The Analytical Process of a Genealogist

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Genealogists analyze the sources of data used in the research process. At this juncture, you have a bunch of information. You have searched for answers to the goal you are trying to reach and pulled up a bunch of records plus the stuff you already knew. Also, you have gathered information about what you could not find, which is equally important. You may be adjusting your thinking based on your findings thus far. But hold back before completing analysis just yet.

Your next step is to organize all of the information. Database, file folders, etc. Make sure to cite all of the information appropriately. Most likely at this point you will be able to determine that some of the information is not accurate, or that you have conflicts in the data. You need to resolve this information before conducting further analysis.

According to Marilyn Markham, there are three steps to genealogical analysis:

  1. validity of the sources used
  2. the likelihood that the data found is correct
  3. a determination of whether the data applies to that ancestor or ancestral family – where the rubber meets the road.

Ways to determine the validity of sources and the accuracy of data

How do you analyze the validity of a source? According to Elizabeth Shown Mills, sources are classified according to their physical form: original, derivative and authored. She then states

“As a rule, original sources carry more weight than derivatives, even though original sources can err by accident or design.”

Additionally, information is classified according to its origin: primary, secondary and unknown. Of information Mills states

“As a rule, primary information carries more weight than secondary, although either class of information can err.”

“…each piece of information within a source must be appraised separately.”

Dr. Thomas Jones took a more correlative approach when analyzing sources for validity. Based on the correlative work of linking sources to facts, Jones categorizes sources into four categories of evidence: direct, indirect, circumstantial and negative. With each correlation, he emphasizes that any could contain errors. He stops short of taking the approach of law, which would give preference to direct evidence.

Another approach to analyzing sources for validity is to answer a series of questions about the evidence presented. Val Greenwood covers this with credit to Helen F.M. Leary. Greenwood/Leary suggest 3 questions to weigh the evidence found in various sources:

  1. Are these sources generally accepted as reliable? Is the information itself coherent and free of obvious errors?
  2. Was the data’s significance understood?
  3. Is the data being used as direct or indirect (circumstantial) evidence?

Once the validity of the sources is determined and the correctness of the data is established, you are ready to begin the hard work of analysis. Remember where you are in the research process at this point. You have gathered all the information available to you and you have evaluated that information for validity and correctness. Work with the information you already know at this point. The next steps are part of analyzing the evidence.

Tools for Organizing Information

There are two tools for getting the information organized: the family group record and a timeline. It is best to analyze the entire family rather than an individual. Like fitting pieces of a puzzle, the information will begin to fit and make sense within the context of family. For each family member you are trying to establish the following: a name, a time period and a place. A timeline helps to organize events in a chronological order and provides structure to the information in a visual way. Be sure to put all events on this timeline.

Another tool for organizing this information is to create a “T” chart. This is described by Val Greenwood. The left side of the chart will answer the question “What do I already know?”. The right side of the chart will answer the question “What does this suggest?”.

Study the Information

Once you have your timeline together, study each piece of information as a single event. Then analyze that event in the context of what it meant to each family member, and what it meant to the larger community as a whole. Timelines often show inconsistencies and gaps in a very efficient manner. Write these down and begin to make a plan for accounting for those inconsistencies and gaps.

Timelines are also good for showing the movement of groups from one place to another. How long did the family stay in one place? Does the move make sense? What other records might you need to research based on these locations?

Continue to search for records that will have data to support your hypotheses. If the data strengthens the hypothesis, continue on with your research plan. You may also want to do the reverse. Try to disprove your hypotheses. If the hypothesis is disproved you will want to tweak your plan for more research and data about the family.

Write out questions you have. Make them your short term goals. Choose one goal. Begin to work on it. Once you work out the goal, move on to the next.

Be aware of your bias and the bias of the person who created the documents you are researching. Be careful that this bias doesn’t lead you in the wrong direction or cause you to overlook data that is staring you squarely in the face.

References used for this post:

Evidence Explained: History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace 3rd Edition Revised

The Researcher’s Guide to American Genealogy. 4th Edition

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