what is genealogy?
genealogy is the process of researching the history of a family and its members. in other words when somebody tries to find out who their ancestors are, we may speak of genealogy or family history research. looking at genealogy from a cross cultural or a historical perspective, genealogy is actually a branch of cultural or social anthropology in so far as these two related subjects examine the general development of family structures through time (e.g. unilateral descent groups, kinship systems, house based societies, age of marriage, rules of naming etc.). the focus of genealogical research rests however always on individual families. it is therefore an ancillary science to history and other social sciences since it is invariably concerned with a specific family and its members.
the central concern of genealogy consists in finding and documenting the evidence that one person is related to another person through kinship ties. this is referred to as descent (filiation). it is the point of departure for research which brings together the interest of a person finding his or her ancestors as well as carrying out research on an objective level:
a personal view
everybody is descended from a number of other persons. this linkage builds up a network of related persons that began in pre-historic times and continues on and on: mother, father, grandparents, great-grandparents or turing the perspective: children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, siblings, cousins and more distant cousins. clearly it is necessary to limit the scope of the research: either one can restrict the interest to a line of research, perhaps a geographical region or to a set number of generations. other topics or themes are possible. some persons are only interested in a particular relationship (filiation), e.g. when an adopted child wants to know who his or her father is, or possibly two filiations, in case an adopted child wants to find her/his biological parents. often enough the scope of research is restricted by missing or lost sources. when someone wants to hire a professional genealogist, the research is limited by financial resources. it is therefore advisable to consider this before contracting a professional specialist and to reflect upon what should be achieved in the intended research project.
considering data collection from an objective perspective
on a factual level one may compare the research situation to an onion: the innermost centre of the onion is the line of descent. the next layer consists in finding what is now considered to be the core data on which genealogical research relies: first and family names, date of birth, marriage and death. for periods and regions where the state administration does or did not record life cycle events such records are substituted by baptism or funeral records etc. which were noted down in registers kept by religious institutions like churches. the next layer of the onion is the information on where somebody lived, church membership, profession, public offices, images of a person etc. the research can be further extended to information on property ownership, illnesses, causes of death, hobbies, pets, tax declarations, contracts and criminal records. this type of research gradually extends the genealogical research proper towards findings typically provided in biographical accounts. the most basic facts about the names of a person, dates of birth, marriage and death are thereby complemented by additional data of a biographical nature. collecting such historical data tends to become progressively difficult if you go back in time. it also involves finding sources of information which are not pertinent to everybody. generally speaking much more data are available on wealthy persons or those who were vested with public offices and occasionally those with a criminal record. the client needs to bear in mind the possibility that when s/he commissions genealogical research there is the possibility that the search does not yield results because the sources do not contain data on the person the client is looking for.
the term kinship
there is another issue which requires reflection before embarking on family research: the term kinship has in our culture not only biological but also legal dimensions. for instance an adopted child becomes legally the child of his or her adoptive parents but at the same time continues to have biological parents also. there is no compelling reason to exclude one or the other line of descent. however you ought to be aware of what you are doing when you carry out research. if you wish to follow exclusively your biological line of descent this carries a certain risk: current studies show that as much as 7% of the officially proclaimed fathers cannot possibly be the biological fathers or genitors. even if in former times this percentage may have been lower, it was definitely above zero.