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What are you looking for? From identification to investigation

Updated Friday 6th January 2006

When you research your forebears, what are you actually looking for - and how can you make sense of what you find? Evelyn Kerslake suggests that understanding how your family lived will bring the past to life.

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The term ‘family history’ has recently been widely used in the media. But what does it mean? Is doing family history the same as putting together a family tree? Is there a difference between family history and genealogy?

Despite areas of common interest, there are clear differences between the work of the family historian and that of the genealogist.


A genealogist aims to record, often on a family tree, the names and dates of birth, marriage and death of those people connected by blood or marriage in a family. Historically, genealogies, in places as far afield as Ireland, England and India, were constructed to set out the membership of a family, tribe, or clan, and that membership not only conferred power and social status through family titles, but also gave rights to property.

Recent examples of genealogy include the work of the Church of the Latter Day Saints whose members believe they need to trace their ancestors so that they can be ‘baptized’ into their church. The Nazi regime used genealogy to trace Jews for inclusion in concentration camps. Some Jewish people use genealogy to trace relatives lost in the pogroms of the 19th century, the Holocaust and the subsequent diaspora.

Family historians

In genealogical work such as this, identification of an individual may suffice. A family historian, on the other hand, aims to extend this identification with a detailed investigation of the family and family relations in the past and so explore the connections between individuals and their society.

Family history, then, takes the bare genealogical facts and works with them to consider their broader context and how those facts might be interpreted.

Building a family history

When putting together a family history, there are three key areas of work. Finding source material for information and evidence about the family in the past, exploring the historical context to find out about the kinds of circumstances the family may have lived in, and analysis of the information to work out what it can tell about the family history.

Bhavnagar State Census 1931 [Image by kerim under CC-BY-NC-SA licence] Creative commons image Icon kerim via Flickr under Creative-Commons license
Bhavnagar State Census 1931 [Image by kerim under CC-BY-NC-SA licence]

First, having identified source material, (easier said than done, sometimes), the family historian needs to understand what it means.

The meanings of source material

This, too, sounds easy enough and it would be if people always wrote or said what they meant, spelt names and places consistently, never lied, prevaricated or were economical with the truth, and if census or registration forms did not change over time – and so on.

However, birth, marriage and death certificates, census reports and official reports, as well as, more obviously, letters, diaries and biographies, are all texts created within a particular context by people who may, deliberately or otherwise, have written in a way that may mislead someone reading that material.

To gain a robust understanding of source material, we need to consider that material critically by thinking about five major questions. Who created the material? Why it was created? For whom was it created? What type of material it is and when it was created?


Using these questions, you can begin to move away from understanding source material as a bridge to the past, or as something which gives us a direct line to the truth about what was happening in, say, 1851.

Instead, you can begin to see source material as a trace left behind by someone in the past with which we need to actively engage by thinking about who created it, how it was produced and why it is written in that particular way.

Example: women's work and census returns

For example, if you use census reports to explore your ancestors’ occupations, you might come to the conclusion that women in the family rarely did paid work.

But was this the case? Further investigation is needed because, as historian Jane Lewis has shown, throughout the 19th century many women did some kind of paid work which was not declared on the census.

And why was that? Possibly, it was because the work was casual – taking in washing or ironing, or minding children – or it could have been because having a wife who did not work was a symbol of Victorian respectability, and so a husband (who as ‘the householder’ would probably have completed the census form) may have been unwilling to register his wife’s occupation on a public document.

The five questions outlined above make it possible for a family historian to develop a critical reading of the census form which can produce some useful data.

The apparently straightforward point about women’s occupations as represented on the census is investigated by paying attention to who created the text (possibly the husband), why it was created (because completing census forms was a legal obligation) for whom it was created (the government), what type of material it is (a public document), and when it was created (in the Victorian era).

Your family in context

To begin to put these points together, the family historian needs to find out more about the general context, or set of circumstances, against which the particular events took place. To do this, historians find out about aspects of life of the period in general that may have impacted on the family, such as the economy or social relations.

If you’re looking at birth rates or employment, it may be helpful to compare your family against some relevant historical demographics. Or, it may be useful to find some secondary reading to give a general picture of the subject. Secondary reading is the term historians give to an account of a period or event in the past which is written after that event or period took place, and which is based on documents created at the time.

Example: motivations for moving to the East End

The East End of London, 1872 Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Jupiter Images
What was the big attraction of urban London in the late 1800s?

For example, to better understand a family’s move from rural Essex to the East End of London in the 1850s, it might be helpful to read an account of industrialisation and of changing methods of work in agriculture.

This would show that the increasing mechanisation of farming required fewer labourers. From this you could speculate that immediate and long-term prospects for work in rural Essex may have been limited, prompting agricultural labourers to look elsewhere for work.

Doing such secondary reading enables the family historian to see how a particular family fits against the larger picture.

Analysis of your findings

Having assessed source material and found out more about the context of your family in the past, you can now begin to work out what this might mean. This brings me to the third point: analysis. How do you work out what your source material plus your secondary reading means?

This stage of the historian’s work involves interpreting the source material and the secondary reading together and using this as the basis of an argument about what happened in the past.

Yet, to some extent, that argument will always be incomplete because, however hard you try, there will always be gaps in source material and, therefore, knowledge of the past. Because of this, there are few certainties to history writing.

What do you mean by family?

This lack of certainty goes to the heart of family history if you consider what is meant by the term ‘family’. Today, there is a commonsense understanding of the term as those people related by blood or marriage.

However, this understanding has not always existed in this form, as writer Raymond Williams has outlined. He argues that the term ‘family’ had different and sometimes plural meanings in different historical periods.

For example, in the 1600s, the term could mean those people living in one house, that is a group of blood relations and servants who lived together. Your family, then, might be not only those related by blood or marriage, but could also include those people with whom you had frequent contact.

The lack of certainty over the term ‘family’ points out a key difference with genealogy. Where genealogy defines the family as those with whom an official or socially recognised contact exists, as, for example, mother, son-in-law, step-father, cousin, family history’s insistence on exploring the family’s social context and the relationship to the wider community means it is open to a broader definition of ‘family’.

What you explore

Putting this altogether, what do we get? What is genealogy and what is family history? Of course, the division between the two approaches outlined here is somewhat arbitrary.

Genealogists may develop some of their findings, while family historians may be content to focus on some individuals and learn little more than the names and dates of others.

But in doing family history, you can explore a particular family in such a way that enables you to get a sense of what their lives were like. This puts you in a position where you not only begin to know who lived in the past, but you can begin to make some sense of what happened then, too.





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