April 21, 2013 by The Editor
The practice of genealogy can be described in many ways. Through genealogy, many people come to appreciate that they have access to a rich storehouse of history and culture. This in turn may lead to a revival of traditions, a reinterpretation of values for the 21st century, and a sense of continuity with both those who came before and the generations to come.
If we were to look at our genealogy as an expression of our own culture, we might begin by considering a few questions that individuals bring to discussions about their family history.
The first question is a beginner’s question. It might likely be asked by a person who comes to an online forum with the simplest of statements: “I was told I am part French” or “I think I am Jewish” and they wish to know more about how to find their roots. This is the first step of discovery and to understanding oneself in the context of a wider culture.
Secondly, a simple but slightly more advanced question might be “I have a family tree, but it’s all names and dates. What does it mean?” This is a building block question and people who are at this stage of research are perhaps reaching a point where they have mastered data-collecting and are becoming curious of the world in which their ancestors lived.
Genealogy as a bridge to cultural expression is a bridge too far for some. But for others, it is the destination. Learning about culture through genealogy is the way that many people, particularly Americans, might first experience a sense of their own cultural heritage at all. “What does it mean?” is a question that may inspire other questions: “What were their traditions?” and “Why can’t I do some of what they did today?” or “How can I honor my ancestors when so much of what they believed seems lost?”
Another level of questioning might be a bit more critical or scientific. After studying their genealogy for a while someone might ask, “What good does any of this do now? Why should I care about how my great-grandparents lived? I’m only interested in vital statistics.” Simply put, not everyone is interested in learning about history or culture.
The challenge to this question is how to respond. One answer would be to say simply that “We don’t live in isolation.” The world we live in now is the sum of history. Understanding where we come from, at the very least, is helpful in making decisions for the future. Learning about our family’s past might also expose us to values and traditions which in turn could lead us to celebrate our culture.
Finally, many people arrive at a point where they begin to look beyond the data with other questions. “How do all of these people in my family tree and their individual histories, speak to us today? What is the relevance of the lives of simple people who lived long ago?” These questions reflect on how genealogy is not just the study of family lines, although it can be, but also of family histories and the cultures they came from.
Genealogy at this stage goes beyond the quest for names and dates. Here it is transformed into a search for culture and identity. At this point we may look to the experiences of ancestors to find meaning in our own lives. We may look to their lives to be inspired by their journeys, their survival, their successes, and to be informed by their failures.
Considering these questions might help explain the popularity of genealogy today. Interacting as a community can be a rewarding experience for genealogists. Yet genealogists have differing agendas and goals. For many, it is a bridge to activating their own cultural awareness. In this sense it is a unique facet of a multidimensional subculture that enriches individual lives and families in ways that go far beyond databases and their static details.