Reviving World Ethnography


          World ethnography embraces the complete ethnographic record of all human societies and cultures throughout all of human history, although in contemporary academia world ethnography usually does not include the study of complex societies (which is usually assigned to sociology) nor of societies known only through historical description (which is usually assigned to history).  Yet world ethnography can provide an intellectual foundation capable of synthesizing the findings of all human sciences into a unified field theory of human behavior.

          World ethnography was originally a required subject for all graduate students in anthropology, and it gave valuable insights to the first generation of professional anthropologists - the students of Bronislaw Malinowski, Franz Boas, and their colleagues.  This generation - which included Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, Claude Levi-Strauss, Robert Lowie, Alfred Kroeber, Robert Redfield, Clyde Kluckholn, and others - had a profound impact on the scientific and intellectual thinking of the early 20th century.

          As one of the last anthropology students to complete a graduate program with world ethnography as a primary area of emphasis, I have always believed that the demise of world ethnography as a core curriculum in anthropology deprived the discipline of its most important insights into the nature of human behavior.  The failure to study the great panorama of human behavior that was compiled in the early 20th century, when technologically primitive human societies with relatively simple social structures were still alive and functioning, has deprived anthropology of its most unique and valuable perspectives.  For this reason, I have decided to devote my professional energies going forward to the task of reviving world ethnography as a critical element both in anthropology and in the social sciences in general. 

     Reviving world ethnography requires primarily a change of mind-set, because all the necessary ingredients are already present in the scientific literature: the ethnographies, the histories, the DNA studies, and the work of the emerging disciplines in the biology of behavior that are studying those innate behaviors that collectively constitute an inherent "human nature."

     One of the important reasons world ethnography fell out of favor in the post-war period was that it shone a light on the uniquely human behaviors that are universal and found in all human cultures – behaviors such as laughing, crying, feasting, singing, and dancing - and this led to much speculation within anthropology about the nature of "human nature."  When "nurture" was deemed to completely trump "nature" after the genocidal horrors of World War II, such speculation became so politically incorrect that it was purged from the social sciences, and world ethnography was among its casualties.

     The postwar period also ushered in an age of academic specialization that has persisted to this day, encouraging each behavioral scientist to view humanity through the lens of his or her particular discipline and its idiosyncratic cultural assumptions.  For this reason, a countervailing force must be employed that is capable of synthesizing these myriad points of view into a more universal, integrating paradigm.  World ethnography is uniquely qualified to undertake this task.

     World ethnography is all-inclusive.  As the American Anthropological Association has repeatedly declared, “nothing that is human is alien to anthropology.”  World ethnography makes no distinction between geographical regions, complexity of society, or level of technological achievement, and it has room for both existing cultures (normally the province of cultural anthropology) as well as extinct cultures (normally the province of archeology). 

     The ethnographic studies carried out by anthropologists during the past 100 years rarely make a distinction between the arts and the sciences, or between the “hard” and “soft” sciences – one of the most divisive, polarizing, and compartmentalizing tendencies in modern scientific culture.  Indeed, all aspects of human life – art, fashion, medicine, science, religion, technology, sports, manufacturing, finance, entertainment – are essential elements of every culture that are valid and that are included and accounted for in the study of world ethnography.  (to be continued)