Critical Thinking: An important skill in genealogy research

I thoroughly enjoyed delivering my keynote talk at this year’s 1 day genealogy seminar hosted by Le Comité des Archives de la Louisiane (http://www.lecomite.org) in Lafayette, Louisiana. The hospitality was warm and welcoming. The attendees were brilliant (it was great seeing such a wide range in ages!). And the food?  My mouth waters at the memories of all of the delicious Louisiana dishes I sampled for the first time. It’s official.  I’m addicted to shrimp Po Boys.

One point elicited more post-talk questions than any other in the course of my 2 hour Discovering My American Identity discussion.  The questions arose from one thing in this slide below:

LouisianaThe questions had to do with critical thinking.

Critical thinking is part of my basic toolkit in terms of life skills. It’s no wonder considering I minored in philosophy as part of my university degree.  Critical thinking is one of the cornerstones of philosophy. It’s a skill that I apply to pretty much every aspect of my life. It is also the bedrock of my genealogical work.

So what is Critical Thinking?

Critical thinking is a  an approach to  thinking, regardless of  subject, or content, or a problem.  It is a process through which a thinker improves the quality of his or her thinking by skillfully analyzing, assessing, and reconstructing their thought process; analyzing the route by which a person goes from Point A to points B, C, and D in his or her thinking. Boiled right down, critical thinking is thinking about thinking. Done right, it is a self-corrective process.  It entails effective communication and problem-solving skills. Critical thinkers make a commitment to overcoming their native egocentrism and sociocentric beliefs – or biased, distorted, partial, uninformed, or down-right prejudiced thinking, in other words (Critical Thinking Community).

Why is it important?

The folks over at the Critical Thinking Community put it best:

A well-cultivated critical thinker:

  • Raises vital questions and problems, formulating them clearly and precisely;
  • Gathers and assesses relevant information, using abstract ideas to interpret it effectively;
  • Comes to well-reasoned conclusions and solutions, testing them against relevant criteria and standards;
  • Thinks open-mindedly within alternative systems of thought, recognizing and assessing, as needs be, their assumptions, implications, and practical consequences; and
  • Communicates effectively with others in figuring out solutions to complex problems.
    via http://www.criticalthinking.org/pages/our-concept-of-critical-thinking/411

So what does Critical Thinking have to do with genealogy?

Quite a bit as it so happens.

My 2011 post entitled A Tale of Two Emily Petersons (https://genealogyadventures.wordpress.com/2011/11/14/a-tale-of-two-emily-petersons-edgefield-county-sc/) was actually a post about critical thinking in a genealogical context. It outlined an early attempt at me applying my critical thinking skills to a genealogy problem. In a nutshell, I was faced with the prospect of two family members who bore the same name, lived near to one another, and who were clearly related to one other. However, one would be my direct ancestor, while the other would be an ancestral cousin. Critical thinking would be the key to unlocking who each of these two women were in relation to my ancestry.

Once I learned how to unlock all of the information various vital records and state records (e.g. censuses) held, I was able to solve the mystery. Well, records and a better understanding of my Edgefield County, South Carolina family’s history. Time, diligence in my education as a genealogist, and critical thinking, each played a part to enable me to ask the right questions in order to read the necessary records…and reach a correct conclusion.

I am fortunate that the lives of my famous relations are well documented. Their lineages have been researched and argued over for over a century…and longer in some instances. Critical thinking really comes into play with my ancestors and ancestral kin whose lives did not play out in the local or regional spotlight, or on the national stage.  Whether they were poor immigrants/indentured servants, lived in remote areas in the nascent American colonies/early years of the Republic, free people of colour, or the enslaved, their existence in official records is patchy at best. Typically, any records and written materials in which they are mentioned weren’t for them.   Rather, there exist only cursory mentions about them in regards to the lives of other people.

For instance, Mary Turner, an Irish indentured servant, only appears in court records due to her master’s complaints about her conduct.  Once freed of her indenture, she seemingly disappears from the face of the earth. She was poor, and a woman – probably illiterate – and as such, much of her life story remains unknown. The sole reason I know her name stems from her giving birth to three mulatto children out of wedlock, and the punishments meted out to her as a result. Did she ever marry? Did she remove herself and her children to the then frontier territories opening up in Kentucky, Tennessee, and North Carolina? These territories were occupied early on by free people of colour. While she was white, her children were not, and this hypothesis makes as much sense as any other. Critical thinking may enable me to unlock the mystery of her whereabouts after 1695.

My enslaved ancestors appear as property in deeds filed in the local courts as part of property transactions. Researching the enslaved requires a high degree of critical thinking as it involves piecing together the life story of a people with enormous gaps in their history.

Critical thinking comes into play when there are gaps in the records. Or, like my question about Emily Peterson, you have to do some deductive thinking to finally hit upon the right answer.

An example

Here is bog standard application of critical thinking in a genealogical context:

Here is a family branch for my 3x great uncle, Rev Edward Mathis.

ed mathis 1

ed mathis 2

Look at the year Charlotte Sue Hardy was born. Then, look at the years of birth for all of Edward’s children.

I’ve seen too many trees that show Charlotte as the mother of all of Edward’s children. I’ve even had a few arguments over it. Born in 1898, that just can’t be. A woman born in 1898 won’t be the mother of children born between 1905 and 1910. It is arguable, and even probable, that she could indeed be the mother of James Leroy Mathis, who was born in 1916.  There is a noticeable gap between the birth of James and his nearest sibling in age,  Lauvinia. This has me hedging my bets that James was the first child born to Edward Mathis and his second wife, Charlotte. Seemingly, Lauvinia is the last daughter born to him and his first, currently unknown, wife.  However, there is another significant gap between James and his sister Beulah. Given the information on her death certificate, Beulah is the first confirmed child of Charlotte Hardy. So…I’m awaiting the discover of James’s death certificate to confirm that Charlotte is indeed his mother.

This is critical thinking at its most basic.The Moses Williams project involves turbo-charged critical thinking; especially as the team is working with one-named ancestors in the depths of slavery.

Interrogating information – especially conflicting information (i.e. dates of birth or marriage or death, places where our ancestors were living at any given point and time, name misspellings and name variations, etc) – are all bits and pieces of information that require critical thinking when determining whether the record you are looking at is for the person you are researching.

Last, but by no means least, critical thinking enables me to explain to a fellow researcher how I reached a certain conclusion when a clear paper trail of documents is lacking. This doesn’t automatically mean that I am correct.  It forms an understandable and explainable framework that informs someone else how I reached a conclusion. He or she can then respond in kind until we work out what the truth actually is.

The Critical Thinking Process

The McGraw Education website goes into depth explaining the 6 steps to critical thinking as shown in the image above.  I highly recommend visiting the site which can be accessed via Reichenbach: An Introduction to Critical Thinking, Chapter 2 Study Guide: http://www.mhhe.com/socscience/philosophy/reichenbach/m1_chap02studyguide.html

The images below syntheses the McGraw Hill information in two handy infographic:

Here’s an outline of the critical thinking process:

blooms2btaxonomy

for a larger image, please click https://genealogyadventures.files.wordpress.com/2017/07/29018-blooms2btaxonomy.png. This infographic will make sense once you have read through the material on the McGraw Education website

The infographic below tackles the Six Steps of Critical Thinking:

If you’re new to the whole critical thinking process, I appreciate it can be daunting at first. I can’t stress enough how beneficial it is to stick with it, and incorporate it into your genealogy working practice. You will find your research will progress in leaps and bounds.

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