Ethnographic semantics, also called “ethnoscience” or “the new ethnography,” is a methodology for formally uncovering how certain parts of culture are talked about—and presumably thought about—by native participants. It developed in the 1960s—mostly in the United States—as a branch of the newly named subdiscipline of cognitive anthropology (itself part of the general reaction to behaviorist paradigms in psychology and linguistics held through the 1950s).
Some equated ethnographic semantics with cognitive anthropology, though the latter term is now more closely associated with the discipline of cognitive science.
Several things prompted the rise of ethnographic semantics. First, even before the notorious Mead-Freeman controversy that erupted several decades later, it was becoming increasingly clear that different anthropologists were concluding different things from work at the same field site. In other words, ethnographic reliability and replicability were being questioned. Second, anthropologists were becoming more sensitive to issues of language and cultural knowledge. In short, anthropology was developing a renewed interest in covert meanings as opposed to overt structures. But while it was clear that language and culture were rule-bound—and that natives knew the rules well—most natives were hard-pressed to explain them. What was desired was a methodology that would address both these problems.
But if more attention was now being focused on systems of ideas, the question remained as to how they might best be retrieved. Simple ethnographic interviews would clarify the particulars of specific cases (assuming an ethnographer knew how to ask the right questions), but this would not necessarily capture the organization and structure of knowledge that informants had of their culture. Some kinds of formal devices were needed to extract this information in a rigorous, consistent, and reliable way. Two of the most favored were taxonomies and componential analysis.
In doing a folk taxonomy, the goal was to uncover how some domain—a labeled category of some aspect of culture—was hierarchically ordered. Such a structure was thought to reflect in many key ways how the people in a language-culture conceived of this named part of the universe. As a simplistic example, let’s say the proverbial Martian anthropologist comes to Earth and wants to know how Americans think about furniture. In the native language he will ask an informant to “Tell me all the words you have for FURNITURE.” This ideally gives all the items in this domain. Then the anthropologist attempts to tease out how all these words are organized by using other key sentences like “Is X a kind of Y?” After several iterations, structures will emerge (e.g., finding “kitchen tables” and “end tables” are a kind of “table,” but not a kind of “desk”). In a componential analysis, the key attributes that make up a term are explored (e.g., in the English kinship system “father” being [+male], [+consanguine], [+1 generation above ego]). In both techniques, if the formal elicitation frames are conducted properly this supposedly assures that similar results will be found no matter who conducts the research.
Ethnographic semantics has been applied to numerous domains in hundreds of cultures, including disease terms in American English, categories of beer in Germany, color-textures in the Philippines, and scores of plant and animal taxa. Proponents argue that taxonomies and componential analyses demonstrate many cross-cultural similarities, and provide a universal framework for the study of native vocabulary. However, it now appears that human classification is much more complex than the original ethnoscientists envisioned, and ethnographic semantics is used more often today to supplement rather than replace standard ethnographic techniques.
- D’Andrade, R. (1995). The development of cognitive anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- Spradley, J. (Ed.). (1972). Culture and cognition: Rules, maps, and plans. San Francisco: Chandler Publishing Company.