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!


11 comments on “Genealogy as an Academic Discipline

  1. Jill — Interesting thoughts. I read the 4 Common-Place articles and wished someone could have a similar overview given how much has changed since 2002. As for academia, if you look at it from the other side the disciplines that seem so well-established to us are also being disassembled and reassembled by the internet. Their models for existence and survival are changing too, so just becoming more like them — a reasonable idea in itself, given how far we have to go — may not be the only approach to take. — Harold

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Thanks, Harold. I would have put the watershed date as 1998 when Elizabeth Shown Mills, the editor of the Q, published the series of articles that addressed proofs using conflicting direct evidence, conflicting indirect evidence and conflicting direct and indirect evidence. Or, perhaps the Hemming issue. Both, were seminal in my sphere of genealogy. I want to interview academic historians to see what the “state of the state” is now. I am devising a plan for doing just that. I think that would make an interesting and informative paper.I agree that the internet has made changes in how everyone does research–for genealogists and historians. Certainly, O’Hare recognized that in 2002 in her article linked in the blog posting. I agree with you that integrating with historians or cultural anthropologists is probably not the path that genealogy should or could take. An alternative would be to continue being aggressive in raising the standards of genealogists until we cannot be ignored. My thoughts d’jour. Hope to see you at NGS.

  2. Mary Swenson says:

    I’ve found the work you’ve done on my family history has helped me visualize history in general and broadened that view to all of history. So, instead of focusing on what’s missing with genealogy, re: academia, perhaps focus on what it brings to history in general.

  3. emptybranches says:

    As much as I love genealogy, I doubt that it will ever have the respect of an academic discipline. While there was the quality of the work in the New England Historic Genealogical Register available in the 1800’s, there were also the myriad shysters creating lineages to make a quick buck. Today, the many erroneous online family trees and constant advertising by certain large genealogically oriented companies continue to keep genealogy at the hobby level. Unfortunately, I don’t think that will ever change especially now with the world at our fingertips on the internet.

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Thanks for the comment. Certainly the “baggage” genealogists bring to a discussion like this is the lineage magicians who can make anyone related to a famous person or can leap over very high “brick walls” in a single shaking leaf. Thanks. Jill

  4. a gray says:

    I have started to respond to your post a number of times, but have given up as many times. I feel compelled to respond to your post, but what to say? It occurs to me that anyone can be a genealogist and many call themselves such. How many times have you heard “my cousin is a genealogist” or something similar? How many times have you heard “my cousin is a historian”? It seems to me, at times, that if someone can identify their grandparents they can be classified as a “genealogist”. In the circles within which you travel, that is a ridiculous claim, but is it so in the wider world? Could it be that in order to be accepted as a “discipline” by the academic world genealogy needs a closer definition than it how has? There is also the question, of course, of whether or not it really matters that genealogy is “accepted” in the world of academe?

    • Jill Morelli says:

      You pose an interesting question…i.e. does it matter? It matters to some–a lot. I wish I knew the answers to the first two questions i posed–“What would be different if we were considered a discipline?” and “what would be the same…?” Would we get more respect? (That sounds so “Rodney Dangerfield!”) Or would our record sets just be used by more people? Would “Micro-history 101” be an elective you could take instead of “World History from Prehistoric times to 1066”? Or would micro-history be incorporated into the present curriculum in a more integrated way–a multidisciplinary approach? Or could someone major in Micro-History in more places than BYU? Or some combination? to me, the first step is to find out what the present state is–what do historians think about genealogists and what do genealogists think about historians. I am trying to figure out how to gain access to even discuss the role of family history in academic history. but I am still working on “the access plan.” Sorry, Allen. No answers to your questions–just more questions.

  5. Lisa says:

    I appreciate Allen’s comment, as well. As a Librarian — with a big L — I’ve experienced first hand the disconnect between a hobbyist/volunteer, etc, calling themselves a librarian vs. having studied to be one. “You mean you had to go to school for that”? is a common puzzled refrain. Without some credentialing or a well understood “gold standard” corresponding to a level of education and the other activities that go along with the definition of a “profession”, it will be hard for genealogists to elevate their credibility. Shows like “Who Do You Think You Are?” and Genealogy Roadshow which showcase professionals do help — despite however cursorily they have to share the results of their research — because they emphasize there are EXPERTS in the field, just as there are experts in 19th c. photography or early American literature, etc. Great question and discussion!

  6. […] Genealogy as an Academic Discipline by Jill Morelli on Genealogy […]

    • Jill Morelli says:

      Thanks for the “Recommended Reads” for my two blogs on “Genealogy as an Academic Discipline” and the Seattle Public Schools’ Archive. I appreciate the shout-out! Jill

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