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3.2: Origins of Ethnography

Map of indigenous skin color distribution in the world based on Von Luschan's chromatic scale.

Origins of Ethnography[edit]

The route of first voyage of Columbus in the Caribbean.

Ethnography is a core modern research method used in Anthropology as well as in other modern social sciences. Ethnography is the case study of one culture, subculture, or micro-culture made a the researcher immersing themself in said culture.

Before ethnography, immersive research, the prevailing method was unilineal. This led to colonizers feeling able to set the rules for what is a "modern" or "primitive" culture and used these self-made justifications in order to rule over new colonies in the name of advancement for their people. This view came into question with Anthropologists like Franz Boas, offering the multilinear model for cultural evolution we have today. This model closer, reflects the realities of different cultures across the world advancing in separate ways and highlights the impossibility to call one culture "primitive" in relation to another. These cultures do not evolve from one another but evolved separately from each other into other cultures.

A large part of the issue with early Anthropology was a reliance on second-party information while lacking any first-hand research of cultures. "Armchair Anthropologists" would gather information from military deployments, merchants, and missionaries rather than making the first-hand contact. Armchair Anthropologists usually refers to late 19th century and early 20th century scholars coming to conclusions without going through the usual anthropology motions—fieldwork or lab work. They would then create wild theories based on these accounts. This led to a high degree of bias against these cultures, more so than firsthand research, and were not scientific in the way Anthropology is today. These biases turned into stereotypes which are still prevalent today. This form of research drove much of the colonial primitive culture narrative and necessitated the adaptation of Ethnography.

Ethnography, or the immersive method of case study research, has to lead to the dispelling of rumor and a much deeper understanding of cultures through great effort. This is seen very clearly in Bright Dale's research on a Tobagonian Village,[1] titled Lives in-between Encountering Men in a Tobagonian Village. To begin, he clearly states his bias, being a male researcher and dealing primarily with the males of that society due to a highly gendered culture found there. He explains with great care that he is not searching for what men "do" but what they "say and do to be men." His goal with the research project was to show the value of an ethnographic research project, along with his experiences within this culture and the limitations he faced in that research. He had limitations both being an outsider and being male, only being able to see how one-half of these people portrayed their culture and even then through the lens of an outsider with his own biases, stated as clearly as possible within the paper. This is the value of Ethnography, it allows researchers to further understand their research while remaining as unbiased as possible, highlighting weaknesses and need for further research from people of different genders and backgrounds.

An Ethnographic Analogy is a method for inferring the use or meaning of an ancient site or artifact based on observations and accounts of its use by living people.

Here we see an old pick, not much different from those used today

We can infer the use of an ancient tool by seeing how similar-looking tools are used in existing or recent societies. By analogy we can hypothesize the same use for the old tool.