google-site-verification: google65e716d80989ba07.html Genealogy vs. Family History: Is There a Line in The Sand? | The Armchair Genealogist

Genealogy vs. Family History: Is There a Line in The Sand?

Following Episode 4 of Who Do You Think You Are?  some viewers were disappointed,  perhaps this episode was more family history and less genealogy.
I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t say I was a little taken back by the comment. Should we really be making such a divide between the two. Must we be so rigid that we have to draw a line in the sand. I felt like the comments had the ability to infer that genealogy had some higher breeding over family history, like genealogy is the pedigree of the family, while family history are the redneck cousins. 
First, let’s address Who Do You Think You Are?
I have never seen this show described as a genealogy show by the creators. We (genealogists) often call it genealogy television (and that includes me) but really, it is family history television. If you go to the WDYTYA? website, nowhere is the word genealogy mentioned. This is a show about family history. In their own words:
Each week, a different celebrity is taken on a quest into his or her family history. The search is one of surprising and deeply emotional encounters, resulting in one of the most compelling reality formats of recent years. During each episode, viewers will be taken on a personal and often mysterious quest following some of America's best-known celebrities into their ancestral pasts, as they uncover stories of heroism and tragedy, love and betrayal, secrets and intrigue, that lie at the heart of their family history.
I’m going to presume because we didn’t watch Kim spend a lot of time in archives and libraries, but instead she took her leads from a pub, a neighbour and a telephone book among other sources that some felt this was the discriminating factor in making it more family history and less genealogy. 
So perhaps a less conventional approach to Kim’s family history was taken, it was no less important or moving. Let's not diminish it's value because it didn't meet our quota of documents and archives. It did just what it set out to do, answer Kim’s questions and move us, and of course motivate us to seek out the answers to our own family history questions.
Some argue genealogy is the study of family lineages that include historical records combined to demonstrate kinship and pedigrees, through charts and documents. While family history is looked upon as the biography and narratives of a family line; their stories, I would not disagree. 
However, in my mind, one cannot exist without the other. Moreover, I often use them interchangeably. Genealogy is a required part of any family history; it is not the single most important aspect of a family history.  

 At least for me, genealogy is a means to the story. I am not in the habit of building trees and collecting names for that sole purpose alone.  I want to learn and write the stories of my family. A pedigree chart is not a family history. Family history is my ultimate goal; genealogy is one tool to achieving that goal.
WDYTYA? is a family history show that utilizes genealogy as one tool to tell their stories. In our rush to review this show we have to be diligent and not do ourselves a disservice, by picking away at it. Instead, let's take away what we learned and build on it, not tear it down. 
I don’t think the comments were intended to exclude. However, I fear they have the ability to create a view of our community as rigid and inflexible, dare I say some exclusive club. Correct me if I am wrong, but some of us are working very hard to relieve this stereotype. However, now and again I see it creeping in.
Let’s not split hairs, or draw a line in the sand, genealogy and family history are equally and inseparably important.
I believe the genealogy community is a very caring, sharing group and it is an inclusive community that embraces and unites genealogy and family history. Let's continue to grow that mantra. 


  1. Totally agree! Genealogy by definition seems to me to be the study of families and we use many tools and techniques to show kinships. I too want to know all about my ancestors, the saints and the scroundels, so there story can be known and remembered.

  2. Very good point. I almost always use them interchangeably.

  3. I love the family history side of my genealogy search. I think it add so much more meaning to the lives I'm researching. I love to get to know them through the stories and I love to see the kind of stock I come from. You can't get that from just dates, names, and places.

  4. It's the family history and narratives that breathe life into the cold hard facts one uncovers in census data, ships' manifests, church records etc. We need both. As one person said about history as pathetically taught in some schools: "dry as dust. dull as bones." Genealogy without family history is just that.

  5. When I heard the grumbles of family history v. genealogy, I was rather dumbfounded. Then I thought that most would consider what I've done for the last decade to not be genealogy but to be family history. Cattrall's story is much like my own. My grandfather abandoned his parents and siblings, changed his name and took up a new life on the other side of the country. I have spent the better part of the decade trying to figure out why (the family history part) but also to figure out who he came from (the genealogy part). I simply don't think you can separate one from the other. And those that try aren't getting the full story.

  6. Episode 4 of WDYTYA was by far my favorite episode! I liked that it didn't show a celebrity simply bouncing from one expert to the next, that gets so boring and really isn't a great portrayal of the actual research involved.

    I very interested in Kim'a search, I wanted her to find the trail of her grandfather and I was very emotional! I think this is the recipe for getting new people involved in genealogy and family history. I am surprised some where less thrilled with the episode. It's really the whole story we're after and like it's been said, the story of your family is what brings it to life!

  7. Thanks everyone for your comments. I knew I couldn't be alone in my opinion on this one. I'm glad to hear we are in agreement on this, it bodes well for our industry.

  8. Great post. So well written. I agree that family history and genealogy go hand in hand. I first learned this in an American Family history course when I was finishing my BA in History in 1999. We had to complete a family history project and incorporate history into the project. It could not just be a tree. Since then I have tried to promote both, especially to my kids (when they are interested enough to listen).

  9. Wow, I am so glad to hear someone write about this. I have been working on a post similar to this for quite some time now. I think it is really important to put the history into Genealogy.

  10. Very well said! I can't imagine one, without the other.

  11. As someone who spent the morning writing a post to give context to my ancestors' arrival in Cincinnati, I don't know how anyone can think that they are two totally separate functions. If interested, please check out:

  12. My sentiments exactly, which is why I am so busy scanning my pictures and such right now. I am preserving family history at the same time I am discovering my past.
    Thanks for such a great post!

  13. Well said, Lynn. I totally agree!

  14. "Let’s not split hairs, or draw a line in the sand, genealogy and family history are equally and inseparably important.
    I believe the genealogy community is a very caring, sharing group and it is an inclusive community that embraces and unites genealogy and family history. Let's continue to grow that mantra."

    No and not in my experience. I think that episode was neither genealogy nor family history. It was a detective story on a missing person. Of course, I'll be honest and say I don't like the show anyway.

  15. Very interested to read your post Lynn as I just wrote a rather similar one after hearing the comments on the Kim Cattrall episode at

    I too am in the family history camp, although I agree that you can't really do one without the other!


  16. Thanks everyone for stopping by and showing your support on this topic.

    @Martin, I respect your opinion and thanks for sharing it and opening up the discussion. To clarify, do you not believe family history and genealogy to be one in the same or do you believe that our industry doesn't treat them the same? Or is it just the show you take issue with? If so what particularly about the show do you not like? Would love to hear what you think.

  17. Lynn, I know this is an old post, but I wanted to tell you that I have a very good friend who has recently begun a senior mission for the LDS church, and she is serving in the genealogy department of the Church in Salt Lake City. When she phoned me this week, she said one of the first things they learned is the difference between genealogy and family history and that genealogy is the means and use of tools and compilation of documents, census records, etc by which your family history is documented. Thought you'd enjoy knowing you're in sync with one of the largest genealogy AND family history groups in the world :)