Ethnoscience is the study of what native people know about the world around them, including biology, zoology, and astronomy. This discipline is concerned with the cultural knowledge and classification systems in a given society. An ethnography, from this methodology, would include all the rules and ideas that a member of a society would need in order to function within its own culture. Ethnoscience began in the mid-1950s as a reaction to traditional ethnographic work, which was thought to be biased toward Western conceptual classifications. The goal of ethnoscientists was to “reproduce a cultural reality as it was perceived and lived by members of a society.” In 1956, Floyd Lounsbury and Ward Goodenough published information regarding the semantic analysis of kinship terms. It compared the American Indian Pawnee system with the Truk of the Pacific. These papers presented a method for identifying ideal units and analyzing the organization in structure of classificatory terms. While developed specifically for the purpose of analyzing kinship terms, the general principles can be extended to other domains. During the 1970s, Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven applied this methodology to the way in which people organize knowledge about plants and animals. Their theory emphasized the need to reduce the number of characteristic features used to differentiate species. One technique thought to be used by informants was attribute reduction, which simply limits the number of criterial attributes. More simply, “If it quacks, it’s a duck.” The greater focus for the researchers was configurational recoding, where features are chunked together to form a single attribute recognized as a definitive characteristic. In other words, this technique relates “kinds of things”; for example, a husky is a kind of dog because it holds the essence of dogginess. In this system of organization, there are a limited number of levels, and each has a rank deter-mined by what it classifies. The unique beginner is a general term encompassing all things included in the taxonomy, for example, the term plant. This category can be broken down into life forms, such as “trees,” “flower plants,” and “vines.” Furthermore, there is the level of generic terms, which distinguishes type, such as “palm.” The next level determines the specific attributes of the generic term, for instance a “peach palm.” The last level is varietal, which is rare and used to delineate items of cultural importance. Robert Randall faults this form of analysis by arguing that the anthropologist may be creating the structure by leading the informant’s response by the way in which the questions are formed. Despite its criticisms, today, this methodology is used to compare languages through color classifications, as well as influence the development of the discipline of ethnobotany.
One aspect of the emerging field was the adaptation of the methods used in ethnoscience, first employed by Harold Conklin in 1954, with his history work among the Hanunoo. He found that the people had an incredibly rich vocabulary to distinguish their plants containing more than 1,800 specific plant terms. His study involved how the people organized this information.
- Dandridge, R. (1995). The development of cognitive anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
- McGee, J. R., & Warms, R. L. (2004). Anthropological theory: An introductory history. Boston: McGraw-Hill.
- Randall, R. (1976). How tall is a taxonomic tree? Some evidence of dwarfism. American Ethnologist, 3, 545-546.