Each issue of the National Genealogical Society Quarterly (NGSQ) includes several case studies—the kinds of articles that address specific research questions. Case studies differ significantly from the lineages, pedigrees, and genealogies that frequently appear in well-respected genealogical journals. Some readers of these publications may miss the distinction between different genres of genealogical articles, so let’s learn more about case studies.
Case studies demonstrate how challenging genealogical questions can be answered. They aren’t meant to provide biographical and historical accounts of families, or record generations of an ancestral line. Each case study begins with a research question—usually related to identity or relationship, but sometimes about a situation. The research question is answered through a clear and convincing presentation of relevant evidence—no more and no less. Most research questions in published case studies are answered either using indirect evidence or by resolving conflicts between evidence. One of the best ways to learn problem-solving techniques is to analyze NGSQ case studies.
Methodology is a term that is used widely across many disciplines—but what is it exactly? The Oxford Dictionary defines methodology as “a system of methods used in a particular area of study or activity.” For genealogists, it is important to study the various methods used to solve brick-wall problems and answer research questions. Why? We study these techniques to sharpen our skills, because the answers to our genealogical questions don’t always come easily.
In her case study, “Why and How Did Philippina Kircher Immigrate to Jefferson County, Pennsylvania?” (which appeared in the June 2014 issue of NGSQ), Judy Kellar Fox, CGSM, wondered what push and pull factors Philippina Kircher experienced that caused her to immigrate to a specific community in Pennsylvania. The reasons behind Philippina’s immigration had not been preserved through oral or written family history, historic correspondence, or any other source. As a result, Fox used the tried-and-true method of studying Philippina’s friends, associates, and neighbors, in an effort to determine if she had connections to anyone in her small community. In her case study, Fox presents her discovery of a web of individuals whose relationship to Philippina sheds light on the question of why she immigrated.
Arlene Jennings, CG, used similar methodology in her article, “Jane Fife’s Mother, Elizabeth (Sowersbury) Stather Fife Hough,” which also appeared in the June 2014 issue of NGSQ. She undertook to determine the identity of Jane (Fife) Smart’s mother, whose name was omitted from Jane’s 1769 baptismal record. Jane’s network included four key men, who were studied to connect Jane to her mother, Elizabeth, through indirect evidence.
The value in NGSQ’s case studies is that many of the techniques they demonstrate are applicable across time periods, ethnicities, and geographic areas. Making connections through an individual’s network of friends, associates, and neighbors is just one of many approaches that these types of articles demonstrate. In Fox’s case study, this methodology was used to solve a question about an event that occurred in the nineteenth century during German-born Philippina Kircher’s lifetime. In Jennings’s example, it was used to determine the identity of Elizabeth (Sowersbury) Slather Fife Hough, a woman who lived in East Yorkshire in the mid-1700s. The ethnicity, time periods, and research questions in these two cases differ tremendously, but the same methodology proved useful in each. Could it also work to address one of your research questions?
Think of how much can be learned from the many case studies that have appeared in NGSQ—each one using different techniques to solve problems that have their own nuances. Take some time to visit the NGSQ Archive, and examine two or three case studies. Can you identify and explain the technique being used to solve each problem? Is the research question one of identity, relationship, or situation? Think about how the approaches and techniques used in each case study may work for a specific question you seek to answer. What other research techniques will you discover?
Click here and log into the NGSQ Archive to read Fox and Jennings’s articles.