Ethnology (from the Greek: ἔθνος, ethnos meaning ‘nation’) is a branch of anthropology concerned with studying and comparing populations currently existing in the world. Interdisciplinary science that studies every aspect of human societies, essentially those that have not expressed their own forms of written literature.

Compared to cultural anthropology, ethnology has traditionally made greater use of cross-cultural comparison. Both disciplines are included in the demo-ethno-anthropological sciences. It remains contrasted, however, with ethnography, the study of individual groups through direct contact with culture, to which ethnology has always been a “theoretical” complement.

The field of research in which ethnology operates overlaps, in part, with a number of humanistic fields such as sociology, linguistics, psychology, history, economics, and religion, of which it often uses specific methodologies of investigation and results. The complexity and multiplicity of the aspects studied has given rise to a number of specialized disciplines, within the very sphere of ethnology (ethnolinguistics, ethnoeconomics, ethnopsychiatry or ethnopsychology, ethnomusicology, ethnohistory, legal ethnology and ethnology of religions, etc.), the contents of which also form the subject of studies of cultural anthropology. Hence the use among Anglo-Saxon scholars of the term ethnology as a synonym for cultural anthropology, which is shared by most European scholars, who tend to identify ethnology with ethnography, although the latter is a purely descriptive discipline, as, moreover, American scholars regard it.

Ethnology, on the other hand, intends to be a science of synthesis, comparative and interpretative of ethnographic data, biological and humanistic together, capable of evaluating on theoretical, methodological and practical grounds, all the results of sectorial studies related to the “human sciences” in order to reconstruct, interpret and frame in a logical whole the forms and evolution of human cultures and societies, including those that constitute minorities or local groups in industrialized societies and that are the object of folklore study. Precisely because of its synthesizing character, ethnology, especially European ethnology, tends to operate through teams of specialists who analyze and frame the data acquired by verifying at regular intervals the changes that have occurred over time for each human group examined, individually and in its relations with other groups.

For those that are extinct, verification is possible only in close collaboration with specific sectoral sciences, especially anthropology, prehistory, archaeology, history and linguistics, which carries out extensive research into the “common origin” of human language (the terms used to refer to the various ergological and cultural aspects may make it possible to reconstruct, at least in broad strokes, the way of life of societies that have long since disappeared).

Historical background

Interest in other peoples appears to be documented as far back as ancient Egypt and China, as well as in various works by Greek and Latin writers; the first to provide a fairly detailed treatment of some African peoples were the Arab geographers of the sec. 14th and 15th centuries (Ibn Baṭṭūtā, Ibn Khaldūn, al-Mas’ūdī); there followed the often unreliable descriptions of the peoples of the Americas made by chroniclers following the Spanish conquistadors, as well as the reports of travelers and missionaries on various Amerindian tribes and some Asian and African peoples.

In the 18th century, the interest aroused by American Indian cultures prompted some thinkers and writers (F.-R. de Chateaubriand, C.-L. Montesquieu, J.- J. Rousseau, Voltaire) to extol the way of life of the “good savage,” which was contrasted by those who claimed that the cultures of “primitive” peoples were a by-product of humanity, so much so that they came up with pseudo-ethnological theories of a clear racist stamp (theories of stasis and degeneration), taken up several times later by some sociologists. In this period the terms “ethnology” (E. Chavannes, 1787) and “ethnography” (B. G. Niebuhr, 1810) appear, but the founder of ethnology is considered to be P. P. Broca, who in 1859 formulated the methods proper to anthropology, separating from it ethnology, which he called “a humanistic science of synthesis.”

The evolutionist school

The first ethnological school to establish itself was the “evolutionist” school (L. H. Morgan, J. J. Bachofen, A. Lang, H. M. Westropp, G. de Mortillet, E. Hahn, T. Waitz): this had a considerable influence on the theoretical direction of ethnology, which expressed itself in multiple methodological currents, including the “neo-evolutionist.” This school originally postulated an evolution of human cultures through certain “obligatory” stages (savage, barbaric, civilized), thus imposing a determinism that influenced researchers until the mid-20th century.

In the late 19th century, thanks to the monumental documentation work of F. Ratzel (1888), which followed the first general compendium work of T. Waitz (1859), new schools developed, among which the cultural-historical school (F. Graebner, L. Frobenius, B. Ankermann, W. Schmidt, G. Montandon, A. Bastian, G. Wundt); this one, while preserving the hypothesis of stages of development, argued that cultural products were due to precise politico-economic factors (following the directions of É. Durkheim later expanded by Marxist-inspired scholars), independent of the social evolution of the group in question but transmissible as a result of the historical events of various peoples (theory of cultural cycles).

The diffusionist school

An innovator of evolutionary ethnology was F. Boas, founder of the diffusionist school (with E. von Nordenskiöld, A. Métraux, G. Lindblom, S. Lagencrantz), who asserted that culture was independent of racial factors and therefore did not pass through stages but developed by a complex of external influences worked out independently by each people. A kind of “structural determinism” was thus established that led to the differentiated study of the various ethnic groups considered as “subjects in their own right.”

Fragmentation of Ethnology

Since the 1930s, mainly due to the great influence of the American (cultural anthropology) and English (social anthropology) schools, ethnology lost its character as a synthesis science, fragmenting into multiple disciplines that sometimes came to discordant conclusions even on the same social and cultural aspect. Representative of this tendency was the dichotomy between cultural anthropology, which emphasized the priority of cultural aspects (A. Kroeber, C. Wissler, M. Herskovits, M. Mead and others), and social anthropology, which emphasized the dependence of the evolution of cultures on social “functional” factors (A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, B. Malinowski and others).

Thus, more or less autonomous disciplines were developed whose interest was increasingly delimited within well-defined fields of inquiry; among these were ethnolinguistics (E. Sapir, N. Chomsky, P. Kay), ethnoeconomics (K. Polanyi, M. Mauss, H. G. Barnett, M. Harris), ethnophilosophy (R. Redfield, W. Dilthey, C. Erasmus, C. Dubois), ethnopsychiatry and ethnopsychology (L. Thompson, R. Ardrey, M. Douglas, J. Friedmann), ethnopolitics and legal ethnology (R. H. Lowie, J. Rouch, P. Métais, G. Dieterle, P. J. Bohannan), ethnohistory (D. A. Horr, W. L. Wendel), ethnohistory (N. A. Scotch, H. Fabrega, R. W. Lieban); a marked ecological orientation was given to ethnology by M. D. Sahalins, M. Fried, J. H. Steward, J. N. Anderson, R. Braidwood. New general compendium works aimed at describing not only human groups but also social forms and their cultural products appeared during this period (H. A. Bernatzik, 1939; K. Birket-Smith, 1946; R. Biasutti, 1953; V. L. Grottanelli, 1965; G. P. Murdock, 1967).

Contemporary trends

As early as the 1960s, the processes of transformation of non-European societies liberated from colonialism, as well as the development of investigations carried out with new and relevant means and methods, led scholars to change the structural-deterministic assumptions underlying working hypotheses, which proved inadequate for understanding the complex structures of the processes of human reality: it appeared inevitable, therefore, to analyze the various formative elements of a culture in the light of both historical variables and socio-economic transformations.

A notable contribution came from C. Lévi-Strauss, who, by proposing a logical-mathematical model of analysis (structural anthropology), made it possible to generalize the individual phenomena elaborated by the various ethnic groups considered as “objective structures,” universal categories of the same reality expressed with different symbolic structures. Thus, a new capacity of ethnology for synthesis was proposed again, which found, especially in European scholars, the most valid supporters (E. E. Evans-Pritchard, M. Griaule, G. Balandier, M. Glukmann, H. V. Vallois, S. P. Tolstov, A. I. Peršie, R. Bastide, A. M. Cirese, V. L. Grottanelli, etc. ); the need to converge the results obtained from individual disciplines into an overall picture based on a holistic premise (the whole is greater than the sum of its parts) found adherence from not a few U.S. researchers (M. Janovits, D. Hymes, M. D. Sahalins, J. W. Bennett, M. Friend, J. H. Steward).

An attempt was made to consider in a unifying framework the many constituent factors of each culture, such as social organization, kinship structures, the evolution and significance of myths and religious phenomena, the functional elaboration of technologies, population dynamics in relation to ecology, down to the most minute cultural elements once considered of little significance. For this purpose, mathematical statistical methods of analysis were introduced (G. P. Murdock, L. W. White, H. E. Driver, C. D. Chrétien), as well as computer-simulated reconstructions and videographic processing; at the same time, attempts were made to discover and describe the significant stimuli of each cultural action on the basis of the forms that correctly evoke it, including language (cognitive ethnology: C. O. Franke et al.)

Later neo-evolutionary hypotheses merged with those of an interactional structuralism with the aim of providing sound theoretical assumptions to explain the socio-cultural changes that occurred, over time, in various peoples (L. Mair, T. Parson, K. O. Oakley, A. I. Hallowell, M. Godelier, C. Meillassoux, J. Rouche, P. Métais, J. K. Ščeglov, I. T. Levykin, G. Dalton); it has, therefore, come to be accepted that the variables of human “reality” (somatic, socio-cultural, economic-ecological, psychological-religious, technical-ergological) should be regarded as interrelated, whereby each group or society tends to organize itself according to a way of life that corresponds to its psychological and biological needs. This places the various human societies on an equal footing, the state of equilibrium of which lasts as long as individuals’ capacities for fulfillment and adaptation are satisfied; however, endogenous and exogenous pressures operate on this equilibrium, producing over time socio-cultural and life-system changes, and thus the behavior of individuals, which eventually undermine the old value system and prompt the search for a new equilibrium.

Ethnology has noted that social and cultural systems, with their phenomena and products, are dynamic elements that are integrated through variability and contradictions, and since each process is a complex whole due to multiple variations, it is constantly changing; this prevents the formulation of predictions and a “static” theory to explain the evolution of any society (cultural relativism). The ethnologist, therefore, is left with the only possibility of discovering, analyzing and explaining the processes by which the variants within each socio-cultural structure have changed and are dynamically changing.

Because many of the original cultures have disappeared or are on the verge of extinction, scholars make extensive use of investigative techniques peculiar to other disciplines, from the use of audiovisuals to psychological testing, from recording oral myths, rituals and dances to chemical-metallographic analysis of technical products, from environmental reconstructions using paleoecology to the identification of cultivation, hunting and gathering techniques; from stratigraphic methods peculiar to archaeology to environmental reconstructions of prehistory, from the structural-comparative examination of cultural elements to their analog processing using computers. It has thus been possible, especially on the part of the Americans and the French, to collect and catalog veritable “ethnological archives” that allow all scholars that periodic comparison useful for testing the validity of hypotheses worked out in the field or at the desk.

Modern general works are also affected by these new trends, so they prefer an exposition that is not only documentary but also critical, such as to propose difficulties and results of a science perpetually striving for its own identity (F. W. Voget, 1975; R. E. Service; M. K. Ramaswamy, 1989). Ethnology, in order to fulfill the ambitious task of being a science of synthesis, must therefore regain its value as a “natural science” and at the same time as a humanistic one, distinguishing itself from sociology, history, psychology and philosophy; this seems possible since, in addition to taking into account the findings of the related humanistic sciences, it can avail itself of the remarkable results of human ethology, which sees man as a subject capable of transforming the environment and working out his own future while still responding to his “instinctive” assumptions as an animal.

Accepting the principle of relativism, sociocultural behavioral investigations will no longer be subordinated to prefigured general categories, but will seek to understand the dynamic mechanisms underlying each event due to man, who, while largely conditioned by the physical, cultural, social, ecological and ergological environment, is nevertheless still able to affect it by his free choice, individual or group, innate or acquired.

Among the developments in ethnology in the late 20th century, the interdisciplinary approach in the fields of cross-cultural communication, cultural and ethnic identity and sex roles becomes increasingly important; in contrast, the significance of the differentiation between home culture and foreign culture gradually fades.

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