Tracing Women by Understanding Social History (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women  by Lisa Alzo, M.F.A.. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Researching Social History

Once you’ve gained some basic facts about the ladies in your pedigree chart (names, dates of birth-marriage-death, places of residence, kinship, etc.), you will want to expand your search a bit to explore the social history during the time period in which she lived. This may include naming patterns, cultural considerations, migrations, and historical events.

Social History is the study of ordinary people’s everyday lives. Think of it as history from the bottom up instead of the top down. This type of history does not focus only on the elite or famous. Social history helps us to look at historical events and how they collectively affected and shaped groups, not just exceptional people individually. Social historians look to social sciences such as psychology, sociology, anthropology and geography to help analyze individual and group behavior.

In Bringing Your Family History to Life Through Social History by Katherine Scott Sturdevant (Cincinnati, Ohio: Betterway Books, 2000), she writes: “Women’s lives centered on the home and family, and their common experiences, and their common experiences were demonstrated through the remarkable similarity in their journals, letters, memoirs, and reminiscences.”

Perhaps you can find your female ancestor mentioned in a town or county history, or photographic collection. They usually contain information about prominent families who lived there. Centennials and other community milestones provided occasions for publishing such books and brochures. The local library or historical society is the most promising source of these. Also search - Stories, Memories and Histories Collection, Heritage Quest Online (subscription site) - Search Books - People / Places / Publications collections, and the FamilySearch Library Catalog.

One of the most important genealogical collections, the American Genealogical-Biographical Index, or AGBI, is the equivalent of more than 200 printed volumes. This database contains millions of records of people whose names have appeared in printed genealogical records and family histories. With data from sources largely from the last century, each entry contains the person’s complete name, the year of the biography’s publication, the person’s state of birth (if known), abbreviated biographical data, and the book and page number of the original reference. In addition to family histories, other genealogical collections are indexed.

The AGBI is an online database index; it is in print, but digitized pages/images are available at or Godfrey Memorial Library Online () or check your local library. When you find a reference to your ancestor, look for the original works at your library or ask a librarian if they’re available through interlibraryloan.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online course Research: Grandmothers, Mothers and Daughters-Tracing Women offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.