What is in your “analytical toolbox”?

I have been thinking about this topic for a while.    It appears to me that the certification literature we read assumes that we know how to analyze appropriately.  But is that reality?

So I drew upon my knowledge gained in my master’s degree program in Public Policy to try to find examples of analysis in a social science setting that would be part of an “analytical tool kit” for genealogists!  Any tool assists you in making the job of analysis easier but it still takes some “sweat equity” to get the job done.

One needs a tool box to:

  • have the right tool
  • ability to select the right tool for the problem
  • knowledge of the limitations of the tool so it can be modified if necessary for the need and
  • ability to implement appropriately.

It is no different for genealogy writing….or at least that is my contention.  Let me know if this resonates with you.

I started by thinking of the different analytical structures I used in my Policy classes, like SWOT and S-BAR analysis.  They didn’t seem quite right; writing a genealogy paper is not about plugging into a template and being formulaic.  Then I remembered that we do a lot of comparing/contrasting, a type of essay writing.  Tell me if you think this has value to you….

The tools we might use are the different types of essay writing.

I decided I didn’t know enough about the types of essays one might be asked to write so I checked out some university writing centers to see what types of essays there were (I know I learned these in Mr. Swisher’s English class but I just did not remember!). Generally (and probably it’s a standard and I didn’t know it), they were in agreement over the types of essays.

  • Analysis:  This type of writing is not a summary but rather answers the “how” and the “why.” We know we use this.
  • Argumentative: This type differentiates itself from “Persuasive type” because it makes a stronger claim to an unwilling audience.  I think this type of essay writing is rarely, if ever, used in the papers we write about genealogy.  It implies a single viewpoint and a preconceived notion about the outcome.
  • Persuasive/persuade: This type of writing uses good evidence to persuade the audience to your point of view. I could see this as a  primary type of writing that ESM used in her “Working with Historical Evidence: Genealogical Principles and Standards” article in the NGS Quarterly of September 1999.
  • Cause/effect:  This type addresses an issue/problem and then illustrates the effects.  I could see this being used in a genealogical article fairly easily; for example,  you might research the economy or religious practices of the time in the birth country of your ancestor to give possible reasons for his emigration.  It doesn’t answer why YOUR ancestor left, which you may never know, but it creates the atmosphere for the reader within which he made his decision.
  • Compare & contrast: This is the type of essay writing used for most proof discussions.  For example, in trying to prove X is the same person as Y, you might compare the information you have about each to see what the commonalities are and where there are differences.  I’ll talk more about this in a later post.
  • Definition:  This essay type looks at a common word and dissects its meanings.  This might not be used enough in genealogical writing.  For example, I wanted to know the origins of a familial surname, Bode.  I knew that I could use the word in a sentence, “This does not bode well for the……” but I didn’t really know what it meant.  I looked it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (if you haven’t discovered this dictionary, take some time to explore.  It gives the etymology of words and their earliest usages.) and found out it had medieval origins in northern Germany as a messenger.  That discovery was made even more interesting when it was determined that the first person to use the name “de Bode” delivered the mail from Aurich to Emden in Germany…..he was a postman!
  • Narrative/descriptive:  This type of essay writing tells a story so the audience can learn a lesson or gain insight.  Many of the NGS articles start with a few paragraphs  of narrative/descriptive writing to set the stage for the article to follow.  The excellence of writing winners seem to be able to incorporate this type of writing frequently within their writing to keep the audience engaged and the writing fluid.
  • Division & classification: Division essays take something that is complex and break it down (example given: Batman is not a hero but a lone vigilante.) and classification takes something that has been misplaced and places it in a different category (example given: Cheerleading should be considered a sport.)  I couldn’t come up with any great examples in genealogical writing, can you?

It appears to me that more than one type of essay writing will be present in any one article and the most successful writers know (maybe subliminally) what essay type they are using and keep one type from melting into another making for greater clarity in their writing.

Happy Holidays!


What I have done since the last post:  traveled with my family for the holiday, research oral history questions for a future interview (an assignment for the class) and started critically rereading all the documents I have already drafted for the BCG Certification process.


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