Friday, August 24, 2012

Book Review: How History and Genealogy Fit -- or Not

A few years ago a colleague asked me what kind of "microhistory" my blog title refers to. I had to admit that I didn't know there were kinds, and that I had only a vague notion of what the subdiscipline was officially supposed to contain.

I could answer that question better now that I've read Anne Patterson Rodda's new book, Trespassers in Time: Genealogists and Microhistorians. The author is a veteran genealogist and Irish specialist who is certified by the Board for the Certification of Genealogists. She looks at various flavors of history: political, economic, social (often quantitative), cultural, local, and micro. She concludes that microhistory -- basically a very small-scale approach that tries to let the records and ordinary individuals speak for themselves rather than go directly to overall theories -- was a good fit for genealogists to relate to. I think she quotes more from the Icelandic microhistorian Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson than anyone else.

Genealogists have to deal with the fact that the particular people we happen to study may not fit the historical generalities -- to take obvious examples during the Civil War, a Unionist enclave in Mississippi or a Confederate volunteer from northern Indiana. They are sometimes outliers who don't fit the overall narrative -- neither would likely appear in even an encyclopedic history of the war -- but whose reality cannot be denied. We can't understand or tell about these people unless we do two almost contradictory things: know the history of the Civil War, and at the same time not force these people into categories or theories about the war that don't really apply to them. That kind of "double vision" is not easy to maintain.

At some points Rodda follows Magnusson into a rather extreme position:

My original intention was to find out how to place genealogy in historical context and, surprisingly, my research brought me to discard that idea in favor of treating each family story as a microstudy. {66} . . . [Genealogists' and microhistorians'] narratives may be quite microscopic views of certain aspects of local or family history, without reference to the wider history surrounding it. {185}
I don't know if this is possible or advisable, but all of Rodda's own case studies in the book's last three chapters do make ample use of big-picture history. And elsewhere she writes,
The key to producing a family history that can benefit current generations is in staying free of preconceived notions of what was typical for a time and place. . . . the researcher must be open to what the evidence suggests about the family being studied rather than looking for indications of ways their lives reflected the trends of the times. {184}
This thought-provoking book raises questions most of us don't spend much time on: How do we use our knowledge of history? Exactly how can we put our ancestors in the context of their times without abusing them?

Anne Patterson Rodda, Trespassers in Time: Genealogists and Microhistorians (N.p.: author, 2012).

Harold Henderson, "Book Mini-Review: How History and Genealogy Fit -- or Not," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 24 August 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Debbie V. said...

Harold - I appreciate hearing about books on the topic of how genealogy fits in with the study of history.
From my genealogist point of view it seems to be the perfect fit - but I don't believe historians see it that way - at least the academic ones.