One often sees comments like these made on various blogs, mailing lists, etc.

X% of families followed the pattern of naming the first born child after the paternal grandfather.

I’ve never found statements like these particularly helpful from a genealogical standpoint. Tendencies like these are clues and clues are sometimes helpful, but they aren’t hard evidence of a connection.

One reason is that often these statements are made without reference to any study in which they were “discovered” or what analysis was done to reach the conclusion regarding why the percentage is accurate, etc. The source of the statement is often one missing element in these posts. Numbers without data to back them up are truly meaningless.
Even if there is a study to back up the number, one always has to wonder how the study was conducted, how samples were obtained, how random the samples actually were, how representative of the entire population the extracted items were, etc. etc. Is the study really applicable to my research, the family I am working on? Were certain records used that inherently have some bias or tend to only mention members of a certain socio-economic group? That always makes me wonder how applicable the percentage is to my research.

And therein lies the real problem.

Let’s say that 75% of families from a certain ethnic background name the oldest son for the paternal grandfather and that this statement comes from a repeatable study that is done using sound research practices. What does that mean for me and my research? It means that I can use the oldest child’s name as a clue as to who the paternal grandfather is. That’s it. It is not proof. And frankly it really doesn’t matter from the standpoint of my research whether the percentage is 60%, 80% or 95%. I can use the fact that there is a tendency to possibly guide my research, but personally in most cases, I’m better off using local records and sources to guide my research.
And rarely does anyone who makes claims provide any documentation of where the number comes from. What about the citation of sources in regards to numbers as well as genealogical facts?

Statistics are intended to help us see general patterns or trends for groups as a whole. Genealogy is about proving what happened in specific instances.




4 Responses

  1. Well, in my family a cousin new to genealogy lamented that there were so many John G’s every generation and every branch…… I think she was frustrated trying to keep it straight in her head. Fact is the percentage is more like 107%……. no way you say? Well if the first son died a later son was named again John G……..

    • I can understand the frustration with repeated names. Still wouldn’t be possible to have more than 100% of your children with the same name 😉

      • Interesting….. I was looking at the percentage in all the families and you are looking at the percentage in each individual family. At any rate we love John G no matter where he shows up.

  2. I agree that such “rules of thumb” can’t be counted on to lead us to the right identity, even though they sometimes give us reassurance AFTER we have found the right person through other means. I always think, “Yes, such practices happened a lot, but doesn’t my goofy family have some rebels in every generation? Don’t they sometimes marry partners who have other customs, or who dislike their parents’ names? Did the boy with his grandfather’s name die before appearing in records?”

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