In anthropology, the term ethnology describes the social, cultural, and psychological study of peoples. The letter s in the word peoples is significant, indicating that the subjects of ethnology are treated as groups rather than as individuals. In ethnological work these groups are usually regarded as tribal, ethnic, national, or other corporate social entities. Ethnologists study culturally determined practices and environmental ethics as part of interactive social and behavioral systems. Ethnography focuses on the descriptive study of cultures; it analyzes, classifies, and interprets problems arising from ethnographic knowledge. These may be comparative, theoretical, economic, social, or other kinds of questions. Ethnology thus tends toward the systemic and theoretical, while fieldwork-based ethnography is more local and informational. In practice, however, there is considerable overlap between ethnographic methods and ethnological theory. Thick description, artifacts, and other ethnographic data provide the empirical foundations of ethnological analysis.

Lowie (1937, pp. 3-4) defined culture as the aggregate of customs, habits, beliefs, skills, practices, and norms that individuals acquire, not through their own creativity or actions but from their societies and kin. Culture in this sense is an omnibus term meaning all that people learn at a conscious or unconscious level from others in their surroundings; at the same time, culture itself is made by individuals acting in concert. Franz Boas shifted the ethnological usage of the term away from the nineteenth-century meaning of "culture" as a universal human condition found at differing stages of development, toward the plural "cultures" as historically particular, unique, local complexes. Talcott Parsons, following Max Weber, reinterpreted the concept of culture as a symbolic system. Methodological considerations of ethnography and ethnology include recognizing, gathering, and translating ethno-scientific knowledge to approximate a view of culture from the native viewpoint. Bronislaw Malinowski was the classic exponent of that approach, typically reached through field-work. Earlier Victorian "armchair" ethnology had been a museum-based discipline in which scholars usually stayed at home in Europe or America, analyzing collections of material culture and folklore brought back from "the field" by others. Following Boas and Mali-nowski, the emphasis shifted to the firsthand experience of fieldwork.

Classical ethnology placed particular emphasis on social organization through the study of kinship relations and analyses of myth and ritual. Originally conceived as an offshoot of the natural sciences, ethnology became a social science, but it tilted more toward humanism during the last three decades of the twentieth century. The discipline has frequently been caught up in the scholarly tension between a search for systematic conceptual theories, or predictive models of behavior, and inductive methodologies based on extrapolation from empirical data.

Ethnology, philosophically rooted in the eighteenth-century positivism of Auguste Comte, originally came to signify the discovery of psychological laws of humankind through the study of culture history. Nineteenth-century ethnologists such as Tylor and Morgan interpreted ethnology as a historical discipline. Although the remote past of antiquity was properly the domain of archaeology, these ethnologists focused on preliterate peoples in historical times in order to construct a natural history of man. To that end they adopted an evolutionary standpoint aimed at revealing successive stages of universal human development as observed in contemporary primitive societies.

One of the chief concerns around the turn of the twentieth century, when anthropology was becoming a professional discipline, was the explanation of similar cultural traits found in widely dispersed societies. For example, drills for making fire were formerly widespread throughout the world in countless local variations, working on the same principle. The diffusionists favored the spread of traits from a single origin as an explanatory principle over the possibility of independent invention. They regarded culture as contingent upon the particular migrations, explorations, intercourse, invasions, wars, colonizations, and other exigencies of history. Related languages, customs, behavioral traits, and material culture formed so-called culture circles (German: kulturkreis). These areal groupings were composed of associative bundles of related traits. Traits radiated outward in successive waves, from centers of so-called high civilization to the outer margins of their spheres of influence. The diffusionist principle of centrifugality held that these centers generated dynamic cultural changes internally; as their influence spread, the traits moved farther from the center, widening the circles like concentric ripples in a pond. Dif-fusionists postulated that the oldest cultural forms would thus be found as archaic remnant traits located at the periphery of the culture

Eskimos from Port Clarence brought to the United States by the Reindeer Commission, Bureau of Ethnology, 1894. (Library of Congress)

circle. For example, postcolonial Francophone societies in Quebec, Louisiana, and the Caribbean have maintained many distinct local elements of language and culture rooted in old French forms that died out in Europe centuries ago.

The weaknesses of diffusionism as an ethnological theory and historical method included its bias against the possibilities of independent invention and its insistence on a top-down model of imperial cultural drift from the so-called high civilizations to the rest of the world's peoples, rather than a dynamic, interactive model of mutual influence and exchange. Diffusionists were unable to fully recognize human agency and the ingenious adaptive creativity that produces similar solutions to fundamental problems in widely varying environmental circumstances.

Adolf Bastian was a major figure in late nineteenth-century German ethnology. Bas-tian's concept of an underlying psychic unity of mankind was used against the polygenist racial formulations of the time, which sought to prove that human races were descended from different species. Boas, who had been schooled in the German tradition, was key to the development of an American style. He defined ethnology as "the science of the psychical phenomena of man considered as a member of society, not as an individual" (from the Franz Boas archives, American Philosophical Society Library, Philadelphia). When British anthropology was established as an academic discipline during the first decade of the twentieth century, it distinguished ethnology from sociology. Ethnology was to be the psychological branch of anthropology (also called anthropogeography), as the study of environmental influences on humanity and culture. Its purpose was the comparative classification of the world's peoples based not on physical characteristics but on "conditions of material culture, language, and religious and social institutions and ideas" (Kuper, 1996, pp. 2-3). This school tended to favor diffusionist ideas, opposing the neo-Darwinian social evolutionists who schematized races of man in taxonomic hierarchies.

Twentieth-century British and French ethnology (or social anthropology) developed along somewhat different lines from U.S. ethnology (or cultural anthropology). Structuralism, functionalism, and structural-func-tionalism stripped away the past-oriented approach of historical reconstruction in favor of present models of living cultures as integrated systems. Cultures are represented as approximations of internally defined idealized social forms suspended in a timeless ethnographic present. This method has the advantage of self-contained explanation, not needing to refer to factors outside a culture to make sense of its practices and beliefs. Among its disadvantages are the possibility of yielding static, ahistorical representations. There is also the ever-present possibility that these ethnological categories, as abstract idealized forms, are in fact more the mental constructions of the anthropologist than internally verifiable ideas or principles indigenous to the cultures under scrutiny. The structural-functionalism of Rad-cliffe-Brown and Evans-Pritchard, at first closely tied to colonial administration, was a link between knowledge and power in Africa and throughout the British empire. This approach elaborates the conceptual underpinnings of societies and cultures, stressing the importance and complexity of social organization, kinship relations, exchange, and ritual. During the 1960s the French structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, intellectually rooted in the sociology of Durkheim and Mauss and the semiological approach of Saussurean linguistics, brought a systemic, cognitive approach to the study of myth, ritual, and kinship. Structural analyses are based on principles of binary opposition in form and in psychological symbols.

American culture-historical ethnologists, led by Boas, relied on the inductive methodology of carefully observing and accumulating empirical data. They developed methods of delineating the unique aspects of each particular culture, without constructing broad, overarching, comparative theoretical frameworks. This resulted in a wealth of ethnographic knowledge, while limiting the synthesis of ethnological knowledge beyond the specific data pertaining to each society. The influential culture and personality school, which included Boas's students Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Edward Sapir, focused on psychological factors in the individual's development in society, emphasizing the study of childhood, learning, family, and socialization. Sapir emphasized that the environment affects each person individually, and that culture is not a reified entity but the aggregate of separate human-environment interactions. Gregory Bateson was the son of William Bateson, a nineteenth-century biologist who coined the word genetics. The younger Bateson advocated the adaptation of deductive natural science methods to the elusive problems of understanding psychological forms. Bateson's cybernetic model of communication applied natural biological principles of symmetry, as found, for example, in the morphological segmentation of arthropod limbs, to the formal analysis of continuously regenerated social structures.

The postwar theory of cultural evolution centered not on species evolution in the biological sense but on the view that progress in technology and the conversion of environmental resources into energy are deterministic of culture. Its founder, Leslie White, critiqued the Boasian paradigm for its lack of either grand synthesizing statements or a comprehensive ethnological theory of social organization. Boas's defenders countered with the argument that the lack of such generalization is precisely the strength of historical particularism, which seeks difference, or what makes each people and culture unique. Only after taking into account the diversity of human experience, knowledge, and practice, they contended, could broader principles of human society and culture be formulated. Cultural ecology, founded by Julian Steward, was an influential postwar school of ethnology. It ascribed a greater role to creative adaptation to environment, natural resources, and social factors than did the technological determinism of the cultural evolution school. Steward's theory of multilinear evolution made for a more open-ended and nuanced view than the nineteenth-century teleological formulas he called linear evolution, allowing for polyvari-ate results from similar causes and a more diverse branching of human cultural forms. Both cultural evolution and cultural ecology extended the capabilities of the type of environmental ethnology begun during the early twentieth century by Alfred Kroeber, Robert Lowie, and Clark Wissler. They drew on the materialist economic determinism of Marx (although uncited during the height of the cold war), in a return to the primacy of environment and economy over psychological and religious factors. This lineage led to several divergent tendencies, including cultural materialism, a highly deterministic neo-Marxian paradigm that considered all cultural effects to be explicable as superstructural responses to base environmental and economic conditions. The Malinowskian emphasis on economics and ecology returned to the forefront of ethnology during the 1960s.

For much of the twentieth century, the Chicago school was closely allied with British structural-functionalism and the main rival to the various Boasian offshoots. Marshall Sahlins (1972) integrated structuralism with historical particularism, environmental constraints, and the theory of economic exchange. Raymond Firth applied modern economic theories to preliterate societies. Edmund Leach synthesized an analytic model of culture in which norms of customary behavior approximate ideal concepts of social structure, while ecology governs practical economics and rational choices. For example, Leach (1954) reasoned that, in highland Burma, the organization of village life could be understood as a specific adaptation to the environmental constraints of agricultural fields and irrigation canals.

In his ethnographic writings on Indonesia and Morocco, Clifford Geertz (1973) helped set standards for particularized rigor in moving ethnology away from abstraction toward thorough local knowledge and thick description.

Beginning in the 1960s and acutely since 1980, the field has undergone arduous self-examination and critique of its own colonial past. Some ethnologists have moved away from science models toward an ethnology of reflexive and literary turns. The ever-expanding field of ethnographic inquiry has led to the proliferation and accelerating fragmentation of ethnological subdisciplines. Poststructural-ism, visual anthropology, cultural studies, subaltern studies, feminist anthropology, and queer theory are some of the many ethnological subdisciplines now coexisting as integrated environmental approaches to the study of culture and society.

Human ecology and various historical so-called new ecologies, stressing the interaction of people with nature and the role anthropogenic environmental landscapes play in social organization and cultural memory, continue to gain currency at the turn of the twenty-first century. Biocultural diversity is a relatively new paradigm combining linguistic and sociocultural methods with environmental science and preservation policy studies. In its interdisciplinary relation to environmental and conservation science, ethnology plays a crucial role in understanding traditional ecosystems and involving local communities in preservation and development.

See also: Anthropology; Coloniality; Ecosystems; Ethnoscience


Clifford, James. 1986. The Predicament of Culture. Cambridge: Harvard University Press; Geertz, Clifford. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. New York: Basic; Hymes, Dell, ed. 1972. Reinventing Anthropology. New York: Pantheon; Kuper, Adam. 1996. Anthropology and Anthropologists: The Modern British School, 3d ed. London: Routledge; Leach, Edmund. 1954. Political Systems of Highland Burma: A Study of Kachin Social Structure. London School of Economica Monographs on Social Anthropology No. 44. London: G. Bell and Son; Lowie, Robert H. 1937. The

History of Ethnological Theory. New York: Holt, Rine-hart and Winston; Sahlins, Marshall. 1972. Stone Age Economics. Chicago: Aldine; Steward, Julian H. 1955. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.

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