Modern Software Experience

2010-08-09

genealogy defined

What is genealogy?

What is genealogy? It is a simple question, and it is easy enough to come up with an approximate answer, but it is surprisingly hard to find an accurate answer. I sampled some of the most obvious sources looking for an authoritive definition; genealogy wikis, encyclopaedias, genealogy organisations and dictionaries.

wikis

I thought that some of the best known genealogy wikis would be a good place to start, but I was surprised by what I found, or actually, did not find. 

The Ancestry Family History Wiki has no page titled genealogy and no glossary either, but Ancestry has a glossary on genealogy.com, which defines genealogy as study of one's ancestry; summary history or table of a person's ancestry.
The FamilySearch Wiki does not have a genealogy page either. It has a glossary of genealogical terms, but their genealogical glossary does not include genealogy!
The English-language GenWiki does not have a genealogy page or a glossary.
The Familypedia does offer a definition, but it fails to distinguish between genealogy and family history: Genealogy is the study of family histories and ancestral lines.

encyclopaedias

None of the genealogy wikis impressed with an definition of genealogy. I moved on to checking out a few encyclopaedias.

Wikipedia

The Wikipedia article on genealogy defines genealogy as the study of families and the tracing of their lineages and history. That may not sound too bad, but it is not clear whether adoptions fit in or not, or what the difference between genealogy and family history is.

Encyclopedia.com

The Encyclopedia.com definition made me laugh: Genealogy is an auxiliary branch of history that was first recognized as a professional field of study in 1964 with the formation of the Board for Certification of Genealogists (BCG). That's fantastic propaganda for the BCG, but an awful definition. The notion that genealogy is an auxiliary branch of history is fairly widespread nowadays, but this definition does not offer any information beyond that notion; it's a classification instead of a definition.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines genealogy as the study of family origins and [family] history. It is a definition that looks backwards, it fits research into once's ancestry, but does not fit descendancy research very well. It also suggests a focus on or preoccupation with origins, while genealogy actually concerns itself with facts about and relationships between individuals.

genealogy organisations

Disappointed by the encyclopaedias, I moved on to genealogical organisations. Surely these organisations care so much about genealogy that they have a crystal clear definition in an easily accessible place.

BCG

The Board for Certification of Genealogists publishes a lot of books, some of which surely contain a few definitions, but there seems to be no definition of genealogy on its site.

APG

The Association of Professional Genealogists has a list of abbreviations and acronyms, but does not seem to have a glossary.

NGS

The National Genealogical Society has a glossary on their site, but it is in their members-only section, behind a paywall. Their site map is the only public evidence that the glossary exists. There seems to be no public definition of genealogy on their site.

dictionaries

After looking at the genealogy organisations, I sampled some dictionaries.

Wiktionary

The Wiktionary defines genealogy like this:

genealogy (countable and uncountable; plural genealogies)

  1. (countable) The descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or ancestors; lineage or pedigree.
  2. (countable) A record or table of such descent; a family tree.
  3. (uncountable) The study, and formal recording of such descents.

This definition clearly recognises that the word genealogy has multiple, related meanings; it may refer to a fact of life, a document or the study. However, all three definition focus on blood lines instead of family relationships.

Dictionary.com

Dictionary.com lists several definitions, from several dictionaries. The first definition, from Dictionary.com Unabridged, based on the Random House Dictionary, defines genealogy like this:

ge·ne·al·o·gy : [jee-nee-ol-uh-jee, -al-, jen-ee-]

noun, plural -gies.

  1. a record or account of the ancestry and descent of a person, family, group, etc.
  2. the study of family ancestries and histories.
  3. descent from an original form or progenitor; lineage; ancestry.
  4. Biology . a group of individuals or species having a common ancestry: The various species of Darwin's finches form a closely knit genealogy.

Origin:

1250-1300; ME genealogie < MF < LL geneālogia < Gk geneālogía pedigree, equiv. to geneā́ race (see gene) + -logia -logy

—Related forms

ge·ne·a·log·i·cal [jee-nee-uh-loj-i-kuhl, jen-ee]
ge·ne·a·log·ic, adjective
ge·ne·a·log·i·cal·ly, adverb
ge·ne·al·o·gist, noun
non·ge·ne·a·log·ic, adjective
non·ge·ne·a·log·i·cal, adjective
non·ge·ne·a·log·i·cal·ly, adverb

—Synonyms

  1. See pedigree.

This definitions list four meanings instead of three; the first three definitions are about individuals in a family tree, the fourth is about species in the Tree of Life.

The second definition includes family history as a part of genealogy, while it is actually the other way round; genealogy is part of family history. Again, the definitions focus on ancestry and descent, the bloodlines, not family relationship.

Merriam-Webster

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary defines genealogy like this:

Main Entry: ge·ne·al·o·gy
Pronunciation: \-jē\
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural ge·ne·al·o·gies
Etymology: Middle English genealogie, from Anglo-French, from Late Latin genealogia, from Greek, from genea race, family + -logia -logy; akin to Greek genos race
Date: 14th century

  1. an account of the descent of a person, family, or group from an ancestor or from older forms
  2. regular descent of a person, family, or group of organisms from a progenitor or older form : pedigree
  3. the study of family pedigrees
  4. an account of the origin and historical development of something

— ge·ne·a·log·i·cal \ˌjē-nē-ə-ˈlä-ji-kəl, ˌje-nē-\ adjective
— ge·ne·a·log·i·cal·ly \-k(ə-)lē\ adverb

Here, the fourth definition is an even more general meaning, that allows application of the term to subjects that have evolved over time; it is possible to have a genealogy (4) of genealogy (3).
Merriam-Webster defines pedigree as a register recording a line of ancestors or an ancestral line, so once again the other three definition focus exclusively on blood-lines.

Oxford English Dictionary

Even the highest authority on the English language, the Oxford English Dictionary, seems to define genealogy as no more than the study of bloodlines. The OED defines genealogy as an account of one’s descent from an ancestor or ancestors, by enumeration of the intermediate persons; a pedigree, and the investigation of family pedigrees, viewed as a department of study or knowledge.

Genealogy does not include family history. It is the other way round: a good family history includes a genealogy.

definitions

I disagree with all those definitions.
Genealogy is not just about relationships, but to a large extent about basic facts. Genealogies include the date and place of primary vital events such as birth and death as a matter of course.
Genealogy does not include family history. It is the other way round: a good family history includes a genealogy.
Genealogy encompasses the study of blood lines, but is not limited to the study of bloodlines. Genealogy includes all family relationships, and there are many non-blood family relationships. Marriage, a basic genealogical relationship, is a non-blood relationship. Even if the bride and groom are related already, their marriage still isn't a blood relationship. A few other important non-blood relationships are guardianship and adoption. Moreover, many genealogies include supposed father-child relationships for children that were actually fathered by another man.

To say that genealogy is nothing but the study of blood relationships is a gross misrepresentation.

Genetic genealogy has a term for all the non-blood relationships that show up in family trees as imagined bloodlines: Non-Parental Events (NPE). All these non-parental events are part of genealogy, but the definitions cited above do not just fail to acknowledge that, they are in active denial of it by exclusively defining genealogy as nothing but the study of blood relationships.
To say that genealogy is nothing but the study of blood relationships is a gross misrepresentation.
All those definitions are wrong. Even the Oxford English Dictionary is wrong.

If I had to define genealogy in just a few words, I'd say it is the study of family relationships, including blood relationships, official relationship and legal relationship, based on biological proof, recorded vital events and legal documents. I do not offer that as a definitive definition, I expect others find fault with it and improve upon it. I merely offer the observation that when you exclude either the blood relationships, the legal relationship, biological proof or vital events, it isn't genealogy anymore.

updates

2010-10-03 updated definition

I originally forgot to include biological proof. The definition used to say based on recorded vital events, it now says based on biological proof and recorded vital events.

2010-11-02 BCG FAQ

The Board for the Certification of Genealogists has the following definition of genealogy in their FAQ:

Genealogy is the study of families in genetic and historical context. Within that framework, it is the study of the people who compose a family and the relationships among them. At the individual level, it is biography, because we must reconstruct each individual life in order to separate each person’s identity from that of others bearing the same name. Beyond this, many researchers also find that genealogy is a study of communities because kinship networks have long been the threads that create the fabric of each community’s social life, politics, and economy.

Their home page has another, different, definition, oddly as an image instead of text:

Genealogy is the study of families in genetic and historical context. It is the study of communities, in which kinship networks weave the fabric of economic, political and social life. It is the study of family structures and the changing role of men, women, and children in diverse cultures. It is biography, reconstructing each human life across place and time.

Genealogy is the story of who we are and how we came to be, as individuals and societies.

Both definitions are actually definitions of family history instead of genealogy, with a strong emphasis on the biographical, sociological and anthropological aspects of family history.

2010-10-04 updated definition

The brief definition has been updated to reflect the insight from scientific genealogy that everyone has a biological, an official and a legal genealogy.

2010-10-20 What is Genealogy II

What is Genealogy II is not about defining genealogy, but about how genealogy relates to other fields.

links

wikis

encyclopaedias

societies

dictionaries

scientific genealogy

What is Genealogy II