What is the difference between 'genealogy' and 'family history'?



The name of this StackExchange site is 'Genealogy and Family History". That is two things instead of one. Why? What is the difference between those two things.

I want to know, because the definitions we hold both shape, and are shaped by, the questions we choose to investigate and the practices we adopt.


Posted 2012-10-15T19:34:58.547


4I down voted. I'm not crazy about this question. Definitions abound. Shouldn't the answers to questions in this beta require the demonstration of some expertise other than the ability to use a dictionary? Even so, I took the bait and answered. – Tom Wetmore – 2012-10-15T19:58:14.163

1@Tom Wetmore, Genealogy is in my dictionary (The Shorter Oxford English -- I can't afford the whole thing) but Family History isn't. What dictionary are you using? – None – 2012-10-15T20:05:05.217

Family--a group of people related to one another by blood or marriage; History--the study of past events, particularly in human affairs; Genealogy--the study and tracing of lines of descent. – Tom Wetmore – 2012-10-15T20:22:34.333

@Tom Wetmore, So your definition of family history is: the study of past events in human affairs of a group of people related to each other by blood of marriage. Which excludes (for example) any study of the living conditions of nailmakers in the West Midlands of England, because that isn't an event. Yes, I'm being pedantic, but I think this may be at the heart of the difference in the terms. – None – 2012-10-15T20:36:25.990

Not my definitions. Those came from the dictionary. The conditions of nailmakers in England goes substantially beyond family history into socio-economic history. Which I believe is fair game for a genealogist and family historian to dive head first into as well. For me the pursuit of genealogy has provided entry points into the study of many aspects of human history that I would not otherwise known anything about. – Tom Wetmore – 2012-10-15T20:58:50.283

@Tom Wetmore, I'd include the living conditions of nailmakers as part of family history. No, I can't prove that Stan Staines, nailmaker, didn't live in the lap of luxury, but the chances are he shared his conditions with all the other nailmakers in Halesowen. So not only is it fair game, it's an intrinsic part of the subject. But I might be out of line with the majority. – None – 2012-10-15T21:15:48.587

@Tom Wetmore, should have said I'm grateful for the explanation of the downvote -- more of those will help improve the site. Is there a way the question could be improved? – None – 2012-10-15T21:27:35.623

Although this is about definitions, merely citing a dictionary for one of the terms does not answer the question. This is about knowing and understanding the differences between two commonly used terms. Besides, in "What is Genealogy", I looked at a bunch of definitions and argued that they are wrong, that even the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't get it right, and that, however good or bad my attempt is, getting it wrong is easier than getting it right... Then again, quickly explaining the difference between the two terms is easy enough. – TamuraJones – 2012-10-16T01:10:28.773

3Oh wow! So we only allow questions that we think we can answer? The fact there is no unanimous distinction does not make the question invalid, or even uninteresting. There are some authoritative definitions (already quoted) and a majority who understand the difference even if they cannot summon the best choice of words for it. I believe it should be re-opened. – ACProctor – 2013-02-06T17:51:18.017

1@ACProctor, this was originally closed pretty well the day it was opened -- I just tested re-opening it so I could test something about closing it. It belongs on Meta if anywhere. – None – 2013-02-06T18:03:56.983

Switching to 'chat' if anyone else concerned – ACProctor – 2013-02-06T18:04:11.880



The term family history seems to have a fairly consistent meaning across stakeholders. At least in conversation, the word genealogy seems to evoke controversy--some imply it is, and is only, the study to determine biological/genetic links, while others argue the word is interchangeable with "family history."

Perhaps some references of interest.

  • The Board for Certification of Genealogists seems to recognize genealogy with the broader meaning. "Genealogy is the study of families in genetic and historical context." The definition goes on to describe what this means in terms of the family and the individual. It also recognizes the study of communities and kinships.
  • The Society of Genealogists (SOG) may recognize the terms distinctly. SOG defines genealogy as "Establishment of a Pedigree by extracting evidence, from valid sources, of how one generation is connected to the next. (In essence, this means the discipline of the construction of a valid family tree)." SOG defines family history as "A biographical study of a genealogically proven family and of the community and country in which they lived. (In essence, this means the writing of a biography of a series of related ancestors of common genealogy. Family History incorporates Genealogy)"

I have tremendous respect for both of those organizations and am willing to acknowledge that there are two meanings to the word genealogy.


Posted 2012-10-15T19:34:58.547

Reputation: 8 477


Although actually defining either genealogy or family history isn't so easy, quickly explaining the difference is easy enough; genealogy is basic facts, family history is stories. A genealogy can be conveyed in a chart or diagram, conveying a family history requires more than that.

Quoting my own What is Genealogy II on the relationship between the two:

Family historians use genealogy as the backbone of family history. That does not make genealogy and family history the same thing. On the contrary, it highlights that they are different things; the backbone isn't the organism.


Posted 2012-10-15T19:34:58.547

Reputation: 2 516


Genealogy is work done to discover ancestors and descendants; it is the study of biological/genetic descent.

Family history is the study of all aspects of a family's history.

Tom Wetmore

Posted 2012-10-15T19:34:58.547

Reputation: 3 152


Here's a very compact quote from Dr Nick Barratt on the subject:

"We use genealogy and family history as though they are one and the same thing, but of course they are not. Genealogy is a purer search for historical connectivity between generations - building a family tree or pedigree, if you like - whereas family history is a broader piece of research into their lives and activities"

This is from Your Family History magazine, March 2013, Issue 38, Page 74.


Posted 2012-10-15T19:34:58.547

Reputation: 5 762

Great timely, expert reference! – GeneJ – 2013-03-09T20:30:21.913


The answer to this question is completely dependent on who is asked the question. Some believe that they are the same and thus can be used interchangeably; others feel they are different and not interchangeable. There are many discussions all over the net concerning this subject.

Andy Hatchett

Posted 2012-10-15T19:34:58.547

Reputation: 1 409