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History of ethnography

Theory and method



The data of cultural anthropology derive ultimately from the direct observation of customary behavior in particular societies. Making, reporting, and evaluating such observations are the tasks of ethnography. Although the successful carrying out of these tasks is intimately related to the validity of cultural and social anthropological interpretations, ethnography itself has received little serious attention. However, as the social sciences have become more critical of their source materials, more concerned with how data are recorded, verified, and analyzed, interest has developed in ethnographic method and theory and in the more technical and personal aspects of conducting ethnographic research.

While the scope and definition of ethnography have varied considerably and opinions differ on many details, contemporary usage does permit a few general terminological distinctions and implications. An ethnographer is an anthropologist who attempts–at least in part of his professional work –to record and describe the culturally significant behaviors of a particular society. Ideally, this description, an ethnography, requires a long period of intimate study and residence in a small, well-defined community, knowledge of the spoken language, and the employment of a wide range of observational techniques including prolonged face-to-face contacts with members of the local group, direct participation in some of that group’s activities, and a greater emphasis on intensive work with informants than on the use of documentary or survey data. Used nonspecifically, ethnography refers to the discipline concerned with producing such cultural descriptions. With a regional reference (e.g., “Polynesian ethnography”), the term designates either the way in which ethnography is conceived and practiced in the area or the collective or comparative treatment of the ethnographies written about the peoples living in the region. This last usage is frequently referred to as comparative ethnology, or simply ethnology [see ETHNOLOGY].

History of ethnography

Although the roots of ethnographic description are lost in antiquity and most observations and interpretations (or misinterpretations) of human societies have continued to be transmitted orally, some early written accounts have been preserved. Permanent documentation of such observations increased markedly with European voyages of discovery and exploration. Despite organizational and stylistic differences, it is possible to discern in the literature the transition from the curious recountings of strange, exotic, or bizarre practices to the present attempts at producing valid cultural descriptions. In comparing the successive steps in this transition, one should note changes not only in the content and purpose of ethnography but also in the preparation and background of the investigators and in the circumstances under which field work is conducted. (It is impossible to treat in detail many individual and institutional differences, such as the varying views of ethnographic work among American, British, and European anthropologists; see, for example, Eggan 1961; Firth 1957; Gluckman 1961; Griaule 1957; Kroeber 1957; Lowie 1953; Richards 1939.)

Early ethnography. Beginning in the late fifteenth century and continuing for several hundred years, descriptions of unfamiliar cultural practices were written largely as a result of explorations, missionizing, and the establishment of colonial governments and outposts (see Howell 1642; Rowe 1964). Although there were some exceptional reports such as Pigafetta’s observations on Cebu, included in his chronicle of the Magellan voyage (1525), and the extensive Mexican texts recorded in the sixteenth century by Sahagún (see Sahagún, General History of the Things of New Spain), the dominant form of early ecclesiastic and governmental records was ethnographically unimpressive. In the nineteenth century, as territorial exploration intensified and the writings of natural historians, travelers, and museum collectors began to augment missionary and official documents, ethnographic inquiry became a somewhat more organized procedure. Many questionnaires, lists, instructions, and regional guides were written (see Lewis 1814; British Association . . . 1852; Neumayer 1875). In Europe and the United States, professional anthropological societies were supported at first by travelers, government employees, and other amateurs and later encouraged by museums. Institutionalization stimulated the publication of monograph series devoted largely to cultural descriptions (notably, for example, the publications of the Bureau of American Ethnology, the American Ethnological Society, and the larger natural history museums). Landmarks include Morgan’s account of Seneca culture (1851), such turn-of-the-century reports of field research as Rivers’ study of the Toda (1906), and a few refreshingly innovating works like Barton’s study of Ifugao law (1919), in which the value of the case-method approach is demonstrated. Up to the end of World War i vast quantities of published ethnographic material had accumulated from many regions, but although some scholars (such as Boas) had begun to work in depth with informants on particular linguistic and other cultural problems (see Jakobson 1959; Smith 1959), most of this literature had been produced by nonanthropologists (e.g., Morgan was a lawyer, Barton a schoolteacher and dentist), who for a variety of reasons had become attracted to the subject matter, and in the course of short visits, surveys, or by accidental association, had acquired sufficient field experience to write interesting accounts of their observations. Toward the end of this period, museums provided most of the support for field research. In general, ethnographic inquiry was correspondingly dominated by object-centered interests, a standardized topical format for observation and recording, and extensive use of interpreters. [see BOAS; MORGAN, LEWIS HENRY; RIVERS.] Ethnography before World War II. By 1925 ethnographic field work had become an established professional activity. There was a distinct shift away from mere acceptance of field work toward a more critical and craftsmanlike attention to its execution, a shift from a dominant concern with data accumulation to the deeper analysis of particular cultural patterns. Many of these changes resulted directly from the influence of Malinowski’s reports (especially 1922; 1935) based on his lengthy and detailed observations in the Trobriand Islands. His insistence on using the local language, residing for a long time with the group being studied, and delineating functionally related cultural phenomena in specifiable contexts spurred serious rethinking of many aspects of ethnographic research [see MALINOWSKI]. Increased interest in cultural contexts led to a concern with the ethnographer’s role in the field situation and a more careful assessment of the way in which field data are recorded (Mauss 1947; Mead 1947; Osgood 1940). Partly as a result of developments in linguistics, sociology, and psychology, ethnographers began to show greater interest in general theory and descriptive methods, as well as to take advantage of an expanded range of research techniques such as the recording of life histories, the administering of pro-jective tests, and the extensive use of film. Field inquiry was increasingly guided by an interest in general problems of cultural variability and of the nature of cultural universals. In the 1930s, attempts to provide needed ethnographic information for trait analysts and hypothesis testers led to various forms of standardization, such as the Outline of Cultural Materials (Yale University 1938), to help organize the recording and cross-indexing of field observations. This development aided quantitative and comparative studies and expanded significantly the existing inventories of cultural detail.

The detail, however, often lacked contextual specification, and these efforts thus drew attention to the inherent weakness of relying on prepared formats to guide functionally oriented field research. Similar criticism and experimentation with many field methods and techniques helped to meet the new demands of higher research standards. During this phase the influence of museum sponsorship and amateur ethnography declined. Field workers were mostly trained as anthropologists in graduate university departments and were supported by private foundation and government grants.

Ethnography after 1950. Following World War II, ethnography began to attract more theoretical and methodological attention. Of particular note was the renewed and expanded interest in classification, which is crucially important (Needham 1963, pp. vii-ix). There was also an increased emphasis on communications systems and structural models (e.g., Levi-Strauss 1958); on the extension of principles developed in structural linguistics to ethnographic descriptions (e.g., Goodenough 1951); on the detailed study of cultural subsystems (e.g., Conklin 1957; Frake 1964b; Pospisil 1958); on contrasts between qualitative and quantitative aspects of field observations (Leach 1961); and on the development of more effective means of accounting for both cultural and personal variables in actual field situations (Condominas 1966). At the beginning of this phase there was a marked increase in the numbers of professional ethnographers, in sources of support, and in opportunities for field work.

Theory and method

The cumulative efforts of ethnographers to go beyond the uncritical narrative and rambling presentation of assumed cultural detail have focused on determining what constitutes a valid cultural description, on developing a theory that permits evaluation of alternative descriptions, and on formulating methods that may be most effective in deriving general statements from recorded observations. For example, it has been suggested that ideally an ethnography constitutes a cultural grammar, an abstract theory which provides the rules for producing, anticipating, and interpreting appropriate cultural behaviors in given settings (Conklin 1964; Frake 1964a; Goodenough 1957). Ethnographic theory, in this view, is concerned with evaluative criteria such as completeness (in both depth and breadth), conciseness, and accuracy. New approaches for providing reliable, valid, and more revealing field analyses have included (1) the formal treatment of cultural subsystems in which the relevant cultural phenomena are discretely organized or relationally describable in terms of a small number of dimensional contrasts or processes–componential definitions and formulaic reduction and rearrangement of terms by specified rules have been applied most frequently to kinship analysis (see Lounsbury 1964); and (2) the intracultural analysis of folk classifications, especially those of natural phenomena. The study of folk science (see Colby 1964) has led to a number of developments such as the more specific analysis of folk taxonomies (Berlin et al. 1966; Conklin 1962). Together with other types of contrast-set, subsegregate, and network linkage analysis, these efforts have sometimes been referred to as ethnoscience (Sturtevant 1964). Problems of alternative methodological procedures (Burling 1963) and of multiple contexts and code channels (Hymes 1962) are also being examined. The principles guiding many recent efforts reflect influences from linguistics, logic, mathematics, and systematic biology. Early results of their application in ethnography are, in turn, stimulating developments in such fields as sociology (Cicourel 1964) and archeology (Chang 1967). Furthermore, it is generally agreed, even where opinions on the nature of valid evidence differ widely (e.g., Metzger 1965), that theory and method as well as technique must be constantly tested in the field. [see COGNITIVE THEORY; COMMUNICATION; COMPONENTIAL ANALYSIS.]


Instruments for gathering, storing, retrieving, rearranging, expressing, and using field data while still in the field have multiplied with technical developments (Kano & Segawa 1945; Rowe 1953). Tape recording, cinematography, photogrammetry, aerial mapping, and the use of computers in text and demographic analysis are only a few of the frequently employed technical developments in the treatment of ethnographic data. Selecting from among these many devices and varied interactional techniques those most appropriate for keeping ethnographic records is a complex task. The ethnographer tries not to rely upon published outlines and questionnaires; he shuns interviews with informants carried out in artificial settings; and he avoids premature quantification or overdifferentiated measurement. Initially, at least, flexibility, curiosity, patience, and experimentation with many alternative devices and procedures are desirable. In everyday conversations between field worker and informant, for example, attention to and use of such verbal techniques as the following have been used profitably, although not always with equal success: recording and using natural question and comment frames (i.e., the ways in which information is normally solicited and transmitted in the local language); noting and using question-response sequences and implications; testing by intentional substitution of acceptable and incongruent references; testing by paraphrase; testing by reference to hypothetical situations; testing by experimental extensions of reference; and testing by switching styles, channels, code signals, message content, and roles (by reference or impersonation). Similarly, in the making of visual and nonverbal observations initial experimentation and flexibility help to determine focuses and boundaries of scenes, scheduled events, key roles, etc. Graphic and plastic modeling media have provided additional dimensions for the exploration of actual or hypothetical situations otherwise not easily investigated. Furthermore, ethnomodels, often ignored or treated only anecdotally, may clarify and facilitate field observation. When local systems have been qualitatively established, other procedures such as scaling techniques may be applied to increase the range of observations and provide some basis for quantification by various kinds of discrete, direct, or indirect measures. As available technology makes more elaborate manipulation of field data possible, greater attention can be given to informant-ethnographer interaction, not only in terms of eliciting routines but also with reference to critical and probabilistic changes in the micro-sociological environment. [see INTERVIEWING.]

Personnel. Because ethnographers interact personally and socially with informants, they find themselves carrying on a unique type of natural history, in which the observer becomes a part of (and an active participant in) the observed universe. The extent of this involvement and its importance for ethnographic recording depend on many situational considerations, including the personalities of the ethnographer and his informants. In some types of field inquiry the ethnographer’s practical success or failure may depend as much on those impressions he makes locally (Goffman 1956) as on the cultural events being observed. Informal recognition of these variables is frequently reflected in the nontechnical literature and in humorous anecdotes circulated among colleagues. More systematic accounts of these personal background factors and their consequences have appeared with increasing frequency (e.g., Berreman 1962; Casagrande 1960). Especially where long-term investigation of intimate personal relationships is concerned, most anthropologists would agree with Condominas (1965, p. 35) in stressing the “necessite d’ethnographier les ethnographes.” Methods of assessing such contextual information are not yet well developed, but more careful and sensitive reporting of the kinds of transactions involved in ethnographic inquiry (Oliver 1958) and of the total spectrum of social involvements affecting these transactions (Junker 1960; Mintz 1960) may lead to the desired awareness, and thus to appropriate adjustments in continued research. The possibility of combining such sensitivity with technical mastery of ethnographic analysis has been dramatically illustrated in recent contributions by Paul Friedrich (see Tagari 1964) and Laura Bohannan (1966). [see OBSERVATION.]

Translation. The problems of ethnography are in the largest sense those of translation. Eventually, all observations must be “translated” into the ethnographer’s descriptive code. Thus, linguistic theory, and translation theory in particular, has special relevance for ethnography (Gumperz & Hymes 1964; Nida 1964). And although ethnography and linguistics are not identical, they are to some extent mutually dependent (Hockett 1954). Furthermore, in spite of the fact that much ethnographic research concerns nonverbal behaviors, observations of even the most inarticulate cultural process are often identified, tallied, and even quantified by means of informant-expressed judgments. General linguistic and anthropological interest in semantic theory has been very responsive to discussions of ethnographic problems (e.g., Colby 1966; Conklin 1962; Lamb 1966; Romney & D’Andrade 1964; cf. Malinowski 1935). In particular, attention has been drawn to the diversity of semiotic relations, the multiplicity of contexts and related communication systems, and the importance of contrastive analysis of complete terminological sets [see SEMANTICS AND SEMIOTICS].

Since 1950 the critical re-evaluation of theory and practice has led to greater appreciation of the technical and human problems that are inherent in ethnographic research. Intellectual excitement and controversy have intensified efforts to refine methods for reducing apparent cultural complexity and indeterminacy to clear, systematic, and effective statements.




Significant sources other than those listed below may be found in the bibliographies of Colby 1966; Conklin 1962; 1964; Nida 1964; Sturtevant 1964. The articles and appended references in the following collections should also be consulted: Adams & Preiss 1960; Casagrande 1960; Firth 1957; Gumperz & Hymes 1964; Romney & D’Andrade 1964. Most of the early references in this bibliography consist of guides, questionnaires, or sets of instructions to explorers, travelers, and collectors. Other items are listed only if cited in the text.

ADAMS, RICHARD N.; and PREISS, JACK J. (editors) 1960 Human Organization Research: Field Relations and Techniques. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey.

BARTON, ROY F. 1919 Ifugao Law. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 15, No. 1. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

BERLIN, BRENT; BREEDLOVE, DENNIS E.; and RAVEN, PETER H. 1966 Folk Taxonomies and Biological Classifications. Science 154, no. 3746:273–275.

BERLIN, K. MUSEEN, MUSEUM FÜR VÖLKERKUNDE 1896 Instruction für ethnographische Beobachtungen und Sammlungen in Central Ostafrika. Berlin: The Museum.

BERREMAN, GERALD D. 1962 Behind Many Masks: Ethnography and Impression Management in a Himalayan Village. Society for Applied Anthropology, Monograph No. 4. Ithaca, N.Y.: The Society.

BOHANNAN, LAURA 1966 Shakespeare in the Bush. Natural History 75, no. 7:28–33.

BRITISH ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE 1852 A Manual of Ethnological Inquiry: Being a Series of Questions Concerning the Human Race, for the Use of Travellers and Others, in Studying the Varieties of Man. London: Taylor & Francis.

BRITISH ASSOCIATION FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF SCIENCE (1874) 1951 Notes and Queries on Anthropology. 6th ed., rev. London: Routledge.


BURLING, R. 1963 Garo Kinship Terms and the Analysis of Meaning. Ethnology 2:70–85.

CASAGRANDE, JOSEPH B. (editor) 1960 In the Company of Man: Twenty Portraits by Anthropologists. New York: Harper.

[CASS, LEWIS] 1823 Inquiries Respecting the History, Traditions, Languages, Manners, Customs, Religion, etc., of the Indians Living in the United States. Detroit, Mich.: Sheldon & Reed.

CHANG, KWANG-CHIH 1967 Rethinking Archaeology. New York: Random House.

CICOUREL, AARON V. 1964 Method and Measurement in Sociology. New York: Free Press.

COLBY, B. N. 1964 Folk Science Studies. Palacio 70, no. 4:5–14.

COLBY, B. N. 1966 Ethnographic Semantics: A Preliminary Survey. Current Anthropology 7:3–32.

CONDOMINAS, GEORGES 1965 L’exotique est quotidien: Sar Luk, Viet-nam Central. Paris: Plon.

CONKLIN, HAROLD C. 1957 Hanunoo Agriculture: A Report on an Integral System of Shifting Cultivation in the Philippines. FAO Forestry Development Paper No. 12. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization.

CONKLIN, HAROLD C. 1962 Lexicographical Treatment of Folk Taxonomies. Pages 119–141 in Conference on Lexicography, Indiana University, 1960, Problems in Lexicography. Edited by Fred W. Householder and Sol Saporta. Bloomington: Indiana Univ., Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics. → Also published as Volume 28, no. 2, part 4 of the International Journal of American Linguistics, and as Publication No. 21 of Indiana University, Research Center in Anthropology, Folklore, and Linguistics.

CONKLIN, HAROLD C. 1964 Ethnogenealogical Method. Pages 25–55 in Ward H. Goodenough (editor), Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdoch. New York: McGraw-Hill.

EGGAN, FRED 1961 Ethnographic Data in Social Anthropology in the United States. Sociological Review 9: 19–26.

FIRTH, RAYMOND (editor) (1957) 1964 Man and Culture: An Evaluation of the Work of Bronislaw Malinowski. New York: Harper.

FOUCART, GEORGE 1919 Introductory Questions on African Ethnology. Cairo: Printing Office of the French Institute of Oriental Archaeology.

FRAKE, CHARLES O. 1964a Notes on Queries in Ethnography. American Anthropologist New Series 66, no. 3, part 2:132–145.

FRAKE, CHARLES O. 1964b A Structural Account of Subanun “Religious Behavior.” Pages 111–129 in Ward H. Goodenough (editor), Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdoch. New York: McGraw-Hill.

FRAZER, JAMES G. (1907) 1916 Questions on the Customs, Beliefs and Languages of Savages. Cambridge Univ. Press.

GLUCKMAN, MAX 1961 Ethnographic Data in British Social Anthropology. Sociological Review 9:5–17.

GOFFMAN, ERVING (1956) 1959 The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

GOODENOUGH, WARD H. 1951 Property, Kin, and Community on Truh. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, No. 46. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

GOODENOUGH, WARD H. (1957) 1964 Cultural Anthropology and Linguistics. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C., Institute of Languages and Linguistics, Monograph Series on Languages and Linguistics No. 9:167–173.

GRIAULE, MARCEL 1957 Méthode de I’ethnographie. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

GUMPERZ, JOHN J.; and HYMES, DELL H. (editors) 1964 The Ethnography of Communication. American Anthropologist New Series, Special Issue 66, no. 6, part 2.

HOCKETT, CHARLES (1954) 1958 Chinese Versus English: An Exploration of the Whorfian Theses. Pages 106–123 in Harry Hoijer (editor), Language and Culture: Conference on the Interrelations of Language and Other Aspects of Culture. Univ. of Chicago Press. → See also Hockett’s comments in the discussion.

HOCKETT, CHARLES 1964 Scheduling. Pages 125–144 in F. S. C. Northrop and Helen H. Livingston (editors), Cross-cultural Understanding: Epistemology in Anthropology. New York: Harper.

HOWELL, JAMES (1642) 1895 Instructions for Forreine Travell. London: Moseley.

HYMES, DELL H. 1962 The Ethnography of Speaking. Pages 13–53 in Anthropological Society of Washington, Anthropology and Human Behavior. Washington: The Society.

JACKSON, JOHN R. 1834 Aide-mémoire du voyageur: Ou questions relatives a la geographie physique et poli-tique, etc. Paris: Bellizard.

JAKOBSON, ROMAN 1959 Boas’ View of Grammatical Meaning. Pages 139–145 in Walter Goldschmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas. American Anthropological Association, Memoir No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

JUNKER, BUFORD H. (1960) 1962 Field Work: An Introduction to the Social Sciences. Univ. of Chicago Press.

KANO, TADAO; and SEGAWA, KOKICHI (1945) 1956 An Illustrated Ethnography of Formosan Aborigines. Volume 1: The Yami. Rev. ed. Tokyo: Maruzen.

KELLER, ALBERT G. 1903 Queries in Ethnography. New York and London: Longmans.

KIRSCHBAUM, FRANZ J.; and FÜRER-HAIMENDORF, CHRISTOPH VON 1934 Anleitung zu ethnographischen und linguistischen Forschungen mit besonderer Berücksichtigung der Verhältnisse auf Neuguinea und den umliegenden Inseln. St. Gabriel-Mödling (Austria): Verlag “Anthropos.”

KROEBER, ALFRED L. 1957 Ethnographic Interpretations: 1–6. University of California Publications in American Archaeology and Ethnology, Vol. 47, No. 2. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press. → See especially Chapter 1, “What Ethnography Is.”

LAMB, SYDNEY M. 1966 Epilegomena to a Theory of Language. Romance Philology 19:531–573.

LEACH, EDMUND R. 1961 Pul Eliya, a Village in Ceylon: A Study of Land Tenure and Kinship. Cambridge Univ. Press.

LÉVI-STRAUSS, CLAUDE (1958) 1963 Structural Anthropology. New York: Basic Books. > First published in French.

LÉVI-STRAUSS, CLAUDE 1966 Anthropology: Its Achievements and Future. Current Anthropology 7:124–127.

LÉWIS, MERIWETHER (1814) 1922 History of the Expedition Under the Command of Captains Lewis and Clark to the Sources of the Missouri, … 3 vols. New York: Allerton. → A questionnaire for Lewis and Clark’s ethnographic observations is included in Volume 1, pages xxvii-xxviii. A paperback edition was published in 1965 by Dover.

LOUNSBURY, FLOYD G. 1964 A Formal Account of the Crow- and Omaha-type Kinship Terminologies. Pages 351–393 in Ward H. Goodenough (editor), Explorations in Cultural Anthropology: Essays in Honor of George Peter Murdoch. New York: McGraw-Hill.

LOWIE, ROBERT H. 1953 Ethnography, Cultural and Social Anthropology. American Anthropologist New Series 55:527–534.

LUSCHAN, FELIX VON (1904) 1909 Anleitung für ethnographische Beobachtungen und Sammlungen in Afrika und Oceanien. 3d ed. Berlin: Unger.

LUSCHAN, FELIX VON 1906 Anthropologie, Ethnographie und Urgeschichte. Volume 2, pages 1–123 in Georg von Neumayer (editor), Anleitung zu wissenschaftlichen Beobachtungen auf Reisen. 3d ed. Hanover (Germany): Jänecke.

MALINOWSKI, BRONISLAW (1922) 1960 Argonauts of the Western Pacific: An Account of Native Enterprise and Adventure in the Archipelagoes of Melanesian New Guinea. London School of Economics and Political Science, Studies, No. 65. London: Routledge; New York: Dutton. → A paperback edition was published in 1961 by Dutton.

MALINOWSKI, BRONISLAW (1935) 1965 Coral Gardens and Their Magic. 2 vols., with a new introduction by E. R. Leach. Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press. → Volume 1: Soil-tilling and Agricultural Rites in the Trobriand Islands. Volume 2: The Language of Magic and Gardening.

MARIN, Louis (1924) 1925 Questionnaire d’ethnographie: Tables d’analyse en ethnographie. Alencon (France): Laverdure. → First published in the Bulletin of the Société d’Ethnographie de Paris.

MAUSS, MARCEL 1947 Manuel d’ethnographie. Paris: Payot.

MEAD, MARGARET 1947 The Mountain Arapesh: III. Socio-economic Life. IV. Diary of Events in Alitoa. American Museum of Natural History, Anthropological Papers 40, part 3.

METZGER, DUANE 1965 [A Review of] The Nature of Cultural Things, by Marvin Harris. American Anthropologist New Series 67:1293–1296.

MINTZ, SIDNEY W. 1960 Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History. Caribbean Series, II. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

MORGAN, LEWIS HENRY (1851) 1962 The League of the Iroquois. New York: Citadel. → First published as The League of the Ho-de-no-sau-nee, or Iroquois. A 1901 edition was edited with many notes by Herbert M. Lloyd. A two-volume paperback edition, a reprint of the 1901 edition, was published by the Human Relations Area Files in 1954.

NEEDHAM, RODNEY 1963 Introduction. Pages vii-xlvii in Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Primitive Classification. Translated and edited by Rodney Needham. Univ. of Chicago Press.

NEUMAYER, GEORG VON (editor) 1875 Anleitung zu wissenschaftlichen Beobachtungen auf Reisen. 2 vols. Berlin: Oppenheim.

NIDA, EUGENE A. 1964 Toward a Science of Translating. Leiden (Netherlands): Brill.

OLIVER, DOUGLAS 1958 An Ethnographer’s Method for Formulating Descriptions of “Social Structure.” American Anthropologist New Series 60:801–826.

OSGOOD, CORNELIUS 1940 Ingalik Material Culture. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, No. 22. New Haven: Yale Univ. Press.

PIGAFETTA, ANTONIO (1525) 1906 Magellan’s Voyage Around the World. Edited by James A. Robertson. 2 vols. Cleveland: Clark.

POSPISIL, LEOPOLD 1958 Kapauku Papuans and Their Law. Yale University Publications in Anthropology, No. 54. New Haven: Yale Univ., Dept. of Anthropology.

RICHARDS, AUDREY I. 1939 The Development of Field Work Methods in Social Anthropology. Pages 272–316 in Frederic C. Bartlett et al. (editors), The Study of Society. New York: Macmillan.

RIVERS, WILLIAM H. R. 1906 The Todas. New York and London: Macmillan.

ROMNEY, A. KIMBALL; and D’ANDRADE, ROY GOODWIN (editors) 1964 Transcultural Studies in Cognition. American Anthropologist New Series 66, no. 3, part 2. → A special issue.

ROWE, JOHN H. 1953 Technical Aids in Anthropology: A Historical Survey. Pages 895–940 in International Symposium on Anthropology, New York, 1952, Anthropology Today. Edited by Alfred L. Kroeber. Univ. of Chicago Press.

ROWE, JOHN H. 1964 Ethnography and Ethnology in the Sixteenth Century. Kroeber Anthropological Society, Papers No. 30:1–19.

SAHAGÚN, FRAY BERNADINO DE General History of the Things of New Spain, Florentine Codex. Books 1–13. Translated by A. J. O. Anderson and C. E. Dibble. Santa Fe, N.M.: School of American Research, 1950–1964.

SMITH, MARIAN W. 1959 Boas’ “Natural History” Approach to Field Method. Pages 46–60 in Walter Gold-schmidt (editor), The Anthropology of Franz Boas. American Anthropological Association, Memoir No. 89. Menasha, Wise.: The Association.

STURTEVANT, WILLIAM C. 1964 Studies in Ethnoscience. American Anthropologist New Series, Special Issue 66, no. 3, part 2:99–131.

TAGARI SHIVASHANKARA PILLAI 1964 Under the Mango Tree. Texas Quarterly 7, no. 2:54–63. → Translated and edited by Paul Friedrich and K. N. Parameshwaran Nayar.

YALE UNIVERSITY, INSTITUTE OF HUMAN RELATIONS (1938) 1961 Outline of Cultural Materials. 4th ed., revised by George P. Murdock et al. New Haven: Human Relations Area Files.

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Ethnography, often paraphrased as "participant observation," is a mode of deriving knowledge about particular, local worlds through direct engagement with their peoples and ways of life. As a mode of inquiry, it is primarily associated with the discipline of anthropology, the comparative study of human societies and cultures that took definitive shape as a scholarly field in the early years of the twentieth century. But the implications of the approach are more complex than suggested by this definition; for while ethnography is empirical in spirit, in practice it flouts many of the assumptions underlying positivist investigation, and has long enjoyed something of a maverick status within the social sciences.

Tracing its mythic origins to the celebrated research of Bronislaw Malinowski in the Trobriand Islands in Melanesia in the teens of the last century, anthropological ethnographers have classically worked in non-European contexts, relying less on written records or formal techniques than on qualitative perceptions gleaned from interpersonal encounters in the field. In this enterprise, writes Claude Lévi-Strauss, "[t]he observer apprehends himself as his own instrument of observation" (p. 35). Such frank reliance on the role of subjective experience in empirical investigation sits somewhat uneasily with the value-free ideals of mainstream social science methodology. In fact, while it is in many ways a product of the Enlightenment impetus to bring the universe under the Western gaze, ethnographic observation, and the cultural relativism with which it has long been associated, has always been controversial. While hailed by many as a uniquely sensitive means of unsettling European hegemonies and revealing the cogency of other orders of meaning and value, it has also been accused of biases, ranging from insurmountable ethnocentrism to a fetishism of difference. Ironically, as critique of the method has mounted within anthropology in recent years, ethnography has been ever more enthusiastically embraced in several fields outside itself, among them cultural and legal studies, musicology, education, sociology, and political science. True, it is often hard to gauge, once the method is separated from the anthropological perspective that spawned it, just what it implies (besides "talking to people"). But even in watered-down form, its current popularity is surprising: How are we to explain its appeal in these postcolonial, global times, when many scholars have come to question the capacity of small-scale qualitative methods to grasp the ever more intensive translocal forces spanning the planet?

The Paradox

In fact, such ironies are not new. Ethnography was founded on a paradox that has rendered it both unusually useful and vulnerable to critique. This conundrum is also integral to modern anthropology, which is simultaneously universalizing in its key assumptions (about the intrinsic nature of humans as social, signifying beings, for example) and relativizing (about the fact that societies and cultures vary fundamentally with context). As a critic once quipped, anthropologists believe that "people everywhere are the same, except where they are different." Put in more generous terms, the discipline seeks to subvert modern universalist assumptions by making Westerners aware of other viable forms of reasoning and rectitude, kinship and sexuality, religion and representation, politics and politesse. But this procedure also raises thorny epistemological problems. To what degree can one assume that cultural categories are translatable across lines of difference? Is it not the case that the platonic referents of the whole enterprisenot to mention the politics of its practiceremain indisputably Eurocentric? What violence do we do to African assumptions that people can harm each other by powerful, superhuman means when we refer to these etiologies as "witchcraft"? How does such a term, which Europeans associate with dark ages past, color our rendering of African existential realities in the present? How does one establish the qualities and currency of such a "belief" in the first place?

These questions of method rest on a host of interpretive presumptions: What constitutes a field for analytical purposes? How systematic is culture, and how much is it the stuff of conscious reflection? How much does one impose order on action through one's very observation and description? Such things clearly are also matters of theoretical assumption, and here again ethnography can never simply be distinguished from the presuppositions and interests of those who practice it. What is more, scholarly values have varied across time and place: the accounts of the early ethnographers Edward Evans-Pritchard (19021973) and Margaret Mead (19011978) were hailed in their time as relativist correctives to unquestioned Western orthodoxies. But in a later, postcolonial climate, their texts have quite often been criticized for offering timeless, essentialist, exoticized depictions of "others" (Said, and Clifford and Marcus).

Intrinsic Features

In what ways are these vulnerabilities inherent in the way ethnography has been harnessed to the project of anthropology? As a method, ethnography seems quaintly anachronistic. It puts its primary trust in evidence generated by the human senses, being vested in the direct empirical gazethe naked eye, as it were. This way of seeing characterized the early-nineteenth-century biological sciences (Foucault), which served as a model for early anthropology, described by one of its founders as the "natural science of society" (Radcliffe-Brown). Yet despite occasional scientific pretensions, anthropology has remained at base a resolutely humanistic art (Evans-Pritchard, 1950) vested in insights generated by a "long conversation" between ethnographer and subject(s) (Bloch). Mastering this somewhat underspecified art is still a crucial component of recruitment to the anthropological profession. And certain canons of practice did become standard, at least as ideals: fluency in the primary field language, for example; minimal reliance on formal interviews and artificial situations; sufficient time in situ to distinguish patterns of repetition from random events; and sensitivity to the ethical implications of one's presence and one's representations of local life. The qualitative nature of such observation, coupled with the anthropological concern with demonstrating the salience and complexity of meaning and value in human action, makes writing a crucial aspect of the ethnographic enterprise: the observer must communicate his or her insights in language that conveys the expressive richness and texture of local experience, yet retains the authority of objective reportage. In the late twentieth century, a heightened sensitivity in the human sciences to the independent lifeand political mediationof texts brought the conventions of ethnographic prose under new scrutiny. More than one observer has noted that ethnography preserves features from an era of travel writing and adventure and that it is still dependent in large part on the legitimacy of first-hand experience and interpretation (Pratt).

Yet it could be argued that what some see as the greatest weaknesses of ethnography are also its major strengths. Most significantly, its practitioners refuse to put their trust in techniques that grant scientific (and above all, quantifying) methods an exaggerated sense of objectivity. They distrust instruments that rely on a priori questions and units of analysis, for instance, preferring to derive their categories of inquiry from a direct engagement with the phenomena at issue; and they are critical of investigative means that reify human action by divorcing it from its social context or claim to eliminate subjective bias. The very concept of participant observationan oxymoron to someimplies that knowledge is inseparable from its knower. Thus, while ethnographers do seek to objectify social facts in the world, and also to make viable generalizations about them, their assertions remain clearly identified as the fruit of interaction between reporters and their subjects. But in this, ethnography is merely a marked instance of the inescapable interplay of fact and value that renders all human observation partial, imperfect, and a product of its time and place.

The Native's Point of View?

If ethnographers are unusually aware of the dangers of vulgar empiricism, why have they themselves frequently been accused of essentializing others? To what extent has such critique actually been aimed at the wider anthropological project? How much does it reflect a growing discomfort, in a postcolonial world, with expertsstill largely of Western originwho claim a privileged ability to interpret other cultures, or to represent those threatened by a dominant world order? The claim that anthropology was directly complicit with colonial rule, and that it remains irredeemably orientalist in perspective, is clearly overdrawn: much early ethnography was liberal, even critical in intent, and the discipline has long been subversive of establishments of most kinds, at home and abroad. At the same time, the discipline's enduring investment in cultural difference and local particularityand in the independent existence of the powerless peoples within the world orderhas laid it open to the charge that it fails realistically to come to terms with the oppressive, large-scale forces ravaging these local contexts (Graeber, and Comaroff and Comaroff, 2003). The taint of European paternalism lingersalthough this does not necessarily attach itself to ethnography per se, which some see as having the potential to empower its former subjects. Thus Archie Mafeje, a respected African scholar, has declared that ethnography, to be true to itself, needs to be liberated entirely from anthropology so that it can become a source of "social texts authored [solely] by the people themselves" (Mafeje).

There is also a history of efforts to deploy participant observation beyond the orbit of anthropology in Western contexts. From the classic "Chicago School" of urban sociology in the 1920s, to those of the late-twentieth-century Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies, investigators have seized on what Graeme Turner has called "the democratic impulse" of ethnographyits promise to give expression to human worlds that exist beyond established cultural discourses, elite institutions, and highbrow media (Turner, p. 178). The approach has yielded resonant accounts of European and American phenomena like youth cultures and urban underclasses (Park, Whyte, Willis, Duneier) and the everyday life of formal institutions and the professions (Goffman, Becker). The impetus to understand forms of ordinary activity that lie in the shadow of grand institutions is closely related to the methods of social history, the kind that aim to recuperate the texts and traces from other times to uncover "hidden" chronicles, written "from below" (Samuel, Davis). It has often been noted that, to the degree that they treat the past as "another country," historians work very much like participant observers, practicing what amounts to an "ethnography of the archives" (Comaroff and Comaroff, 1992; Hobsbawm; Cohn). But nonanthropological ethnographers have not entirely escaped the accusation of paternalism, or of exoticizing "local" worlds. Speaking of British cultural studies, an approach that shares anthropology's concern with culture (but more as a function of class differences within societies than totalizing differences between them) Turner suggests that "the democratic impulse and the inevitable effect of ethnographic practice contradict each other" (p. 178). Here one might do well to recall that there are non-Western critics who believe that the method might serve as a means of empowerment. It might also be argued that the tendency to fetishize "marginal" cultures is not altogether absent from the paradigm of cultural studies itself.

Ethnography and Globalization

While rooted in phenomena that pass directly before the observer's eye, ethnographic description also involves selection and interpretation. Its practitioners usually aim to produce generalizations about the nature of relations and significations, about reproduction, rupture, or change in specific kinds of contexts. Classically, participant observation has been deployed within tightly bounded analytic fields, within which a certain coherence was presumed to exist (whether it resided in kin ties, productive forces, norms, signs, networks, subcultures, or nations). While holism of this sort has often lent itself to bold theory-making, ethnography-generated insights tend to be of human scale and humanist by implication. Ethnographers have tended to mount strong arguments against formalist models of economy and society that divorce phenomena like markets or international relations from actual social contexts, or that reduce human motivation to formulae like "rational choice."

The small-scale compass of ethnography, and the relatively bounded fields within which it has been effective, have raised new questions at a time of heightened global awareness, when most social phenomena seem so obviously to extend beyond local situations. At a moment when many domestic groups count transnational migrants among their close kin, and consume goods and images from across the planet, it becomes less and less possible to divorce intimate contexts from larger social forces, such as worldwide movements of capital.

The challenge of practicing ethnography "in the modern world system" (Marcus) should not be underestimated. It has produced creative efforts intended to extend the range of existing methods to accommodate the intensified circulation of persons and things in the world, and to comprehend these expanded flows. In part, this has involved combining ethnographic observation with other ways of generating social knowledgethose of political economy and literary theory, for example. But the most significant response has been to insist that now, more than ever, as people everywhere seem captured by material processes of planetary scale, it is necessary to demonstrate that no world-transforming force exists without the engagement of tangible human agents and interests. As the ideologies of the powerful seek to make their policies seem like technical necessities, operating beyond the realm of politics and value, the perspectives of ethnography insist on the opposite: that all activities, large and small, can be shown to have social and cultural determinations and, hence, are susceptible to debate, contestation, and intervention. Therein lies appeal of participant observation in an unpromising age.

See also Anthropology ; Borders, Borderlands, and Frontiers, Global ; Cultural Studies ; Ethnocentrism ; Ethnohistory, U.S. ; Globalization ; Identity: Personal and Social Identity ; Interdisciplinarity .


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Jean Comaroff

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The Greek etymology of the term ethnography is deceptively simple: writing about a people, where both writing and cultural difference are, respectively, explicit or strongly implied. Ethnography has had a long and complex relationship with its parent discipline, anthropology, and has come to mean more than writing alone, because the written record had to be based on knowledge of another culture acquired by the writer. Ethnography is thus a term that is used both as reference to the written product of the research process, usually assumed to be descriptive, and the research process itself. Ethnography, as a research process, is based on fieldwork. Since at least the time of Bronislaw Malinowski (18841942), fieldwork has meant living with a people for an extended period of time, learning their language, becoming immersed in their everyday life, understanding their whole cultural system and how the parts interrelate, and trying to understand the native point of view. The process of sharing in the daily life of ones hosts while making a detailed record of their lives in the form of field notes is known as participant observation. Not all fieldwork is ethnographicit becomes ethnographic based on the relationship one has with hosts or collaborators, and the intimate immersion in their way of life, with a keen concern for understanding how they act in the world and see the world in their terms.

Although fieldwork is often qualitative, it can and has included quantitative research as well (Bernard 2000, 2005). In the classic and standard works of the anthropological discipline, ethnographies were holistic accounts in that they strove to present comprehensive accounts of another society and its culture, showing the interrelation of elements such as political organization, religion, law, kinship, mythology, and subsistence practices. Often the unit of analysis was as small as a single village, and the society in question was a tribal one. Ethnographies contained little or nothing in the way of a historical perspective. Today, ethnographies written by anthropologists take a much sharper focus, addressing a specific research question rather than cataloging another way of life, and they tend to do so in a reflexive and often very theoretical manner as well. They also engage in research across multiple sites, including the anthropologists home society. Yet, ethnographers still do not deal with large samples of people, focusing on smaller environments and more intimate interactions.

Given the unique nature of ethnographic research, which distinguishes it from impersonal archival work, mass-administered questionnaires and number crunching, public surveillance, and more remote ways of interpreting peoples behaviors and their meanings, many fields and diverse interests have become attracted to ethnography, from corporations and market research firms to other disciplines in the social sciences and the humanities. Although ethnography is associated with anthropology primarily, there is an important tradition of ethnography in sociology, particularly in the Chicago school of sociology, which produced prominent ethnographies by distinguished sociologists such as William Foote Whyte (1994). However, unlike in anthropology, ethnographic fieldwork is not a requirement for a doctorate in sociology.


Ethnography presents special challenges to the anthropologist and collaborators, and to the disciplines status in the academy and wider society. Intimate, face-to-face research can be politically sensitive and can heighten the self-consciousness of all parties involved. The experiential and subjective nature of this mode of research opens anthropological reflections to the humanities and to ways of becoming involved in social issues. Anthropological self-questioning concerning the conditions and outcomes of knowledge production are especially acute where ethnography is concerned.

In the introduction to a controversial collection edited with George Marcus, James Clifford argued that ethnographic accounts are at best incomplete and partial truths, much like fictional works (Clifford and Marcus 1986, pp. 67). Clifford Geertz (1988) also interpreted anthropology as a kind of writing, a literary creation. Interest in the writing of ethnography focused attention on the rhetoric, metaphors, and tropes used by anthropologists to assert their expertise, authority, and credibility, especially when objectivist science had once held such sway in the discipline. A growing concern with narrative styles, acts of interpretation, and issues of cultural translation in ethnography began to turn the discipline in on itself, and led to the erosion of confidence in realist approaches. Expression seemed to overtake explanation as the focus of these critiques of realism that have been labeled postmodernist. The attention to how ethnographic texts are constructed was accompanied by an interest in the subjective and personal conditions of knowledge production, by critically examining the ways the anthropologist becomes part of and shapes the situation that is being studied. Reflexivity became a key term, prompting many anthropologists to reflect on how their personal biographies led them to certain subjects and to ways of understanding those subjects. Ethnographic film-makers such as Jean Rouch (19172004) deepened and extended discussions of reflexivity, of anthropology as a humanistic art, and of ethnography as fiction, well before it became popularized as postmodern in the late 1980s. The question that remains open is a philosophical one: Is the mission of the ethnographer primarily to uncover truth, or to explain reality?


The act of writing about persons is based on actual interactions, and anthropologists have been keen to elaborate ethical guidelines for fair and proper relationships with their collaborators. The basics of most anthropological guidelines stress the principles of seeking informed consent, not causing harm to individuals, leaving the field situation in the way one found it, and safeguarding confidentiality (e.g., American Anthropological Association 1998), and much wider debates have raged since the 1970s (Rynkiewich and Spradley 1976). Revelations that some anthropologists had spied for the U.S. government during counterinsurgency campaigns in the 1960s in Asia and Latin America shook the discipline. Intellectuals, media, and political leaders in recently decolonized countries, as well as indigenous peoples, charged that anthropology functioned as an imperial discipline of surveillance, and researchers became concerned with how to decolonize anthropology. New ethical guidelines have stressed the need for collaboration, coproduction, and multiple authorship, and for ongoing negotiation of the terms of access to research data. Much controversy has emerged over the status of practicing anthropologyanthropology done outside of the academy, in the service of governments and private firmsespecially as ethical guidelines produced in the 1970s have been tempered by a concern of practicing anthropologists for the rights of those funding their research, such as commercial stakeholders.

Politics have been intimately tied up with issues of research, ethics, and writing. Since the 1970s more attention has been devoted to the politics of ethnography as a dominating knowledge that posits a different other. The rise of indigenous anthropology (Medicine 2001), feminist anthropology, and anthropology at home have all sought to confront and contest the colonial origins of anthropology (Biolsi and Zimmerman 1997; Brettell 1993; Deloria 1988; Harrison 1991). New approaches to ethnography call into question the older scientific gaze of anthropology as a kind of imperial vision that manifested itself in imperious writingthat is, writing in the voice of god as an unseen, authoritative, and trustworthy observer. More attention has been paid to how gender, class, ethnicity, and nationality condition ones rapport with hosts, delimit access to spheres of life, and determine what kind of data can be recorded. Reinterpreting ethnography as premised on humanistic, face-to-face, intimate relationships; delving into intersubjective understandings; and not placing oneself outside of the research context as a remote analyst or, worse, as a spectator of zoological phenomena, have worked to produce more self-conscious and politically sensitive ethnographies (Rabinow 1977). Dialogic exchanges (Crapanzano 1980) challenged the previous, sportscaster-like narrations of what people were doing.


Self-reflection has been acute in anthropology, at times bordering on paralyzing angst. The prolonged immersion in other cultures, the everyday and intimate interactions with ones hosts, arriving as an outsider and becoming an insider, the questions of ones own identity and the status of ones involvements with others almost inevitably heighten self-consciousness. Hortense Powdermaker was aware of how involvement and detachment, art and science, worked in tension with one another in ethnography (Powdermaker 1967). Currently, the relationship between theory and ethnography is tense, too, and there is a greater tendency to produce theoretically heavy accounts that seemingly render ethnographic description as secondary in importance, or as ornamentation in predetermined exercises. Debates about writing styles in anthropology were conducted largely in private, among and for other professional anthropologists, with little or no impact on the social standing and public engagement of the discipline. Some have noted the limits to discussions of reflexivity, arguing that the result has bordered on narcissism and a failure to reflect on broader-than-personal conditions of knowledge production (Bourdieu 2000). Although ethnography still addresses the impacts of postmodern and postcolonial critiques, there are new trends emerging: fieldwork in ones home society; feminist and indigenous anthropology; autoethnography; experimental writing, including fiction in the regular sense (Bowen 1954); and militant advocate approaches. In terms of the politics of writing, there are more dialogic and multivocal texts rather than authoritative, univocal accounts. Some scholars are questioning how anthropologists conceptually constitute the field at the heart of their ethnographies, with increased sensitivity to the realization that there is no definite beginning and end to fieldwork, no clear home and away (Amit 2000). Revised ethnographic realismunderstanding the differences between experience and realityhas led some to admit that what ethnography can capture is limited, with the resulting admission of multi-method approaches involving research in archives, media analysis, and use of statistics. Understanding how cultures are delinked from territories, with greater concern for globalization and transnational movements, has led some anthropologists to elaborate frameworks for multisited ethnography (Marcus 1995) premised on traveling cultures, on the movements of money, persons, metaphors, narratives, and biographies. As much as anthropology has been riven by debate about its ethnographic core, very few anthropologists have argued for abandoning ethnography. As Nancy Scheper-Hughes put it: Not to look, not to touch, not to record can be the hostile act, an act of indifference and of turning away (1995, p. 418).

SEE ALSO Anthropology; Bourdieu, Pierre; Culture; Ethnology and Folklore; Gaze, Colonial; Gaze, The; Geertz, Clifford; Methods, Qualitative; Narratives; Observation; Observation, Participant; Social Science; Sociology; Sociology, Urban; Street Culture


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Maximilian C. Forte

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ETHNOGRAPHY. Derived from the Greek ethnos ('nation or people') + graphia ('writing'), "ethnography" refers to the empirical and descriptive study of humanity in such large groups as communities or nations. Before about 1750, "anthropology" ('the study of man') referred to the study of human nature, that is, of the abstract individual. In the second half of the eighteenth century, philosophical speculation about human nature was replaced by the empirical study of particular historical nations, that is, anthropology became specific and collective, as the modern discipline of anthropology is today. The empirical study of specific historical nations did exist throughout the early modern era, but it is not called anthropology. The heading "ethnography" on this article indicates that early modern studies of nations are generally not recognized by modern anthropologists as sufficiently scientific. Most studies that we would call ethnographic were ad hoc reports of world travelers, missionaries, and explorers that encompassed far more than simply the various peoples encountered on the journey. Navigation, natural history, descriptions of climate, minerals, plants, and animals could all be included in a piece of travel writing.

The term "ethnography" came into use in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The Oxford English Dictionary 's first citation of the term is from the 1834 Penny Cyclopedia (II, 97) which adopted it from German: "The term ethnography (nation-description) is sometimes used by German writers in the sense which we have given to anthropography." The first OED citation of "ethnology" comes from Pritchard's Natural History of Man (1842). Had the term been used in the early modern period, it would have been pejorative. From the fourteenth century to about the mid-eighteenth, "ethnic" (from Greek ethnikos 'heathen') referred to specifically foreign nations that were neither Christian nor Jewish, rather, pagan, heathen, or, by implication, "the other." Ethnography, therefore, was discourse about "Them" as opposed to "Us."

Attempts by Europeans to describe what they were seeing are as old as the voyages of discovery, even older. In antiquity, there were basically two ways of describing primitive human societies. Human history represented either a steady degeneration from a primitive golden age or progress from an initial rude and uncultivated condition. In the former case, primitives were portrayed as noble, free, and virtuous, as in the Greek geographer Strabo's descriptions of the Scythians; in the latter case, primitives were presented as cruel, ignorant, and evil, as in Book 7 of Pliny the Elder's Natural History.

When Europeans sailed off toward Elysium, the Islands of the Blessed, and the lands of the Hyperboreans (who were believed to live in a land of perpetual sunshine and abundance), they may not have expected to find monstrous people like the "blemmyes," whose heads were located below their shoulders, or incredible wealth in China as described by John Mandeville (d. 1372) and Marco Polo (c. 12541324). But when they encountered the apparently primitive inhabitants of Hispaniola and other Caribbean islands, what could they do but cast them in the classical terms they brought with them? Bartolomé de Las Casas reported that Columbus had carefully read and annotated Ptolemy's Geography and more recent geographic textbooks by Pope Pius II (reigned 14581464) and Pierre d'Ailly (13501420). Amerigo Vespucci (14541512) alternated between the Greek modes of golden age and savagery, here describing indigenous Americans as living naked in the forest with neither law nor religion and winning all they needed from the hand of nature, there describing a cannibal he met who had partaken of more than two hundred people. In his New World Chronicles, Peter Martyr d'Anghiera (14571526) compared parrots he had seen in the New World with descriptions by Pliny, and his account of society on Hispaniola resembled the golden age of Hesiod (fl. eighth century b.c.e.) and Virgil (7019 b.c.e.). Thus it comes as little surprise that early modern Europeans described what they saw in terms similar to ancient Greeks and Romans, even when such language was misleading or prejudicial. Indeed, it was the only language they had.

As natural history emerged as a recognized genre of philosophical writing, ethnography was frequently appended to accounts of climate, topography, minerals, flora, and fauna, as if peoples and their cultures were just another feature of the natural landscape. Here human beings could be studied on three levels. On the physical level, one might report on a people's relative size, shape, and color and also its material culture and food, which were determined by the natural environment. On the social level, the author described customs, manners, and political organization. And on the intellectual or cultural level, the author could address a nation's achievements in the arts and sciences and in religion or philosophy.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, enough descriptive accounts of New World peoples had come in that ethnographers could offer detailed comparisons of New World peoples with the ancients. Joseph-François Lafitau's (16701740) comparison of the ancient Romans and Persians to the Americans of Louisiana is the most prominent example, and Lafitau represents the universalizing of an essential human nature. In the course of the eighteenth century, comparison gave way to classification, and classification meant the study of particulars and the drawing of distinctions. At this point we begin to see an ethnography that resembles modern anthropology, with each nation thoroughly unique and separate from the others. Naturalists could classify nations just as they classified minerals, plants, and animals. Humanity acquired its scientific designation as Homo sapiens in the eighteenth century from Carl Linnaeus (17071778), but that designation of humanity as "wise" did not come easily. In moral and theological terms it was clear enough which creatures were human and which animal. But when one tried to draw the line between the seldom-seen orangutan and the wild man of Borneo, things became murky. Linnaeus himself wrote that he could find no quantitative difference between ape and human. Nor was the Linnean system universally accepted as eternal truth. It was simply a system, formed in the process of international debate, and over the first ten editions of Linnaeus's Systema Natura, he experimented with different classifications of humanity, dividing the genus Homo into several species. Linnaeus's French rival, Georges Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (17071788), also divided humanity into two speciesblack and white.

Ultimately, human classification came down to the question of human origins. Did humanity originate in a single pair, male and female, either as told by the accounts in the Book of Genesis or by some other more naturalistic (perhaps evolutionary) process? Or did humanity represent several different and independent origins? If the former, then how could one account for the wide variety of color, stature, shape, and strength among global humanity, to say nothing of the differences in social organization, customs, manners, morals, and religion? Climate was one explanation. Montesquieu's explanation in Book 14 of L'esprit des lois (1748; The spirit of laws) is the most famous account of the effects of climate, but many others offered similar explanations. Like characterizations of primitives, the climate thesis reached back to antiquity in Polybius (204123 b.c.e.) and Strabo. On its face, climate was convincing. It was known that plants and animals could be markedly transformed by their local environment, as when tropical plants were placed in European botanical gardens, or goldfish are kept in a ten-gallon tank. Europeans turned brown when exposed to the sun, and even within Europe there were degrees of color ranging from pale, blond Scandinavians to dark-haired, olive-skinned Spaniards.

Others noted that climate was not as effective as it was frequently taken to be. The short, dark-skinned Lapps neighbored the tall, fair Swedes. After four generations in Massachusetts, Africans were just as dark as they were in Africa. And Jews living on India's Malabar coast, supposedly since the Babylonian captivity in the sixth century b.c.e., were reported to look just like European Jews. Clearly some other force affected the physical attributes of human beings. If that force (Johann Friedrich Blumenbach [17521840] spoke of a teleological force contained in "genital liquid") was so persistent, and if it was assumed that all of humanity descended from a single human pair, then how could one account for human diversity? Polygenesis was tempting, but because of its obvious moral implications, few Europeans dared to hold that position before the second half of the nineteenth century.

Indeed, morality has been a major issue in ethnography ever since the first voyages of discovery. What impressed Europeans about the New World was not that it was inhabited by human societies but that those societies were so different from their own. Not only were they different, but they were understood to be inferior. It was Europeans who circumnavigated the globe to reach Tahiti, not Tahitians who, for all their navigational prowess, sailed to Europe. What should the relationship be between Europeans and their less-developed brethren? Certainly they had to be evangelized, and almost from the beginning Spaniards set out to convert Central, South, and North Americans to Christianity. But what means were appropriate? Could they be evangelized forcibly, as Charlemagne had converted the Saxons eight hundred years earlier? Could one justify purchasing enslaved individuals in Africa and forcing them to work on sugar plantations in the Caribbean, provided one treated them with restraint and attempted to care for their souls? All of these questions were explored in an ad hoc manner in accounts of the New World written by missionaries, traders, explorers, and planters in the early modern period.

There was unanimous agreement that, in technological terms, the ethnoi of the globe had not achieved what Europeans had. Less clear was whether that technological progress had been translated into any moral progress among Europeans themselves. Here was another use for ethnography. Michel de Montaigne (15331592) could point out that, despite accounts of human sacrifices and cannibalism in Central America, the real barbarians were the Europeans. That sentiment was echoed two centuries later by Georg Forster, one of Captain Cook's fellow travelers on his 17721775 voyage around the world, in a graphic account of cannibalism in New Zealand. And Jean-Jacques Rousseau (17121778) famously argued in his two Discourses that social inequalities were European constructs and that the progress of the arts and sciences had brought not any moral improvement but the contrary. Both of Rousseau's arguments were supported by a selective reading of travel narratives.

Rousseau, of course, never left Europe. Neither did Montaigne. Both, however, considered themselves authorities on non-European peoples purely on the basis of their reading of others' travel reports. Real travelers, like Georg Forster, did not believe one could come to an adequate understanding of the ethnoi unless one visited them personally. On the other hand, scholars like Forster's nemesis Christoph Meiners (17471810), who disagreed with Forster on every level from the credibility of witnesses to the interpretation of evidence to the politics of the French Revolution, believed that visiting one or two places was insufficient for understanding humanity as a whole. Such knowledge one could only acquire through the comparative reading of others' travel accounts; no one could acquire firsthand knowledge of all the peoples of the globe. Thus began a debate over library research versus field research that persists in anthropology to the present day.

See also Class, Status, and Order ; Colonialism ; Exploration ; Linnaeus, Carl ; Montaigne, Michel de ; Montesquieu, Charles-Louis de Secondat de ; Noble Savage ; Rousseau, Jean-Jacques .


Primary Sources

Cabeza de Vaca, Alvar Núñez. Adventures in the Unknown Interior of America. Translated by Cyclone Covey. Albuquerque, 1983. Originally published 1542.

Casas, Bartolomé de las. The Devastation of the Indies: A Brief Account. Translated by Herma Briffault. Baltimore, 1992. Originally published 1552.

Charlevoix, Pierre-François-Xavier de. History and General Description of New France. Translated by J. G. Shea. 6 vols. New York, 18661872. Originally published 1744.

Forster, Georg. A Voyage Round the World. Edited by Nicholas Thomas and Oliver Berghof. 2 vols. Honolulu, 2000. Originally published 1777.

Lafitau, Joseph François. Customs of the American Indians Compared with the Customs of Primitive Times. Translated by William N. Fenton and Elizabeth L. Moore. 2 vols. Toronto, 19741977. Originally published 1724.

Meiners, Christoph. Grundriβ der Geschichte der Menschheit. 2nd ed. Lemgo, 1793.

Secondary Sources

Elliott, J. H. The Old World and the New 14921650. Cambridge, U.K., 1970.

Grafton, Anthony, with April Shelford and Nancy Siraisi. New Worlds, Ancient Texts: The Power of Tradition and the Shock of Discovery. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Pagden, Anthony. The Fall of Natural Man: The American Indian and the Origins of Comparative Ethnology. Cambridge, U.K., 1982.

Rowe, J. H. "Ethnography and Ethnology in the Sixteenth Century." Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 30 (Spring 1964): 119.

Michael Carhart

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"Ethnography." Europe, 1450 to 1789: Encyclopedia of the Early Modern World. . 28 Apr. 2017 <>.

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ethnography A term usually applied to the acts both of observing directly the behaviour of a social group and producing a written description thereof. Sometimes also referred to as fieldwork, the term is most commonly linked with the research techniques of social anthropology, although sociologists involved in a community study would certainly do fieldwork, as might those doing almost any form of case-study. The principal technique of ethnographic research is participant observation. A classic example is William Foote Whyte's study of the social structure of an Italian slum district in an American city (Street Corner Society, 1943). Subsequently, Whyte also wrote a fine piece of descriptive methodology, reflecting on his ethnographic work (Learning from the Field: A Guide from Experience, 1984).

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"ethnography." A Dictionary of Sociology. . 28 Apr. 2017 <>.

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eth·nog·ra·phy / e[unvoicedth]ˈnägrəfē/ • n. the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures. DERIVATIVES: eth·nog·ra·pher / -fər/ n. eth·no·graph·ic / ˌe[unvoicedth]nəˈgrafik/ adj. eth·no·graph·i·cal adj. eth·no·graph·i·cal·ly adv.

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"ethnography." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 28 Apr. 2017 <>.

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ethnography Study of the culture of an ethnic group or society. Ethnographers gather anthropological data by direct observation of a group's economic and social life. See also anthropology; ethnology

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"ethnography." World Encyclopedia. . 28 Apr. 2017 <>.

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ethnography: see anthropology; ethnology.

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