Ethnology, also known as Social anthropology is a discipline with a lot of twists and turns in the past 200 years. Ethnologists came up with new theories, some approved and even enhanced them and on the other hand, others disapproved them. I’d like to give you an overview of the most important theories and tell you where they come from.
The first big theory was unilineal evolution. I’ve already explicated this theory in my last blogpost A Brief History of Ethnology. But for the sake of completeness I’d like to mention it here as well. One out of several representatives of unilineal evolution was Lewis Henry Morgan. He came up with the idea that each culture develops in the same direction and different cultures are not different, but only in different states of the development from ferocity to civilisation. However, this theory is obsolete.
In Germany they came up with two different theories. Adolf Bastian had the idea of Elementargedanken (“elementary ideas”), meaning that every society comes up with an idea or invention itself. For example taking the invention of bow and arrow, Bastian says that every society had the idea of constructing bow and arrow independently. So it was invented several times.
Contrary to Bastian, Leo Frobenius had the idea of Kulturkreise (“cultural circles”), meaning that every culture has a centre of origin but becomes diffused over large areas of the world. Readopting the example of bow and arrow, Frobenius says that it was invented once and then spread through diffusionism.
From the US we know one ethnologist in particular. Franz Boas emigrated from Germany and was one of the first ethnologists to not only working out theories based on travel reports, but actually travelled himself and spent time with indigenous people. During his research of the Inuits in Baffinland, he started to question the theory of unilineal evolution and finally concluded that
“If we were to select the most intelligent, imaginative, energetic and emotionally stable third of mankind, all races would be present.” (Boas, 1928)
This opinion was like a bomb at that time but is still up to date. We shouldn’t judge one’s beliefs, values and practices based on our own culture, but understand the person based on her background. Boas pointed out four things to be important in cultural relativism:
- Historical particularism: Every culture develops differently and is unique
- Every culture is equivalent
- We should look at the culture with the perception of its habitants
- Holistic: We should look at the whole culture, not only at one part of it
In the UK anthropologists followed another approach. Bronislaw Malinowski was travelling as well and lived on the Trobriand islands for several years and developed the theory of functionalism. This consists that every institution (every custom, every rite, everything people do) has the function of meeting the basic needs. This satisfaction of needs can be physical, cultural or symbolic. Functionalism doesn’t look at the past of a society, but only on the present state.
Students from Malinowski developed functionalism further and said that these institutions are inevitable for the preservation and function of the social structure. Every institution is part of a bigger thing and therefore irreplaceable. One representative of the so called structural functionalism is Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown.
As both theories didn’t take history into account, it was developed again in Manchester to symbolic anthropology laying the focus on the process. Victor Turner for example said that if we break the norms, we are in a state of liminality and to get back to the norm we have to perform a special rite. For example, if I eat my sisters lunch (break), I have to apologise (rite) to get back to normal living. So everything is symbolic for something else.
At the end we want to have a look on France, where Ethnology was always close to Sociology. The most important Ethnologist is Claude Lévi-Strauss, who advanced Bastians theory of Elementargedanken. His theory called structuralism is saying that there are universal organising principles. That there exists kind of a grammar that is the same for every culture and we follow this grammar without knowing it, because our culture is normal for us.
Here is an quick overview of all the theories I’ve mentioned and explained above:
|Unlineal evolution||Lewis Henry Morgan||US||3 states of development: ferocity, barbarism, civilisation|
|Elementargedanken (“elementary ideas”)||Adolf Bastian||Germany||Elementary ideas without diffusion|
|Kulturkreislehre (“culture circle”)||Leo Frobenius||Germany||Diffusion of ideas and inventions|
|Cultural relativism||Franz Boas||US||Understanding a culture from the view of the representatives|
|Functionalism||Bronislaw Malinowski||UK||Institutions to meet the basic needs|
|Structural functionalism||Alfred R. Radcliffe-Brown||UK||Institutions to preserve the social structures|
|Symbolic anthropology||Victor Turner||UK||Everything is symbolic|
|Structuralism||Claude Lévi-Strauss||France||Universal organising principles|
You ask why there are only white anthropologists? I asked it myself as well. And I suppose it’s because white men prefer accrediting white mens work. Or they think it’s more important to talk about them. Yeah, as if we have left unilineal evolution completely behind us. But with talking about that and becoming aware of this drawback we can make an effort to get over it and to cultural relativism.
Boas, F.: Anthropology and Modern Life. W. W. Norton and Company, New York 1928.