Modern Software Experience


many things


A bit over two months ago, What is genealogy examined definitions of genealogy. Surprisingly, the best-known genealogy wikis did not contain one. Many of the definitions I found are unclear, too narrow or too wide, or plain wrong. A good definition of what genealogy is, is hard too come by.

This second article looks at the question what genealogy is from a different angle; where does genealogy fit in the scheme of things? This is a matter of ontology. Turns out, the answer is considerably more complicated than the question. Genealogy is many things to many people.

Genealogy is many things to many people.


Genealogy has been of legal significance since prehistoric times; children inherited from their parents and closely related groups defended their property against others long before recorded history. Property law and family law are major specialisations in which family relationships play an major role. Genealogy is so important to law, that law dictionaries explain and define terms such as second cousin one time removed.


Genealogy is often associated with history. The association is understandable; genealogist and historians both study the past. The association is so natural that many local societies are genealogy and history societies.
The last decennia has seen two trends that brought genealogist and historians closer together; Within genealogy, there is increasing emphasis on the importance of family history, for which a genealogy is merely the backbone. Historians have always been aware of the importance of family relationships, especially for royalty and nobility, but are increasingly paying attention to history of the common man and so-called microhistory.

family history

Family history is a kind of microhistory; it is the study of a family throughout history. Ideally, a family history presents a wealth of information that makes the individuals of the past come alive, but a family history starts with genealogical research; the genealogy of the family is the backbone of its family history.

royal and noble titles

Historically, royalty and nobility enjoy a privileged status. Nowadays, many titles do not carry any official privilege anymore, but do still elicit respect and favourable treatment.
Many royal and noble titles are hereditary. The rules differ from one country to another, but titles are generally inherited by the oldest living official child. Despite anti-discrimination laws, titles are often still passed to the oldest son, even if he has older sisters.
Because of the hereditary nature of the title and any privileges it may carry, the genealogy of royalty and nobility is not only well-documented, but even a matter of public record. Special laws exists for the registration and publication of noble births, and there are institutions and publications dedicated to documenting royal and noble genealogies.


Many noble families have a coat of arms, but coat of arms are not exclusive to noble families. The rules for the right to bear a particular coat of arms are based on genealogy. Inheritance of coat of arms is governed by family relationships, so once again, genealogy plays an important role.
In many countries, newly registered coat of arms are accompanied by a brief genealogy of the registrant.


Genealogy is related to biology, to reproduction in particular. Knowledge about lifespans and reproduction is used in genealogical consistency and reasonability checks. Marriage, one of the facts recorded by genealogists, is strongly related to procreation, and subject of similar checks.
It was biological experimentation that led to the development of genetics.


Genetics studies hereditary characteristics of organisms. Originally a study of phenotypes, the observable characteristics such as hair colour, it has evolved into the study and even manipulation of genotypes, the underlying mechanism.
This knowledge has led to the creation of genetic tests; tests that can determine whether an alleged biological relationship is true or not. It are these tests that enable research into biological genealogy.


Nowadays, forensics sciences regularly use DNA tests to establish whether a suspect matches evidence found at a crime scene or not. There is increasing awareness that it is not strictly necessary to test a suspect to get a positive or negative result, but that it possible to test against close family members as well.


Genealogy is important to medicine, in particular the study of hereditary afflictions. Study of hereditary diseases relies on genealogical information, which in turn relies on vital records and genetic tests. With growing awareness of hereditary diseases comes a growing sense of responsibility of the carriers to avoid passing it on, thus affecting future genealogy.


Genography combines genetics with geography; the geographic distribution of genetic markers tells us about historical migration patterns. Now that genographic databases exist, a single genetic test is enough to provide a rough indication of early ancestry; the markers you carry indicate which area early ancestors probably came from. This can help destroy family myths or indicate a geographic area for further research.


Sociology is the study of society. Genealogy has always played an important part in society, in law, hereditary titles and lots of unwritten rules, e.g. the oldest sister should marry first. Your social standing did and does affect the choice of life partners. Relationships between individuals of different social standing is still frowned upon by many.


Photos record the past. To a genealogist, photos are original sources. To a family historian, photos are illustrations for the family history. Background, dress, photographic technique and photographer help us place photos in time. Genealogy helps us identify the people in photograph.


Many of the old records and other documents that genealogists are handwritten. Handwriting has evolved such that old handwriting is almost impossible to read for modern writers. Further difficulties are posed by the ancient form of the language and the abbreviations used by scribes. Thus, paleography, the study of old handwriting, is a discipline of importance to genealogists.

library sciences

Many visits paid to archives are for genealogical purposes. Here the genealogist encounters a variety of archival storage and numbering systems. The current focus on citing sources within genealogy is essentially about recording this information so correctly, that another researcher should be able to walk into the same library and go straight for the cited source.


Genealogy is one of many subjects found in art. Other subjects, such as birth, are related to genealogy. Nobility were early patrons of the art, often commissioning portraits of themselves. Heraldry is both a subject of and featured in many paintings.


Many religions have multiple deities, and the stories about these deities often form a mythical family history that contains their genealogy. Many religions place value on family, yet ask for the first-born as a sacrifice to the gods. Many religions preach that their followers should have large family. Many religions demonstrate intolerance towards others who do not share their dogmas, causing these others to migrate to other countries or to congregate and baptise their children in inconspicuous, perhaps even illegal churches.


An aspect of genealogy that many genealogists enjoy is the puzzle; the fitting together of partial genealogies into a larger whole, adding another individual to a growing tree, the challenge of making resolving seemingly conflicting information.
Family historians are historical detectives, searching for scraps of information everywhere, to try and paint an overall picture with significant details.


many subjects

These free-wheeling ruminations with just a few brief remarks upon each subject do not paint a detailed and accurate picture of each subject or even the relation of the subject to genealogy, nor did I mean to do so. I merely wanted to show that genealogy ties into many  subjects. There are two misconceptions that warrant additional attention.

When someone claims that genealogy and family history are the same thing, you know that they are a family historian; a genealogist would not make that claim.

family history

When someone claims that genealogy and family history are the same thing, you know that they are a family historian; a genealogist would not make that claim.

There is a clear distinction between genealogy and family history; simply put, genealogy is just the facts, family history is all the stories. Genealogy is about family relationships, family history is about the individuals behind the names. You can study your genealogy and largely ignore the bits of family history you encounter, but you cannot study a family's history without studying that family's genealogy.

Family historians use genealogy as the backbone of family history. That does not make genealogy and family history the same thing. On the contrary, it highlights that they are different things; the backbone isn't the organism.
Family history is just one of many fields that relies on genealogy. To be somewhat more precise, family history relies on official and legal genealogy, and hardly cares about biological genealogy.


It is not uncommon to hear the claim that genealogy is a branch of history. Well, some historians may want to think of it that way, but that still does not make it true. Other historians are less possessive, and call genealogy an auxiliary science, a statement that seems closer to the truth.

It seems to me that it is practically the other way other way round; genealogy isn't an auxiliary science of history, history is an auxiliary science of genealogy. History, particularly information about war and migration, help genealogist find genealogical connections between distant places. History is also an auxiliary discipline to family history; the detailed history of a particular family is placed within the larger context of historical developments.


Genealogy is related to many disciplines. It occurs in history and religion. It is at the core of family law and heraldry. It is used in medicine, is the basis of genetics, and takes advantage of genetic tests. It relies on paleography and library sciences. Genetics enabled genography and genealogy takes advantage of it. Genealogy occurs in art and is helpful in identifying people in photographs. Genealogy is the backbone of family history.

Genealogy is a discipline of its own, one which brings many other disciplines together.


Genealogy relies on several other disciplines and quite a few disciplines rely on genealogy. It may sometimes be hard to tell where one discipline ends and another begins, or even which discipline is relying on which, but that still does not make them the same thing.

Genealogy isn't a part of any of these disciplines. Genealogy isn't a branch of history or a branch of law, it is not even a branch of biology. Genealogy is a discipline of its own, one which brings many other disciplines together.