Context Questions Framework

Many entries in this blog illustrate situating information about your ancestors in a social, cultural, and historical context, and the entry on Context Questions lays out the kinds of questions you might ask. But how do you actually get started in a way that isn’t just hit and miss? This article offers a useful framework as a guide to asking context questions.
When I was beginning to analyze my own family history, and doing so within a larger context, my questions about context were pretty broad. For example, I thought about German immigrant ancestors to Illinois in relationship to German immigration during the 1800s, and the history of Illinois. I even ordered a book about the history of Prussia, since some of them came from there. It turned out not to be very useful to me – the net I had cast for context information was way too broad.
Then I got an idea. I would construct a chart like the one below, organized decade by decade. On the left, I created a column for each family I was tracing. To the right, I created two columns. The column labeled “Historical Context” asks what was happening historically in the town, county, and state where each family was, decade by decade. The column labeled “Social Context” asks about relationships among socio-cultural groups (the Context Questions discussed elsewhere) in that location, decade by decade.
Context Questions Chart

Context Questions Chart, decade-by-decade


Suddenly I was forced to become more specific. In the example above, ancestors came to central Illinois and southeastern Iowa, beginning in the 1830s, but since they were born before they arrived, I wanted to know something of the context into which they arrived. So, I had to find out more about exactly who was there already, where they had come from, their interactions with white invaders, the process the U.S. government used to expel the indigenous peoples, the process of forming the states, and so forth.
When the ancestors arrived in the 1830s and 1840s, what laws had been passed affecting immigration? Land acquisition? Slavery? Who populated the areas to which my ancestors moved? What were relationships between German immigrants and non-Germans? Whites and Indigenous peoples? Whites and Blacks? Men and women? Political parties? How did relationships among groups affect your ancestors? For example, did relationships penalize them? Privilege them?
How did people make their living? What diseases and epidemics were there? What forms of transportation? Suddenly I had lots of more focused questions.
To fill in each box, I turned to the library. If I could find anything published “back then” about any of the locations I was investigating – and I did find a few things – these became useful “eye witnesses” to history. Books and articles written by historians were also very useful, as were some historical websites. You’ll see notations on the chart regarding sources I had located.

With practice, this process of asking about the history and socio-cultural context of specific places where your ancestors were, gradually becomes more automatic.


  1. This is great. I am going to do a genealogy workshop using critical family theory. Your work is inspiring.
    I plan to use esoteric data as a tool to digging deeper into family layers, hidden and silenced stories. For th past almost 20 years I have focused on African American genealogy and had no idea, that there was theory tied to many of the issues I have experienced in my many family research pursuits. I am new to all of this…l but I am looking forward to learning more.

  2. This form you have suggested is a fabulous mechanism to visualize for comparison and contract — but to think critically about social and cultural context. Wow. Very cool.

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