The word ethnology comes from the Greek words ethnos, meaning “people” and logia, meaning “study of.” Franz Boas said the goal of ethnology was first to describe and explain culture, and then formulate laws about it. While some anthropologists use this term as synonymous with sociocultural anthropology, more often, it means one of the two branches of sociocultural anthropology, the other being ethnography. While ethnography deals with a society in depth, ethnology uses a comparative approach to analyze culture (because of this, in much of the 20th century, social anthropologists concentrated most on ethnography, while cultural anthropologists concentrated most on ethnology). Two current popular ways anthropologists have classified societies is in terms of different modes of production and political organization. In terms of mode of production, one such classification would be in terms of foraging societies, agricultural societies, pastoral societies, traditional states, and industrial societies. In terms of political organization, one such classification would be in terms of band, tribe, chiefdom, and state. Ethnology looks at how people relate to their environment and to other people around them. Ethnologies also do not only describe but also attempt to explain something about culture. While in the past, ethnologists, under the direction of Franz Boas, tried to look at all aspects of culture, many ethnologists today focus on issues of their own specific concern to explain similarities and differences between cultures. Ethnologists often concentrate on specific subfields of anthropology, like psychological anthropology, anthropology of religion, economic anthropology, political anthropology, gender studies, folklore, and the study of kinship.
Three types of ethnology are evolutionary ethnology, comparative ethnology, and historical ethnology. The first anthropologists of the 19th century thought cultures evolved from simpler, more primitive forms to more complex advanced forms. They drew diagrams to show the evolutionary development of societies in terms of things like how people evolved from prerational to scientific, and from magic to religion to science. They also classified societies from least developed to most developed. A chart might then be made of least developed to most developed in this way: Aboriginals, Africans, American Indians, Chinese, Japanese, and English. Two of the most important of the evolutionary ethnologists were Edward Tylor (1832-1917) and Lewis Henry Morgan (1818-1881). Tylor talked about the evolution of religion from animism to polytheism to monotheism, but he said that more advanced civilizations retained primitive features in the form of survivals. He wrote that all societies could evolve in the same way because of a psychic unity of mankind. This meant that all people would find the same answers to problems independently. Morgan talked about the evolution of the family from promiscuity to monogamy. While evolutionary ethnology remains popular in anthropology, particularly archaeology, which looks at typologies of cultural development such as the band, tribe, chiefdom, and state example, most anthropologists reject the idea of progressive evolution where societies evolve from inferior societies to superior ones. They say people who live in bands may have some advantage over people who live in states.
One of the most important early ethnologies was Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Cultures, written in 1934. She wrote about cultures as having a particular psychological character in terms of the United States, Zuni, Dobu, and Kwakiutl. Similarly, Margaret Mead looked at Samoa and New Guinea in part to deal with issues in the United States. Malinowski had also done ethnology by showing how Freud’s oedipal complex could vary across cultures. In the 1950s, many anthropologists used the Human Relations Area Files to do ethnology, in what is called “holocultural comparison.” Other types of ethnology included the structuralism made popular by Claude Lévi-Strauss and regional and local-level comparison among cultural ecologists, ethno-scientists, and some functionalists. In recent years, anthropologists have used ethnology to deal with issues of how to understand “big men” in Melanesia.
Comparative ethnology tends to be more theoretical compared to ethnography, which tends to be more descriptive. Theory influences how anthropologists understand particular cultures. We can see this in terms of two accounts of the village of Tepotzlan in Mexico and two accounts of Samoa. Robert Redfield, who did research in the Mexican village of Tepotzlan in 1926, wrote that folk communities had more harmony than cities. He described Tepotzlan as a harmonious place. Oscar Lewis visited Tepotzlan in 1943 and found discord. Lewis saw the discord in a relatively peaceful village because he was looking for things that Redfield was not. In 1925, Margaret Mead did research in Samoa and said Samoan adolescents had much more sexual freedom than Western ones. Derek Freeman, who had done research in Western Samoa in 1940 and 1943 and did research where Mead had done from 1963 to 1965, said that the Samoans Mead had seen had lied to her. Other anthropologists who have conducted research in the area, Lowell and Ellen Holmes, say that Mead was basically correct, though she had exaggerated some things. While this matter is not settled, Mead and Freeman both had different theories, and their theories definitely influenced what they said about this part of Samoa. One of the most important theoretical debates today in anthropology is whether anthropology is more a science or a humanity. Various theories, including cultural materialism and hermeneutics, have entirely different answers to these questions. Comparative ethnology is also sometimes used to oppose theory, so that ethnology has been used to show limits of the theories of Wallerstein’s world systems theory and Said’s concept of orientalism.
Historical ethnology deals with ethnohistories. Ethnohistories look at how a particular culture has changed over time. To do this type of ethnology, an anthropologist has to look at written records and try to reconstruct what a particular culture looked like during different points of time. Generally, anthropologists have to use records not written by anthropologists and deal with the biases of those recording the accounts. Ethnologists act like historians except that they generally deal with the records written about the people rather than records written by the people themselves. Some historical ethnologists looked at transformations of a specific movement, such as the Ghost Dance Movement of Native Americans. Recently, anthropologists like Eric Wolf, Clifford Geertz, and Marshall Sahlins have focused on the changes that take place as cultures have come in contact with Western culture and capitalism.
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