Norman L. Moyes
In order to facilitate discussion I will arbitrarily classify all phenomena into three groups: 1) things objects; 2) happenings, events, occurrences; and 3) relationships between phenomena.
In order to think about theses phenomena, remember them, talk about them, we have to have some concepts for them and some labels for the concepts. Concepts and labels can be in our heads and can emanate from our mouths, whereas the phenomena themselves cant. Now, concepts and their labels are not the things or the events; they are symbolic representations of the things or events. However, since it is not possible for the concept to explicitly represent all aspects of the thing or event or else there would be no need for the concept it is necessary for the concept to be an abstraction of and from the thing or event. Thus, the concept can not represent any thing or event in its total concreteness. Now, what dimensions or aspects of the thing or event are paid attention to and thus abstracted (or abstracted and thus attended to) is a function of the particular culture or society. In other words, the specific needs or problems of the society will influence, if not determine, which particular dimensions are paid attention to and thus abstracted, conceptualized and labeled.
Now, once these abstractions are made and the concepts and their labels are developed (or whatever), it is possible to write them down. Thus the abstraction, the symbol, which stood for the thing can be preserved, whereas the thing or event cannot be with some exceptions, mainly in the realm of material things (but even then, preservation of the thing depends on preservation of the system of relationships). Now, herein is one of the problems. We in later generations, and perhaps in different cultures, read these labels and through our contemporary understanding of the label and our corresponding concept, try to intuit what it really stood for at the time it was written -- thus, enter our cultural biases, which we generally are not aware of. An illustration of this might be the label of cousin. Exactly what relationship did it stand for in medieval England or among the 19th century Sioux, which most of us at this point in time have been spared thepains of trying to determine. Or what did the concept of father stand for among the Scottish tinkers? Well, we all know that, dont we, and so we can be spared the pains of being concerned about it. It is this very assuredness which contributes to much of what we do being impressionistic, as it leaves us with no need to delve further.
Well, explanations of behavior, of why people did things, are much the same thing. People acted and we explain. Our explanations are not the actions of the people. It is our explanations that we use to understand what might have been or happened. For example, we say that there was a local famine and thus one or the two possible ancestral families must have moved, as they have no more children in the register, and thus the other family is the one which are the parents of the person we are trying to trace, since we know that he stayed right there. Now, maybe our explanation does not accurately represent what actually happened and thus our conclusion is impressionistic. In our example, maybe the religious explanation of the order of things was forced by the famine to undergo change among some of the church, and one of the above two families was affected and thus, while remaining right where they had always bee, they no longer took their children to the established church for baptism. Or maybe our explanation of the expulsive power of the family is specious. Maybe the local economy solved the problem by importation and maybe at the same time connected or quite unconnected nonconformism obtained a foothold. Now, my point is, we just dont know. We just, at this stage of the endeavor, go on impressions, not having the time or taking the time to find out what really happened, if indeed we can.
Another problem, or a related problem, we are involved in is that once we become familiar with a concept and its label we think we know what its label stands for, we have a feeling of comprehension when in reality we dont comprehend the phenomenon itself at all. This is a form of conceptual forgery. For example, people can forge a genuine understanding of hard times by blaming Wall Street or the Communists. In addition, we are capable of generalizing from something we know and understand to something we dont know and dont understand, but in doing this we sometimes generalize sometimes quite inappropriately the feeling of comprehension. Thus, we generalize from something we know about today to something which happened in the past, and we feel confident that we understand what happened. Now, I am not speaking of birth and birth processes; I am speaking of migrations, naming customs, and even records and record usages themselves.
To illustrate this latter point, we have often talked about under-registration in parish registers. Is it possible to have over-registration the registration of births which didnt occur? Now, why a minister or clerk would want to do this, I dont know. However, we know that over-registrations have occurred in modern times. For instance, the padding of ballot boxes with the votes of fictitious, non-existent persons; the registration by fraternity pranksters of non-existent students. Now the motivations for over-registration could be varied. Were there any checks against over-registration, such as, did the minister have to produce a body for every name in the register when the bishop came? Probably not, but we just dont know. We can assume, but we just dont know. We do know that duplicate or accidental entries were made, and isnt it reasonable to conclude that at least some fictitious entries were either accidentally or purposely entered in the register? Is it possible that a minister or clerk registered to a couple the birth of a child which didnt occur (for padding or other reasons)? And if this is possible, isnt it also possible that the birth of your ancestor roughly coincides with this fictitious entry (and yours was recorded in a nonconformist register which no longer exists)? If the possibility of over-registration is accepted, is it possible to have over-registration for some families and at the same time under-registration of others? What are the independent or intervening variables? [ed. If we accept the possibility, what is the probability?]
My main point is that we just dont know what our confidence should be without some good hard critical studies, based, of course, upon a representative sample.
This brings me to a last point which I will make. At least a partial cure for some of the above-mentioned problems is the conducting of some studies to determine what the significant variables were and what effect they had. Now, some might contend that this is what they are doing that every family line they work on is a study or a miniature study. My question is, how representative are these samples or what portion of the population do they represent: and can we generalize from them to others?
Finally, I contend that until such studies are done using representative samples, and until genealogists take the time to read and understand them, the genealogical research endeavor will remain impressionistic.