Questioning the Question

A few weeks ago, I came across this tweet from Data Science Fact (@DataSciFact):1

As a gut reaction, I agreed with the idea – both in the context of my background in science (genetics, statistics, experiments, with lots of data), and in terms of my genealogy research. I retweeted it with the comment, “Indeed. True for any research.”2

Shortly thereafter, I was called on it by Lyndall Maag (@lzmaag), who asked about what the idea means for genealogy research.3

I have to admit, it took me a few minutes to crystallize my thoughts into a, clear, tweet-length response. I was glad to be pushed to think about it more clearly, though. I did come up with a tweet in response,4 but I wanted to expand upon on the idea a bit here.

Slow down, think, and plan

In pondering the motivation for a research question, we to force ourselves to slow down, think about what we’re researching, and come up with a plan before moving forward. 

Say we’ve got an obituary for a Robert Jones, listing a daughter, Mary, and her husband, John Smith. Maybe we knew a fair amount about the Jones family already, but we hadn’t known the name of Mary’s husband before.

  • What is the question? Not just, “find out more about John Smith,” but a specific question about “a clearly described unique person, group, or event,” as the BCG Genealogy Standards remind us.5 For example, “When was John Smith, who was married to Mary (Jones) Smith, born?”
  • What do we already know? If we just see the name John Smith in an obituary, it might not seem like we know much about him. But we know he and Mary (Jones) Smith were married at the time of the obituary, giving us at least a range of John’s likely age. The obituary may have mentioned where John and Mary lived at the time or provided other details that could help guide our research. 
  • What’s the plan? Depending on the time and place of the obituary, make a research plan with sources to search for evidence of John’s birth date. Federal censuses? State censuses? Marriage records? Others? 

So, for me, thinking carefully about a research question before diving in can help to a) highlight what I already know and b) define what, precisely, I want to answer with my research.

[1]Data Science Fact @DataSciFact, “You always have prior information…” Twitter ( : posted 15 January 2019).

[2]Erin Hill-Burns, PhD @erinhillburns, “Indeed. True for any…” Twitter ( : posted 15 January 2019).

[3]Lyndall Maag @lzmaag, “#impact on #Genealogy…” Twitter ( : posted 15 January 2019).

[4]Erin Hill-Burns, PhD @erinhillburns reply to Lyndall Maag @lzmaag, “If you ask a question…” Twitter ( : posted 15 January 2019).

[5]Board for Certification of Genealogists, Genealogy Standards, 50thAnniversary Edition (Washington:, 2014), 11-12.


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