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Research Methods in Anthropology: Genealogical Interviews

Family tree

In a previous post, I explained how Cultural Anthropologists study culture.  And, in other posts, I explained how to do ethnographic surveys and free listing. Now I’d like to tell you about another research method, called genealogical interviewing, and tell you about a research project that I did using this method. 

What is Genealogical Interviewing?

Genealogical interviewing is when you interview someone about their family structure and lines of descent–their genealogy. (The word “genealogy” means “generation knowledge.”) You then create a genealogical chart, otherwise known as a family tree. This shows the relationships between people in the family you are studying.

People can be related in different ways. Some people are consanguineal relatives, meaning people related to you by blood. So, for example, your biological brother or sister is a consanguineal relative. Some people are affinal relatives, meaning they are related to you through marriage. For example, if you have a biological aunt who married a man, he is not related to you by blood. He is related to you by marriage to your aunt, so he is an affinal relative.

Some people are not related to you by blood or marriage, but you still consider them to be family. This is called fictive kinship. An example of this would be a godparent–they are not related by blood or marriage but are still considered part of the family, so they are fictive kin.

family tree

Why Use Genealogical Interviewing?

Genealogical interviewing is a good way to learn about local kinship terminology. Different cultures have different ways of naming the people in their families. This is called kinship terminology. There are different kinship terms in each culture–the names we call relatives–such as “sister,” “aunt,” or “cousin.” See this post for a discussion on kinship terminology around the world.

Genealogical interviewing is a also good way to learn about certain topics. For example, say you are studying employment in a small rural community. You might be interested in knowing who in each family has had to seek employment in a nearby city. You could create genealogical charts for each family and mark the people who have had to leave the area to find work.

What is the Process of Genealogical Interviewing?

The method of genealogical interviewing involves asking a person lots of questions about their family over a few hours. First, you come up with a research question that can be answered with genealogical interviewing. Next, you create a list of open-ended questions about your research topic. Open-ended questions are questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no–they require a more detailed answer. So, an example of an open-ended question would be, “Tell me about your brothers and sisters.” In contrast, a closed question would be, “Do you have a sister?” Closed questions can be answered with a simple yes or no. 

Once you have created your questions, it’s a good idea to test them out on someone. This process is called piloting, or pilot testing. Then you can adjust things if you need to–maybe a question was unclear, or you realized you were missing a question, etc.  Now, you can do the interviews “for real” on the people you have selected as research participants. It’s a good idea to ask the person you are interviewing if you can audio-record the interview. It may be very difficult to write everything down as the person talks! So, try to record the interview and also take as many notes as you can. 

Then, use the information from the interview to create a genealogical chart. There is a standard way to create these charts. You use special abbreviations for people, which are listed below:

  • M = mother
  • F = father 
  • D = daughter 
  • S = son
  • B = brother
  • Z = sister 
  • H = husband
  • W = wife

These abbreviations can be combined to make other kinship terms. For example, MZ means mother’s sister, and FB means father’s brother. As another example, MBD means mother’s brother’s daughter, while FBW means father’s brother’s wife. The person who you are interviewing is called “ego” since all the kinship terms are referenced from their viewpoint. You might wonder, why not just use the terms “uncle” or “cousin” or “grandfather” when doing family trees instead of all this “mother’s sister’s son” stuff? Well, it’s because each culture has its own terms for these kinds of relationships. (Once again, see this blog post on kinship terminology around the world).

There are also standard symbols you use for creating the chart. Note that the system of symbols for a genealogical chart is different from a pedigree chart (used in medicine, genetics, and other fields). In the genealogical chart system, a triangle stands for a male, and a circle stands for a female. You use a square if you don’t know if the person is male or female. For example, you might know that your grandmother had 5 siblings, but you don’t know how many were male or female. In the image below is an example of the symbols for male, female, and unknown:

genealogical chart symbols for male, female, and unknown

Marriage or a union between two people is shown by two parallel lines (an equal sign). A slash mark through the two parallel lines stands for divorce. See the image below for examples of these symbols:

genealogical chart symbols for married and divorced

A vertical line is drawn from parents to children, and a horizontal line connects siblings. Siblings are listed in birth order. See the image below for examples of these symbols:

genealogical chart symbols for parents and children

Adopted children or adopted siblings are marked by a dotted line. If a person is deceased, then there is a slash mark across the circle or triangle. To show that people have some sort of special characteristic that is important for your research, just color in their shape. These symbols are in the image below:

genealogical chart symbols for adopted, deceased, and having a certain characteristic

And here is an example of a completed family tree:

example of a completed family tree

Example of the Genealogical Method

Now, I would l like to share a research project that I did using the genealogical method. I will only discuss one participant, but in real life, you would interview lots and lots of people to answer your research question. Also, I am not including any potentially identifying information, to protect the identity of my participant. (This is a typical practice in Anthropology.) So, I am using a pseudonym, changing details of her family tree, and removing other information that could potentially identify her. I also will not show her personal genealogical chart.

I conducted a genealogical interview with “Michelle” and used the data to construct a family tree of Michelle’s family. Michelle had knowledge of her family back to the 5th ascending generation (generations going back from her) on her paternal side of the family (her father’s side), but not on her maternal side (her mother’s side). The 5th ascending generation came to the United States from Germany, so perhaps this connection to this part of the family’s homeland has made these relations memorable. 

Michelle distinguished between affinal and consanguineal relations in an unexpected way. For example, aunts and cousins related through the previous marriage of her grandmother were referred to as “half-aunts” and “half-cousins,” while the spouses of the half-aunts were simply referred to as “uncles.” 

Michelle used typical American kinship terms such as “aunt,” “uncle,” “cousin,” etc. to talk about relations on her paternal side. However, with the relations on her maternal side, she used longer descriptions, such as “Aunt Mary’s daughter.” And, many people in the ascending generations on both sides of the family were referred to as someone’s mother/father/etc. rather than using kinship terms that showed the relationship to her.

The research question was about which relatives people consult for medical advice. So, I asked Michelle which relatives she would consult for medical advice. I colored in the shapes for these people in the family tree. All of the people she identified were female, which was not surprising since many people seek out the same gender when asking for medical advice. However, it was interesting that all of the people she identified were on the maternal side of the family, and direct relations of her mother. 

Learn More

So, this is an example of using the genealogical method. If you want to learn more about this method, check out Chapter 8: Family and Marriage of the free open-source Anthropology textbook, Perspectives: An Open Introduction to Anthropology (Second Edition). 

Thanks for reading!