Saturday, June 4, 2011

What's inferential genealogy got to do with it?

Tuesday, members of  Second Life's Just Genealogy group met to begin discussing Dr. Tom Jones' "Inferential Genealogy" course.   This online offering is one of many listed in Family Search's Research Courses.  This first session's focus was the course's introduction and handout.  Participants were asked to bring their definition of "inferential genealogy." 

For homework, before our next meeting on Sunday, we were asked to blog about our thoughts about this 1st session.   An interesting assignment posing challenges.  I have thoughts (almost always have thoughts), so having an opinion to share is not the challenge.  Blogging is not the challenge, even though I've chosen not to spend time in this activity.   These days it's extraordinarily easy to create and write blogs.  No, the challenge for me is that this assignment apparently assumes that it's not important to maintain a distinction between real life and Second Life identities.   Personal privacy is very important to both me's, the Second Life Meg and the real life person-who-shall-not-be-named.  And, although my genie friends may know both names, I prefer not to share the connection with the general public.   as if anyone really cares...but one never knows.   which is why I try to protect my privacy.

So, now I've meandered into real life, extending my existence beyond Second Life.  There are now real world records for Meg. For any real world researchers, present and future, this Meg Madrigal is a Second Life creation.  I have no real world ancestors, relatives, or offspring.   I am not part of your family tree!   Sorry to introduce more confusion into your research, but there is homework to be done.  :)

As for my reflections regarding our first session, I feel we as a group do not have a clear understanding of the phrase "inferential genealogy."   Unfortunately we have not yet given ourselves the time to sort out the differences in our understandings.   It is through careful discussion that we achieve deeper understanding.  Perhaps such discussions will occur in future sessions.

Some say inferential genealogy is the process described in the handout.  

As I understand it, the evidence given for this position is that the process described in the handout is called "The Inferential Genealogy Process."   Hopefully those who take this approach will be able to articulate it more clearly than I can.

I disagree.  I think inferential genealogy is genealogy where inferential reasoning is used.   The 5 step process described in the handout applies to all genealogy, including inferential genealogy.  That process is not unique to inferential genealogy.  It describes a process corresponding to the Genealogical Proof Standard (see pages 1-2, The BCG Genealogical Standards Manual; also, the description on the Board for Certification of Genealogists's website )  So, for me, saying inferential genealogy is this process (implying it is nothing more) is incorrect.   Likewise, saying that the process is the inferential genealogy process (implying that non-inferential genealogy uses a different process) is also incorrect.

Some may not see the distinction.   I see a huge one.   Inferential reasoning can be extraordinarily challenging.  Maintaining one's focus on this reasoning, understanding how careful one needs to be in identifying one's assumptions, is important, hence the motivation for using a "special" term, inferential genealogy.   The 5 step process is one we aspire to in our research whether or not we use inferential reasoning.   In my opinion, it is misleading to imply that this 5 step process pertains only to inferential genealogy.

I brought to the first session the following definition for "inferential genealogy":
"Inferential genealogy is the use of inferential reasoning to establish a genealogical conclusion.  Sometimes facts supported by known evidence imply other fact(s) for which there is no documentary evidence.  This implication, the reasoning used to formulate it, is inferential reasoning.  The implication, the argument, is the evidence for this new conclusion."
Tom Jones gives the following definition, under "Terms and Definitions" in the handout:
"Inferential Genealogy
The process of piecing together documents to make conclusions about relationships and identities that no record tells you all by itself."
He continues in the handout, under "Reasoning," with:
"inferential genealogy is one [emphasis mine] method of kinship determination"
The implication being that there are other methods of kinship determination.

In the introduction for the online course, Dr. Jones says:
"...I've learned how to use inferential reasoning to break through many tough genealogical problems..."
"... the principles you'll learn in this course are all about piecing together bits of evidence from different records to gain knowledge that no record tells you all by itself..."
After making the case for using a broad search and comparing information from documents that do provide evidence directly pertaining to our ancestor, Dr. Jones says:   
"...like that process, inferential genealogy also involves comparing different records" 
The implication being that he is referring to two, distinct situations.

Dr. Jones introduces a puzzle metaphor for genealogy research.   First, he discusses a case with direct evidence, describing the process of comparing records with direct evidence of an individual's birth.  He then moves to the situation where no direct evidence has been found, and says:  
On the other hand, suppose that you don't have a record that specifically identifies your ancestor... you still can identify that person by finding enough pieces of the puzzle, even though those pieces might be damaged and a lot of them could be missing... if you find enough pieces you can arrange them to see enough of the picture to enable you to infer that ancestor's relationship to other relatives with some degree of confidence.  The process of collecting puzzle pieces and arranging them to form a picture of our ancestors is a metaphor for the process of inferential genealogy.
To me, it is clear that Tom Jones is describing the use of the same process for two research situations, one where direct evidence has been found and the second where there is no found direct evidence.  These situations are different in the reasoning used, and I believe that Tom Jones intends "inferential genealogy" to correspond to the second, the situation where no direct evidence has been found.

He uses the puzzle metaphor as a framework for both cases which might lead some to think that he would describe both as inferential genealogy.   However, Tom Jones consistently presents the absence of direct evidence in opposition to that where direct evidence exists.  Likewise considering carefully the ways the puzzle metaphor applies reveals differences in the two.

For the first case of records supplying direct evidence for a birth event, I see the process described as clarifying one puzzle piece for a specific individual, such as birth.   One document is insufficient to have a reliable puzzle piece.   Corroboration from other records gives confidence that the piece you have is probably not distorted.  The multiple records are for the same puzzle piece.  The genealogical conclusion (the  puzzle piece)  rests on understanding the records and their content, comparing the information for consistencies, resolving inconsistencies and deducing a conclusion from records directly contributing to that part of the puzzle.

The second situation is different, in that evidence is used to form multiple puzzle pieces relating to other individuals (not the research focus) and their relationships to the research individual.  Those multiple puzzle pieces are then arranged based upon the relationships of those individuals to each other and the research individual. Based upon that arrangement a genealogical conclusion is inferred for the research individual.   Using the puzzle metaphor, I visualize this conclusion as the empty space defined by surrounding pieces.   As one might expect, the reasoning involved making a reliable inference demands caution and care, especially identifying all assumptions used in developing the inference.

The following definition for inference corresponds to my understanding and use of the concept in defining inferential genealogy:
inference - the reasoning involved in drawing a conclusion or making a logical judgment on the basis of circumstantial evidence and prior conclusions rather than on the basis of direct observation
 It is important to understand precisely what we each mean when using phrases such as inferential genealogy.   Without such understanding, exchanging ideas effectively is more challenging with an increased likelihood of miscommunication.  Fuzzy definitions lead to fuzzy thinking, something to be avoided if we wish to produce high quality research results.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for a thoughtful analysis attempting to explain your understanding of the term "Inferential Genealogy" as used by Thomas W. Jones, PhD, CG, CGL, FASG, FUGA, FNGS in his online course that we are following.

    As we progress through the case studies, we will undoubtedly understand more fully the intentions of Dr. Jones' use of the term "inferential genealogy" than could be portrayed in the short introduction we reviewed this past Tuesday.

    This week we will study Dr. Jones' Case Study 1 where he states "An inexperienced genealogist may look only for information that directly answers their question." He also encourages us by saying "As this [direct] information gets sparse, that doesn’t mean the question cannot be solved."

    Our focused goal in Case 1 is to determine who are Maxfield Whiting's parents.

    Dr. Jones then guides us through a broad search through two states and multiple counties to study seven documents that pertain to those "around" Maxfield Whiting. By "around" we mean by location, time and association.

    In Case 1, you will see how Dr. Jones trains us to journal our findings about each document, resolve conflicts and cite our sources.

    He concludes "By documenting our sources and stating our assumptions we can save future generations a lot of time, and they can build on our research rather than redo it."

    Hang in there Meg. You can do this.

    As to your concern about real life and Second Life identities, we always state it isn't necessary for you to divulge your true identity to the world. Your "Meg" blog is a great work-around.

    Since most of us genealogists in Second Life work together to solve each other's research challenges, we tend to know about our lineages beginning with grandparents and earlier generations.

    I hope the mechanism of your blog will assist you in overcoming your discomfort with the distinctions between real life and Second Life, so that you may continue to participate in this dialog.

    I remember when email was considered an unwise method of communication among responsible genealogy researchers.

    Time marches on, and new technology comes into play. I am pleased that voice chat is possible for large numbers of participants in Second Life. It sure beats typing -- especially with Ol' Myrt's typos!

    In two years, we'll laugh at this "cutting edge" technology as being so out-dated.

    All is well. All is well.

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