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Eliminating the Family - Sat, 16 Jun 2012

One thing that I’ve done to Behold’s Everything Report as I add the life events, is a sneaky little restructuring of how the family group is presented.

Up to now, I’ve been following the traditional genealogy software way of presenting families. You have the father, the mother, their children and the family events. I’ve been doing this by presenting the father and his individual events, followed by the mother and her individual events, followed by the “family” with links to the children and the family’s individual events.

In my Life Events post, I alluded to this change, and even showed before and after screenshots of Behold. Here’s the “before” shot again:


Look at how this very much resembles a traditional Family Group sheet. It also follows the GEDCOM way of having INDI (individual) and FAM (family) records that are connected via spouse/husband/wife/parent/child links.

My foray into Life Events, however, has added the events of each individual, their traditional “family” and their extended family into their own information and is turning those into a life timeline. In so doing, the former “family” events, e.g. marriage, children, etc. are repeated in both the father and mother’s information – but are given the proper context in relation to their own life. In my evaluation, that is exactly what you, the genealogist, want to see and know about.

Are we losing something by eliminating the family? I think not.

First of all, what is a family and what are family events anyway? It seems obvious when you first think about it, but once you go into detail, it becomes nebulous. What if they couple doesn’t marry? Do adopted family, half family or step-family count as the family. Is the family only those living together at the time? Is the father part of the family after the divorce and he moves out? Do the grandparents who live upstairs count?

The reason why you would want family events, is because you want them to pertain to *all* the people in the family. But that changes continuously and is ambiguous depending of your opinion of what constitutes a family.

A better way in my opinion is to eliminate the current genealogical version of the family concept. Over at BetterGEDCOM, there have been several discussions questioning the need for a family entity.

At GEDCOM X, they’ve eliminated the family and instead have relationships. The relationship types are: Couple or Parent/Child.  You then go and show your conclusion as to why you believe the relationship is true based on evidence. That makes more sense to me than trying to “prove” a family entity (whose composition keeps changing) exists.

You might think a census record shows what looks like a family at a point in time. But it really only shows relationships (head of family, spouse, son, daughter) and people who lived at the same address at the same time. You read that and you “imply” some sort of family to it.

The question is how do you represent events of the family-at-the-time that happen to whoever you define as the family at the time. (chicken and egg?) 

I think the answer is to have a Group record. This can be any number of people together for any reason. People may join and leave the group, and events can happen to the group. The census would thus be attached to the group of people living together at that address. Each event in which the person was a member of the group can then be transferred to the individuals as some of their Life Events.

This would be relatively simple to implement in Behold in a future version. I think long term it is the way to go. I hope (and I’ll be pushing for) future standards such as BetterGEDCOM or GEDCOM X to implement a Group record in this manner. And groups will be able to be used for anything: societies, attendees at a wedding, people on a ship. It will be tremendously useful.

So I conclude all this by saying: “Family be gone. Bring on the Group.”

Followup: Tamura Jones wrote over a year and a half ago about the Family in Scientific Genealogy stating that the family unit is not a genealogical concept. Trying to define it could “prove harmful to a good understanding of genealogy and good genealogical practice”. “People do not belong to just one family” and “Genealogy software should support every possible family structure”.

A sideline thought also brought out from that article: “Some people say their dog is part of their family, and quite a few definitions would agree.” Well, whether family or not, it can’t be denied that your ancestors’ pets were a very important part of their lives. The events involving their pets would have affected them. Wouldn’t you want these events documented in your ancestors’ lives? Maybe you could enter the pet as an individual in your genealogy allowing proper documentation of the affecting events. For that matter, maybe your genealogy software should be able to include your pet’s pedigree alongside your own. (p.s. I’ve had pets in Behold’s future plans for a while)

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