Monday, March 17, 2014

Methodology Monday in three dimensions

My friend and colleague Cathi Desmarais has produced an excellent metaphor for the dilemma every genealogist faces when we size up the evidence we have collected during our thorough  (but only reasonably exhaustive) search: we're trying to turn a complex three-dimensional knot into a smooth untangled piece of string that is easy to follow in two dimensions.

Those who deal regularly with actual knots and tangles of string might say that there's no substitute for just sitting there and working on it until done -- which is true although not very helpful. In genealogy we do have some of the steps broken down into
  • analyzing individual pieces of evidence, 
  • correlating (comparing and contrasting) different pieces of evidence, 
  • resolving any conflicts that appear, and 
  • writing up the result in a form that is clear and convincing (or to put it another way, in a form that does not require the reader to take your results on faith).
But the problem can still exist when one gets down to the writing part. And once again, there is no substitute to just sticking with it. As my grandfather-in-law (by consensus the most distinguished of any of my or my wife's ancestors) reportedly used to say, "The most important application in writing is the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair."

It helps if we have been writing all along -- in the research log to remind us of what we were thinking, as well as any any work-in-progress inspirations that cropped up along the way. It also helps if we had a clear research question to begin with, but sometimes the question changes along the way. And a late-arriving piece of evidence can shift the nature of the presentation even when the question stays the same.

It helps not to have to reinvent the wheel. The more our minds are furnished with the ways that other genealogists have tackled similar problems -- in the National Genealogical Society Quarterly, the New England Historical and Genealogical Register, the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, and other publications with similarly high standards -- the more different approaches we can try to see if they fit. (For instance, I love to use timelines, but they are not always the most efficient way to deal with a string of property deeds.)

One way to furnish the mind is to read and study a new article from the above publications every week or two. Another way would be to attend the course that Kimberly Powell and I will be co-coordinating at the Salt Lake Institute of Genealogy next January, "From Confusion to Conclusion: Writing Proof Arguments." And I'm sure you can think of others!

Photo credit: "Knot," Quinn Dombrowski's photostream ( : viewed 15 March 2014), per Creative Commons

Harold Henderson, "Methodology Monday in three dimensions," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 17 March 2014 ( : viewed [date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]

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