Monday, December 19, 2011

Ethnography vs Ethnology

Ethnographic observation is a skill set that requires introspection, a keen sensitivity to detail and nuance, empathy and clarity in the linguistic subtleties of the group under study/observation. Some of these skills can be taught in the classroom, others come only after participating in a cross cultural environment.

Some would say, "No one can better describe a youth gang than a gang member or a tribe than a tribal member ..." I would counter that the gang or tribal member can do so only as an informant at a particular time and in a particular sociological place within the gang and the gang's environment. It is the ethnographer who gives cultural and sociological context and meaning to what the gang member experiences.

When the native becomes the ethnographer he/she must be able to step back from his/her own culture and look upon it as an object first and subject second. That is,they must, as ethnographers, learn to become the "Other" critically observing and recording the "What" and the "How" of the events being studied. The gang member must step out of his member role and must break with the gang psychology if he is to become the ethnographer.

As the "ethnologist," a different skill set is required, that of critical thinking and analysis based on a core set of techniques of cultural classification, functional analysis of organizational roles, status, and structures, and a systems analysis approach to the networks of shared behaviors and symbols. All of this is done from a cross-cultural comparative perspective. The ethnologist role calls for a scientific objectivity which runs counter to the empathy called for as the ethnographer. It is an objectivity that comes from the experience of dealing with many cultures, or many cases of a specific cultural problem, observed and analyzed in many different cultural contexts.

Anthropology as a discipline, verses anthropology as a profession, rests on the principles of the comparative method, participant/observation (ethnography), physical context (archaeology), and historical (ethno-history) context. Anthropology as a discipline draws on the scientific and scholarly methodologies that best address it problems and is not constrained by any particular theory, as these change with our increased knowledge and professional fads and fashions. Anthropology is more natural history than laboratory/experimental science. It is a descriptive science, not a predictive one.

Anthropology, as a profession, is a combination of science and the humanities because of this duality between the field worker (ethnographer) and library worker (ethnologist) roles. Anthropologists focus their present research problem on identifying how a product (trait/behavior) of the past cultural success is acted out in the present to produce reliable future consequences. As a profession, anthropology is academic when its problem choices are self directed and it is applied when the problem choices are driven by the public concern and/or need.

1 comment:

Jason Antrosio said...

Interesting thoughts here.

Not related to current post, but wanted to let you know "The Superorganic" is included in an attempt at comprehensive anthropology blog list and through 31 December, can vote for 10 best anthropology blogs.