How do you research beyond your direct line?

If just researching your direct line is the wrong approach to family history research, then how far beyond that line do you need to go and how do you decide who to research?

FFANs principle

Applying the ‘FANs principle’ involves researching the Friends, Associates and Neighbours of our ancestors. A variant of this principle adds an extra F for Family (the ‘FFANs principle’) to remind us to include the extended family. The FFANs principle is sometimes referred to as ‘cluster research’.

The basis of this principle is that sources about people associated with our family or a particular individual may contain additional relevant information that helps our research. This is because FFANs and our research subject may:

  • both have a relationship with the same person or person(s)
  • have participated in the same events, or
  • have a shared history or characteristic.

Shared relationship example: Siblings share the same parents. If the birth certificate of one child does not list the mother’s maiden name this information might be found on the birth certificate of one of their siblings.

Shared events example: Immigrants may arrive on the same ship. A diary by one of the passengers on a ship might provide information about the journey and their experiences, which can be extrapolated in a general sense to the research subject.

Shared history or characteristic example: If the research subject was a midwife, researching other midwives in the same place and time period might provide insights into their life and work.

Collateral research

‘Collateral research’ is similar to the FFANs principle, but it focuses only on researching the extended family. Specifically, people who are also descended from your distant ancestors – second cousins, fourth cousins once removed and so on.

Collateral research is fundamental to research that involves DNA evidence, as it helps to identify how DNA matches are related to the DNA test subject through a common ancestor. Once the relationship has been confirmed, the DNA test subject can then utilise the research of the DNA match (if available) to supplement their own research. For example, the DNA match may have photographs of the common ancestor that the DNA test subject did not have.

Family reconstitution

‘Family reconstitution’ goes beyond biological relationships and reconstructs all family units within a specific location. It has its origins in demographic research, but can be a useful tool in family history if you have difficulty identifying which person or family from that place are your ancestors, or if you need to clarify the relationships between different families. This method relies mostly on parish records, but can also be applied to census records and other sets of records that are spatially specific.

One-name studies

‘One-name studies’ examine all occurrences of a surname, even if the people are not biologically related. The objectives of these studies are to identify the origin of the name, relative frequency, distribution in place and time, patterns of immigration and name variants. Reconstructing families and the family history of all lines is not required but such information may be gathered during the study.  

More information: Guild of One-Name Studies.

Which technique and how far should you research?

The FFANs principle is often recommended as a strategy for ‘brick wall’ research, but I suggest that it should be a fundamental element of all research as it provides more information and increases the likelihood that the family history will be accurate. Collateral research is a subset of that approach and may be sufficient in some circumstances. Family reconstitution and One-name studies may also be appropriate approaches in specific situations.

However, you do not need to research every family member, friend, associate and neighbour. Nor do you need to research them to the same level of detail.

How far do you need to extend your research? As far as necessary to:

  • conduct a reasonably exhaustive search, and
  • answer your research questions.

Any source can contain errors, gaps and inconsistencies, so you need to gather sufficient sources to resolve these problems. In addition, different source types provide different types of information. Sources for a family member may not be sufficient to answer your research questions.

As a minimum, best practice involves researching entire family groups on your direct lines (i.e. the parents and all their children), not just direct ancestors. But how much research should you do on the family? Since the key to an accurate family history is the identification of the correct people and the relationships between them, start by examining the key vital records for each – i.e. birth death and marriage records. This may provide additional information, or it should at least provide corroboration of identities and family relationships.

You will need to go beyond these key vital records and research families in more detail if:

  • the sources reveal gaps or inconsistencies
  • the sources do not provide the necessary information to answer your research questions, or
  • you have tested your DNA.
It helps to think of FFANs in terms of their degree of connectedness to your direct ancestors

Extending your research beyond the family will be necessary if the sources about the family do not provide the information you need. For example, if you want to know more about the military career of your ancestor and none of the family shared that experience, then you need to research their military associates.

The key to identifying the relevant FFANs to research lies in your research questions and an analysis about the type of information that research into them might provide. Stay tuned for my next post where I examine this in relation to a specific ancestor of mine.

Photo: Squair family, from the archives of the Society of Australian Genealogists

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