Genealogical Research
© 10 May 2012 Luther Tychonievich
Licensed under Creative Commons: CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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Is academic research like genealogy?


Genealogical research is an interesting beast. We already know what kinds of things must be true: people must have parents, they must live somewhere and eat something, etc. And we know what kinds of records they might leave behind, and approximately how likely they are to lie or be misrepresented in each. But names are ambiguous and records are easily lost and the process of finding records that give a consistent and sufficient view of a dead individual is somewhat involved.

In well-presented genealogical research, more than one story is told. There’s the biblical narrative “‍X begat Y,‍” but there’s also the list of events surmised to be intertwined in the individuals’ lives and pointers to evidences and notes of alternate interpretations and records we hope to find but haven’t yet. The best deliverable is a whole network of different kinds of information that can require some effort just to understand.

Perhaps academic research is like genealogical research. Perhaps the reason that most papers seem to have no impact is because they are just one record, not significant until combined with others. It may be that those Eureka! papers that seem so significant are more a matter of good timing, of being the last instead of the first clue needed.

But if academic research is like genealogical research, why do we try to turn every result into a picture of the whole? Jumping to conclusions, trying to make every record matter in or family, is the surest way to become confused and lose the real family line. Shouldn’t research results look more like a GEDCOM X file, a collection of evidences and possible results presented in full, with no secrets nor effort to add in “‍which is significant because it brings us closer to proving we’re related to royalty‍”?

Either genealogy and academic research are not well compared, or the bulk of academia doesn’t know how to react to its own principle activity.

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