Genealogy as an Academic Discipline

At the Colloquium held at Salt Lake City on the Saturday between the Association of Professional Genealogist’s (APG) Professional Management Conference (PMC) and the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy (SLIG), genealogy as an academic discipline was the first of three topics presented that day.  Some of the best genealogical minds–Craig Scott, Jay Fonkert, Jean Hibben and Tom Jones–participated in the discussion. You can see my initial blog posting here.  Our host was the Utah Genealogical Society.

“The GPS and Beyond: Genealogy as a Profession,” presented by Jay Fonkert, addressed the challenge of genealogy being taken seriously as an academic discipline.  The conversation which followed the presentation continued for about 40 minutes without clear direction of next steps and with an air of frustration by the audience.

Before I proceed, a little background might be helpful.  There is a perception (?) that genealogy is not taken seriously by academia.  The contention is that genealogists are not scholarly enough.  In spite of these attitudes, even in my lifetime I have seen significant advances made by genealogy and genealogists. In the past 20 years, Elizabeth Shown Mills, CG, Thomas W. Jones, CG and others have, by teaching and by example, encouraged and cajoled us to impose a scholarly approach to our family history. A entire generation of genealogists have benefited from their selfless commitment to “raising the bar.”

But, the the question remains….what do we as scholars and genealogists want?

It’s a simple question. Do we even know? Is “it” something we can actually affect?  Or is “it” something we have to earn?  Or a combination?

So, I pose some questions for you, the readers…

 If genealogy became an academic discipline, what would be different?

If genealogy became an academic discipline, what would be the same?

First, let’s start with a definition of “discipline” in our context. The OED defines discipline as “7.a. A branch of learning or knowledge; a field of study or expertise; a subject. Now also: a subcategory or element of a particular subject or field.”1

In a survey (very limited numbers and a regional subset of genealogists2) genealogy was identified as being most closely aligned with history and cultural anthropology and that academics within those fields do not value the micro-history which we find so fascinating.

So, here are some questions, of which I have no answers…

  • Is there a lack of respect by mainstream academics or are we just imagining that it exists?
  • If it exists, what is the basis for this lack of respect? …was it deserved? …have we ever asked?
  • Is the level of acceptance and/or respect changing?  If so, how much?
  • What does genealogy have to offer the other academic pursuits?
  • What baggage do we bring?
  • Can we affect change?
  • What are we doing to change the attitudes of others? …can we do more?
  • Does technology have an impact on our acceptance? (see article below by O’Hare.)
  • Are there any downsides to acceptance as a discipline, e.g. being subsumed?
  • What would be the criteria by which we would measure whether we were a discipline or not?

These are just some late night thoughts.

Of course, I will not let it alone.  I am a bit of a “dog on a bone” on this topic. I would appreciate any comments about approaches to advance the discipline of genealogy and on this blog in general.

You might want to read:

O’Hare, Sheila. “Genealogy and History.”, April 2002. : accessed 5 February 2015) 2 : 3.

I will soon have a reading list for you, if you wish to learn more.  I will, however, continue to explore this topic in this blog and outside of it.

Happy Hunting!


What I have done since the last posting: I have been working on the completion of my presentation for the South King County Genealogical Society on “An Overview of Scandinavian Records.”  I am pleased with the product but it, like “House History–Wherever You Live,” has taken an enormous amount of time to put together.  I hope to wrap it up this weekend.  I attended two GS Board meetings and made a decision not to run for office of one of them.  I had a wonderful lunch with my genealogical friend who challenged my thinking on this blog.  Thanks, Lisa!

1 Online Oxford English Dictionary. December 2013 update. : accessed 5 February 2015.

2 I confess, I asked my friends!