Framing the Research Question

Framing the Research Question…

Picture frame copyTechnology is a double-edged sword. Computers and the internet have transformed genealogy dramatically. The ease of access draws massive numbers of people into the hobby and business daily. But let’s be honest, genealogy software and the convenience of web searching has the potential to make us lazy, undisciplined researchers.


Many genealogists today, including myself at times, log into their favorite website, start entering searches, or clicking on leaves in a feeding frenzy that would make a shiver of tiger sharks proud. The unfettered thrill of the hunt is on, and we lose all track of time, blowing through three, four, or five hours diving down rabbit holes at a rate dizzying to Alice. Before we realize, it is time to quit, and we have not answered anything that advances our research. At the end of the day, we know that a Joe Schmo maybe hailed from Kokomo, but we don’t know if it is our Joe.

Now don’t get me wrong, sometimes mindless research in “Wonderland,” finding fragments of disjointed and unrelated information can be fun–ok ok ok–it can be a blast. But at the end of the day are we just indulging our hedonistic desires, satisfying that primal urge of the hunt and kill or are we doing serious research to advance our genealogy? I don’t know, but a disciplined researcher takes a different approach.

A disciplined approach to research is always the preferred path; this requires restraint and a methodical approach. Adhering to the fundamental rules of thorough research are necessary for consistent positive outcomes. A question, a flexible research plan, evidence evaluation, and coherently written conclusions are the proven path to follow.

Framing your research is a key step to successful research. Any genealogical answer or solution begins with a quality genealogical question. To arrive at an answer, you must start with a “good” question that is neither too narrow nor too broad. What does that mean, you ask? Questions can be either too ambiguous to answer with a succinct, informative conclusion or too specific that they can never have an answer.

An example of an overly broad question would be, “Where did my ancestor migrate from?” There are many reasons this is overbroad, but it boils down to the fact that the correct answer can be ambiguous to the point of being unhelpful. There can be multiple correct answers. Here are examples of some possible correct answers that are not all that helpful, “Somewhere in Europe” or “Germany.” With overbroad questions, it is necessary to narrow the focus of the question with more research.

Questions that are too narrow can equally hamper a researcher’s ability to find the correct answer. An example of a narrow question could be, “Where in Strasburg did my family come from?” Many times a researcher can get clues in their research that are red herrings. These are clues that can send us searching in the wrong direction. It is possible the family never came from Strasburg, or as in this example, there are more than 20 places throughout German history that used the name, Strasburg. Either way, this can lead to a person researching in the wrong place for their family wasting time, effort, and sanity.  Focusing this question may be the first step to finding your relative. “From which Strasburg did my family migrate?” This question allows the researcher to consider other information and evidence to find the correct answer.

Another example of a narrow question can be similar to, “Did Jim Wuderfootz have multiple marriages?” This question has a yes or no answer; possibly not very helpful. A better question may be, “How many times did Jim Wuderfootz of Macon County Georgia marry and who was/where his wife/wives?”

So to frame a question we first must start at the beginning. What do we want to know? Are we looking to answer a question on parentage, birth, immigration, etc.? What information and evidence do you already know about the answer you seek? What record groups exist that can help answer the question?

Once we have examined our previous research, we can now frame a question. Questions should uniquely identify the subject you are researching. If you are looking for John Smith in Chicago in 1900, you may want to identify them by an address from a census or directory. Example, “Did the John Smith, who lived at 123 Main St in the 1900 US Census of Chicago Illinois, marry Suzy Parker of Lake Wobegon Minnesota?”

Examples of good questions could be: “How many marriages did George Kuhns, who died 1862 in Ligonier, PA have, and what were the names of his wife/wives?”; “Did Christian Kaltenbaugh, husband to Catherine Naugle, immigrate from Koblenz, Prussia in or about 1838 to Quemahoning Township?”; “Is the Elizabeth Berkey Kuhns, who died 4 November 1893 and buried in the Zion Church Cemetery in Ligonier Westmoreland PA, the daughter of David Berkey and Barbara Kauffman of Somerset County PA? “These are all answerable questions, and they should all have only one correct answer.

Focusing your genealogical question allows the researcher to create a good plan, putting them on the path to finding an answer. This exercise should be the first thing genealogists do before logging into the computer. Asking genealogical questions are akin to exercising a muscle, it takes practice and work, the more you do it, the better you get. Remember you will never know that you have found the answer unless you ask the question first. Oh and the next time you find yourself down the rabbit hole, say hello to the Mad Hatter, he is a relative of mine.

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