Friday, November 15, 2013

Locals and cosmopolitans in genealogy

Genealogists divide up in many ways: young and old, amateur and professional, those who know who Tom Jones and Elizabeth Shown Mills are and those who don't. Another, similar, lesser-known divide is the one separating locals and cosmopolitans.

These terms come out of 20th-century sociology. One classic source is available free on JSTOR, as long as you read sociologese: Alvin W. Gouldner, "Cosmopolitans and Locals: Toward an Analysis of Latent Social Roles," Administrative Science Quarterly 2 [December 1957]:281-306. Technically, these terms describe people's loyalties or behaviors that they and their fellows aren't necessarily fully aware of -- whether their main loyalties are to their localities (often where they grew up) or to a non-local set of standards or procedures. Gouldner was actually writing about 20th-century corporations, elaborating on the difference between "company men" and "experts." My personal take is that if you ask people whether they loved high school or couldn't wait to get out, those who loved it would mostly turn out to be locals and those who left ASAP would mostly be cosmopolitans.

Genealogy in many ways is based on microscopic local knowledge. Often it's critical to know what the local insane asylum was called in the 1870s, or all the different names a particular rural graveyard had. So localism in genealogy cannot be disparaged as ignorant provincialism the way it might be in physics or chemistry. And it's certainly not incompatible with high standards and wide knowledge.

In the long run and in the hard cases genealogy also requires a problem-solving orientation that cuts across many localities -- especially in the US where so many people moved so often. And since many of us ourselves move often, and didn't enjoy high school, genealogy also attracts people who are themselves inclined to be locals only on occasion and only by choice.

In my limited experience, local societies tend to be dominated by "locals" in this sense. This may only become obvious when the meeting's program consists of members sharing stories about their first day of school -- and almost everyone is of course talking about schools within a few miles of the society's meeting place. Also in my experience, locals may tend to have a skeptical attitude, verging on self-satisfaction, toward non-local expertise and non-local societies.

Do you find these concepts helpful? Do you have your own local/cosmopolitan stories? Or are you both?

Harold Henderson, "Locals and cosmopolitans in genealogy," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 15 November 2013 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

1 comment:

Geolover said...

Your points are certainly something that Society leaders should take into consideration.

However your point about folks' moving may need a bit more emphasis. Even for those who grew up in a given area, their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents may have moved from far away to earn money in whatever seemed to be booming: Alabama to Gary, central PA to South Carolina, Maine to southwestern PA, MD and VA to WV, Ohio and WV to Oklahoma and Texas, Mississippi to Detroit.