Friday, October 23, 2009

A bit of Method for our Madness

I’m giving a lecture this weekend entitled “Genealogical Detours: Using Indirect Evidence to Solve Genealogical Problems.” I’ve given the lecture several times, but have been doing some thinking and a little revising as I always do before a repeat performance.

First, I’ve been thinking about my audience. I’m speaking at the Southern Minnesota Genealogy Expo in Mankato. I’m giving a plenary session talk, so I need to be mindful of the wide range of experience that people bring to such an event. Some will be real beginners, others will be very experienced and sophisticated researchers. Some will enjoy discussion of methodology, others will say listening to someone blab about methodology is like taking a sleeping pill.

Is methodology too heavy a topic for beginners? I don’t think so. The “ology” part of the word makes it sound pretty pedantic – like biology or sociology. But, just as biology is about life and sociology is about society, methodology is about method. And, we all actually do know something about life, society, and yes, method. We don’t have to be academics to appreciate the subjects. And, we don’t have to do genealogy very long to realize that a bit of method can make our madness more productive.

The other thing I’ve thought about is the phrase “indirect evidence.” We talk about indirect evidence being different than direct evidence. In Elizabeth Shown Mills’ words, “direct evidence is that which addresses a particular matter and points to a conclusion without the addition of other supporting evidence.” A marriage registration, with no other information at hand, directly answers the question of when a couple was married. “Indirect evidence is circumstantial information that requires us to supply a thought process (and perhaps other evidence) to convert its detail into a reliable conclusion” (Evidence: Citation and Analysis for the Family Historian, p. 45).

For me, the key words here are “information” and “convert.” Sources provide information – names, dates, relationships, etc.. We think about the relationship of this information to our research question, and in the process convert it into evidence. We create evidence from information found in sources.

I have actually come to find myself a little uncomfortable with the phrase “indirect evidence.” I prefer to think of information, which when analyzed and correlated with other information from other sources, leads to an indirect answer to the research question.


I like to think of Three C’s for converting information from sources into evidence that can support a conclusion: corroborate, correlate and conclude. For an example of what I mean, see my article in Family Chronicle magazine (“The Three C’s of Genealogical Research,” February 2009, p. 54).