You think, Ethnology is something new? Far wrong. Although it hasn’t been institutionalised until the end of the 19th century and still is a small chair, the interest in other societies existed long before and people always wrote about other cultures. How ethnology has developed, you can find out here.
The oldest resource about Ethnology is from Herodot, an ancient greek who lived around 500 BC. He is famous for his historiographies. As he travelled a lot, he met people who didn’t speak greek. Because he didn’t understand them, he just called them the “barbarians”, the stammering people. In the ancient world people distinguished between “us” (the greeks) and “the others”. They had a very weird picture of the others, more like a mix between human beings and animals than human beings. Herodot tried to be neutral in his writings about the others. Still he came up with the idea that probably every culture would see their own as the most developed one in the world and hence invented the concept of ethnocentrism.
Not only the greeks, but the romans wrote about other cultures as well. Caesar was one of them. His book de bello calligo is about the Germanic peoples. It’s mainly about the political warfare between Romans and Germanic peoples, but includes ethnographic details about the Germanic peoples as well. We can conclude that ethnological work in the ancient world consisted mainly of travel reports, descriptions of other societies, history of mankind and was written amongst others to justify the supposed superiority of their own culture.
In the 6th century came a dark time over Europe, the Middle Ages. We have no european resources from that time period. Luckily, some Arab scholars kept studying cultures. There was for example Ibn Khaldun who came up with a theory of civilisation in his research. He represented the idea that cultures rise up and fall and with the falling another culture has the chance to rise up, so it goes on and on.
Renaissance and Enlightenment
Since the Renaissance and the Enlightenment Europe is back in the game. And not only back, but the Europeans acted as if they were the game makers. It was the time of expeditions, and with it the expansion of the home country. They sold the discovered land for little money to immigrants. The immigrants exploited the land with plantations. And as if that wouldn’t have been enough they exploited the indigenous people as well. The indigenous people who didn’t die in wars or of diseases had to work for the “white men” until they died of exhaustion. Like that loads of indigenous people and their cultures have been wiped out. Beside the exploitation proselytisation was big as well. After all it’s the mission of the “white men” to bring Christianity to everyone in this world, isn’t it? But the missionaries were in fact the people knowing the indigenous societies the best and their descriptions were more useful than the travel reports.
On the other hand, there were scholars believing that the “civilised world” was inferior to the indigenous people. Jean-Jacques Rousseau for instance saw in the indigenes the “noble savages”, the only ones not being spoilt by the progress of civilisation. Beside those dualisms (either “we are better than them” or “they are better than us”) one ethnologist voted for every culture being equal valuable. Johann Gottfried Herder made a model in which he compared cultures with balls and said that every culture has it’s center of happiness like a ball has its gravity center. That was the first form of cultural relativism.
However, this cultural relativism didn’t withstand the development in the 19th century. It is the century of colonisation and unilineal evolution. Charles Darwin published his theory that all species of life have descended over time from common ancestors. Although his theory of unilineal evolution was about all species, some ethnologists adapted it on people only and hence considered that different cultures aren’t at a state of coexistence, but are consecutive. So they believed that different cultures are developing all the same, the only difference is that they are in different states of this progress. There are several different theories about it, but the most important is the one from Lewis Henry Morgan. His theory says that the mankind develops in three steps: From ferocity over barbarism to civilisation. In the ferocity people are hunter-gatherers, in barbarism they do have agriculture and civilisation is the most devloped one and is found obviously in Europe. This unilineal evolution was a good legitimation for the colonisation, as all the “white men” wanted was helping the inferior societies getting to the highest level, the civilised world. Fortunately we now know that this construction is idiotic and we don’t see other cultures as inferior anymore.
Additionally, the 19th century is the century of institutionalisation, especially for Ethnology. Universities established chairs in Ethnology. The first one was created in the year 1869 in Berlin from the ethnologist Adolf Bastian. Along with the chair he published as well a journal and opened a museum. In other countries you can track the same process, whereat every founder of a chair developed his own theory.
That’s why since the institutionalisation there exist a lot of different theories and Ethnology experienced many twists and turns. But that’s the topic of the next blogpost.