Research Plan: Working Hypothesis

Written By: Jayne McGarvey.

Covered In This Lesson:

  • What is a Working Hypothesis?

  • Why You Need a Working Hypothesis.

  • Let’s Take an Example.

  • A Working Hypothesis Helps You To Set Good Research Goals.

  • What To Do Next.


Have you ever heard the phrase “fools rush in where angels fear to tread”?  I’ve learned the hard way that this warning is very pertinent when it comes to planning your family history research.

A little bit of preparation can go a long way to help avoid the more common pitfalls in genealogy research – and help you to figure out the small steps required to move confidently forward.

You may remember that in the last lesson, you gathered information you already possessed about your Irish ancestor and assembled it into a Timeline. This timeline made it clear just what information (and supporting documents) you already had – but also the gaps in your information – clearly showing what you need to research next.

In this lesson, we focus on next first critical step –  planning your research – and introduce a number of research planning concepts starting with a “Working Hypothesis”.


What is a Working Hypothesis?

A “Working Hypothesis” is simply an educated guess that takes the form of a statement. Here are some examples:

  • “My ancestor was born in County Cork, circa 1855” OR
  • “The family listed close to my ancestor in the census were neighbours of his back in Ireland” OR
  • “My ancestor’s eldest daughter was named after her maternal grandmother”.

The “working” part of “working hypothesis” merely indicates that this is your best guess based on what you currently know but is subject to change as more facts become available. In fact, as you examine the information you have in your timeline for your Irish ancestor – it is possible that a number of different “Working Hypotheses” jump out at you! 


Why You Need a Working Hypothesis.

A Working Hypothesis:

  • Helps you think about what you want to find – rather than what you are NOT interested in finding at this stage.
  • Defines what you are trying to achieve and helps you to stay focused.
  • Helps you to eventually demonstrate that you have achieved what you set out to do.

Once you you settle on a “Working Hypothesis” at the start of your research planning, all your subsequent research sets out to prove or disprove this Working Hypothesis you have carefully formulated to guide your research.


Let’s Take an Example:

If I phrase my research question as:

“Where can I find a birth certificate for my ancestor who was born in Cork in 1855?”

Then I will not succeed.

There is a simple reason for this – birth certificates weren’t introduced until 1864 in Ireland as part of the Civil Registration of Vital Events (births, marriages and deaths) process.

Also, I have not clarified just HOW I know that my ancestor was born in Cork OR where I located the 1855 date.

However, if I formulate a “working hypothesis” (instead of the above research question) as the following statement:

“My ancestor was born in Cork, Ireland in 1855”.

And then include the following pieces of information (usually apparent from the timeline that you constructed in the last lesson) that have led me to construct this statement:

  • According to the 1870, 1880 and 1900 NY Census my ancestor was born circa 1855.
  • His obituary (give name of paper) states he was a native of Cork City.
  • His death certificate shows his parents’ names as Michael & Mary (maiden name unknown).
  • My ancestor’s younger sister was a Roman Catholic nun.

So, I have phrased a simple statement (working hypothesis) above and then listed the key pieces of information that have led to this working hypothesis.

When I review the above information, I can immediately see where I got the information from (my sources).  I can also examine how consistent the information is between different sources. This then allows me to assess or “weigh” how likely the information is to be correct.

Now you have a theory that is articulated as a “Working Hypothesis” and you can use it as a basis for further research.


A Working Hypothesis Helps You Set Good Research Goals.

In a few moments, we will introduce the “Research Planning Worksheet” which you will use to capture your approach to researching one aspect of a particular Irish ancestor. Guess what the first entry on the Research Planning Worksheet will be? Your “Working Hypothesis” of course!

As you work through the planning stages of your research – keeping a working hypothesis in view at the top of a research plan will help you to:

  • Decide on appropriate research goals.
  • Explore which records survive.
  • Define your best strategies for searching the various record locations and sets.

Also, you will review and update your working hypothesis as your research progresses.


In Conclusion – and Over to You.

Five or ten minutes spent formulating a working hypothesis will keep you on track as you embark on research to prove or disprove this hypothesis.

Over to you now – have a look at the “What to do Next” section” below. 


What To Do Next:

In the next lesson we move on to the next stage of your Research Planning – Setting Your Research Goals.


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