Sunday, July 22, 2012

Who Has a Dog in the Hunt

I love that saying…”who has a dog in the hunt.” It is not only appealingly folksy, it is a question that all researchers need to have in mind at all times when evaluating evidence they have unearthed about their ancestors.
The expression is another way of asking what bias the provider of information may have that could affect the truthfulness of that information. Literally, the expression means that a person who has a dog participating in the hunt (for a bear, for example) has a vested interest in the outcome of the activity. That person is not unbiased…that person would like to end the hunt to his benefit. In research terms that is translated as meaning the person providing the information has a vested interest in the version of truth that the information implies. We have all seen instances of this, I am sure, but here are some examples of motivations that could influence an information provider to give a biased version of events.
Personal embarrassment: Perhaps the child born out of wedlock is too embarrassing to admit, so either a birth date is fudged or the marriage date is adjusted. And what about the suicide that may be too painful to admit actually happened to a family member? It might also be too shameful for Uncle John to admit that he was written out of his father’s will, so he tells the story of how generous his father was to him in that document. Because of prejudices at aparticular times and places in our society, an ancestor may not declare his true county of birth (on a census document, for instance). Examples could go on and on, of course, but these should serve adequately as examples.
Financial gain: This has always been a popular reason to bias the truth. Personal declarations of property values may be understated if the person fears that the information may be used as a basis for taxes. This could very well have influenced many of our ancestors’ responses to property value questions on census records. Relationships can be misstated for financial gain as well.
Opportunity or Reputation: An example of opportunity being a motive for giving false information is fibbing about age in order to enlist. Or if the person enlisted legitimately, he may report an older age in other documents simply to not appear too young or immature in a world of more mature men fighting a war. Total fabrications about experiences or who one knows or what one has done can be based on concerns about ones reputation or credibility. And those fabrications can come to us as family lore…lore we would like to believe, but which should be examined closely.
The point is that information we find about our ancestors must be scrutinized closely for the existence of bias…we must determine “who has a dog in the hunt.” This examination should be an automatic and natural part of our evidence evaluation. Determining who has something to gain from the information reported can be a big step towards getting at the truth. The possible existence of bias should also motivate us to look for corroborating evidence for any date, place, experience, story, or “fact” we find about our ancestors. Just like in a jury trial, corroborating evidence builds a case that we ultimately can be as sure of as possible.
It is sometimes difficult to believe that our dear Aunt Tillie would not be absolutely truthful in the information she gives us about her parents or grandparents…she is Aunt Tillie, after all! It is perhaps most difficult to separate the information we receive from the personality who gives it to us. And perhaps we are concern about the message we send to Aunt Tillie when we don’t take her information at face value and go off on a quest to corroborate what she gives us.
We often get totally wrapped up in the hunt for information about our ancestors, sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. But after we collect the information, the separation of truth from fiction is perhaps an even more challenging task. It requires diligence, research creativity, and an unerring dedication to the truth, as accurately as we can determine it. We must guard against the effects of bias and other foibles that can distort the history we are constructing of our families. As researchers we have an obligation to seek the truth.

(First Publishing in the Largo Leader, February, 2010)

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