05 December 2014

Comments on "Canadians and Their Pasts"

In 2007 and 2008 a group of Canadian historians, The Pasts Collective, set out to address questions around the theme "How do people situate themselves in time, and construct a sense of the past that is usable in the present?"
In 2013 they published the results in the form of a book. These days that seems like a l-o--n---g time to deliver the results but probably typical of academic publishing. It took a while to get the book from the Ottawa Public Library but now, before another year passes, I've found time to look at it.

Published by Toronto University Press this is a book by and for academics. It has 160 pages of main text with tables and bar graphs, plus two appendices, notes, works cited, contributors short bios and an index, 235 pages in total plus front material.

The chapter that caught my eye was "Family History in a Globalizing World" which explores responders' preoccupation with family pasts and delved into why family history matters so much to them.
It found the prime motivation for involvement in family history to be emotional attachment to the biological family (ancestors); giving a sense of belonging.
One in five, or more than 5 million Canadians based on this sample, had been involved in genealogical "research" in the past year through a photo collection, by scrapbooking (more popular than golf!), preparing a cookbook, keeping a diary, writing a family history or making home movies.
75% of respondents were intending to pass on heirloom material possessions to the next generation.
57% had visited places in the family past in the most recent 12 months.
However, 6% stated that family history was not very important.

How representative are these statistics of Canadians at large?

On page 8 we read "the study is based on a large representative survey: interviewers spoke to one in every ten thousand Canadians. More than half (53%) of those who received calls from our interviewers agreed to answer our survey, an above average response for this kind of investigation."
That leaves open the question, Why did the 47% who chose not to participate make that decision?

Is it possible that on learning about the topic they decided they aren't interested? This would bias the results. Certainly if I were asked to devote 20 minutes to a survey on a topic of no interest to me I'd likely decline.

I asked one of the Pasts Collective members, Del Muise, about this. He said they agonized over that from the beginning; but the people who did the job of surveying were ecstatic about that success rate and convinced that there was no bias in the sample as a result.
I remain concerned. If those who declined to participate in the survey were "not interested" the figures would significantly overestimate how much Canadians are interested in their pasts.

I'm inclined to put more trust in the survey's relative figures than the absolute values. Could it be that it's more like one in ten than one in five who had been involved in genealogical "research" in the past year?

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