software has been selling well despite a complete absence of any understanding of or support for family units.

Genealogy software does not need a notion of family, but family history software does. Genealogy software does not need a notion of family, but many genealogists would like the ability to record their findings. Support for family units is not strictly necessary, but quite desirable.

software support

Just as genealogists should be careful to document families correctly, genealogy software should not get in their way by trying to force all families into a rigid structure. Genealogy software should not enforce or promote any limited definition of family, but support every possible family structure. Genealogy software should allow genealogists to group individuals into families as they see fit.

Genealogy software should support every possible family structure.

consistency check

Genealogy software should not merely support every family structure we know today. Genealogy software should support every possible family structure. That includes illegal family structures; the software must allow the genealogist to records the facts, whatever they are.
Genealogist should be allowed to define families within in a legal genealogy, based on their understanding of the social and legal relationships within that genealogy, and the records those relationships are based on.

Genealogy software should allow the genealogist a lot of freedom in defining a family, but should warn against impossible family structures. To form a family, the members of that family must all be alive at the same time. The dead aren't part of any family.

multi-generation families

Thus, even without any authoritative and widely agreed upon definition of family unit, genealogy software can still provide a consistency check for family units. Genealogy software vendors should be careful to implement that check correctly; a multi-generation family can last indefinitely. Many members of a multi-generation family weren't alive at the same time, but the members of the family do form a continual group of people with overlapping lifespans.

People do not belong to just one family.

multiple families

Family is a fluid concept. Families do not have a fixed shape and people do not belong to just one family.
Many people are part of different families during their life. People typically start as a child within an existing family, a family that changes shape as other additional people are born, some die, and other leave the family. After leaving the family, the individual is likely to live alone for a while. It is not uncommon to live together with a partner and break up again some time later. Many people will marry to form a family and then have children together. The shape of that family again changes through births, deaths, break-ups, re-marriage and adoption.

It is perfectly normal to be part of many different families during one's life. People do not belong to just one family. Families do not have a fixed shape. It seems impractical but - without definition - not strictly impossible to be part of more than one family at once.

family unit

Genealogy software should allow the genealogist to group individuals into families.
Current genealogy software does not provide this feature. That is hardly surprising; all current genealogy software was created for traditional genealogy and a lot of it is as family-centred as GEDCOM is…

Implementing support for family units isn't a trivial undertaking. It is not just a matter of creating groups of individuals. People join families and leave families through vital events and deliberate decisions. Each family member is a member of that family for a limited time, at most equal to that member's lifespan. As family members join and leave, the group changes shape. Over their lifespan, many individuals are part of different families.
It is easier to write that down than add to support for it to an application, and there are no existing implementations that can serve as an example.

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