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The Ethnological Museum Berlin showed permanent exhibitions on Africa, America, Oceania and Asia (2010)

The ethnology (derived from ancient Greek ἔθνος éthnos , German ' people, ethnic group ' , and -logie "doctrine"; earlier ethnology , today also social and cultural anthropology ) is an empirical and comparative social and cultural science that combines the diversity of human ways of life from one both contemporary and historically anchored perspectives are explored.

Originally, the subject focused strongly on the coexistence of around 1,300 ethnic groups and indigenous peoples around the world  . Today, the cultural practices and ideas of various social groups and entities are the focus of her research, which is always examined in connection with political and economic structures. Contemporary ethnology researches z. B. Institutions and organizations as well as life contexts in modern industrial societies , in urban areas , or the connection with migration . Ethnologists are also interested in how people experience the effects of globalization and how they actively shape the associated transformations through their own actions.

By delving deeply into the worlds of life and action of the groups and people it investigates using the method of field research , ethnology aims to decipher their specific understanding of the world and - often in comparison to other cultural contexts and social collectives - to explain them. As a rule, ethnology is less focused on the examination of theories and concepts, but primarily on the generation of theories and the associated explanation of contexts of meaning. Field research now also takes place in connection with transnational online communities ( netnographies , cyberanthropology ).

Ethnology first emerged at the ethnological museums and has been taught as an independent subject at universities since the end of the 19th century , initially as ethnology in Germany, as social anthropology in Great Britain and as cultural anthropology in the USA . In the Anglo-Saxon area , ethnology is a branch of anthropology (human science), which in continental Europe is in turn understood more as a natural science ( physical anthropology ) and as a sub-area of ​​ethnological field research , which is no longer in use today . In Europe, cultural anthropology is also understood to be folklore, which is also known as European ethnology . The professional society of ethnologists in Germany is the German Society for Social and Cultural Anthropology .

Specialized science and self-image

What is ethnology?

Definitions of anthropology or anthropology (engl. Anthropology ):

  • Thomas Hylland Eriksen : “Anthropology is the comparative study of cultural and social life. Your most important method is participatory observation , which consists of long-term field research in a special social environment. "
  • Tim Ingold : "Anthropology is philosophy with the people in it."
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss : "Anthropology has humanity as the subject of its research, but unlike other human sciences, it tries to capture its object through the most varied of manifestations."
  • Clifford Geertz : “If we want to discover what defines people, we can only find that in what people are: And what people are is very different. By understanding the differences - their extent, their nature, their basis, and their implications - we can create a concept of human nature, more of a statistical shadow than a primitivist dream that includes both substance and truth. "
  • Panoff and Perrin: Ethnology in the narrower sense strives for "synthetic studies and theoretical conclusions" from ethnographic documents that are made available to it through the work of social and cultural anthropologists in their field research and general problem studies.


The subject cultivates certain perspectives with which it differs from other social and cultural science disciplines and at the same time has provided fundamental impulses for them.

Classically, the perspective from the inside (also emic perspective) played an important role, i.e. H. the attempt to understand and explain the inner reality of a cultural context and its members.

For a long time, ethnology has also focused on predominantly powerless and underprivileged groups (such as minority groups, colonized or marginalized ). Today, on the other hand, socially better off groups (e.g. social elites ) are increasingly being examined.

Thirdly, v. a. examines the foreign , while the own slowly moves into the field of view of ethnology. It was often assumed that the foreign as well as the own and the boundary between them are given and taken for granted. Today, based on Fredrik Barth's theory of ethnicity, the process of drawing the line between the perception of what is culturally specific and what is culturally foreign is increasingly being pointed out (e.g. in the context of ethno-cultural or national identity politics). Furthermore, it is shown that such demarcations in the context of globalization and migration are often fluid and inseparable from other categories of difference (such as social status or gender).

Finally, what is central to the subject is its self-reflective view, which consistently checks both its own methodological procedures and the positionality of the researchers with regard to the production of ethnological knowledge.

History of science

In the 19th century, ethnology developed as a niche subject. Above all, it dealt with those peoples and cultures that had not been researched by long-established sciences (history, philology, Indology, etc.), but which European colonizers, missionaries and travelers in particular had to deal with very often.

Since the subject found its way into universities towards the end of the 19th century, defining its subject has proven difficult. It was mostly done defensively in contrast to other sciences. The societies researched were often only determined by what they lacked in contrast to those that were constituted by the state. Therefore, the following negative or deficiency definitions of the subject were chosen:

  • undeveloped (= primitive) cultures,
  • cultures without writing
  • non-industrial cultures
  • non-governmental cultures
  • “Savages”, “sauvages”, “savages”, ie cultures that are not civilized by European standards and are in a “state of nature”
  • Unmodern cultures without history and thus clinging to tradition
  • cultures not alienated or unaffected by their own western civilization
  • non-European cultures

Often those societies were also examined in particular, which were assumed to be threatened with extinction. To sum up and put it positively, it can be said that with ethnology, a science emerged that for the most part has stable, manageable small groups at its center, which are characterized by high communication density of all dependent members of society (face-to-face relationships) and very often are organized kinship or quasi-kinship. Even if small groups organize themselves within larger social associations, they are more often an object of ethnological research (urban ethnology, corporate ethnology).

Especially in small groups, the participatory observation method can be used to make meaningful and model-like statements without having to use statistical and quantitative methods. Due to the extensive and often long-term independence of the groups examined, a holistic perspective was possible on the one hand , in which the whole of a society can be looked at, similar to sociology, while on the other hand they offer the widest possible comparison, since in the ethnographies a huge wealth of experience of the most diverse human beings Life forms was written down in detail. This makes ethnology particularly suitable for testing generalizations.

Ethnology in the Canon of the Sciences

Influences on ethnology

Ethnology has had a lasting influence on many scientific disciplines and has contributed significantly to a changed understanding of rationality , alterity , gender and post-colonialism . Conversely, the contemporary discourse of ethnology is exposed to a large number of theoretical currents, which in turn shape the cognitive identity of the subject. In the course of interdisciplinary research, subject boundaries are re-explored and new knowledge configurations are created. The following thinkers from the last few decades are particularly popular in ethnology:

Ethnology and European Ethnology

A German specialty is folklore , which is listed as an independent subject at German-speaking universities under the names of European ethnology or cultural anthropology . Folklore examines the other in one's own (German or European) culture and emphasizes everyday phenomena in its approach. The focus is on the European area, whereby processes such as globalization or transnationalization have made it necessary to look beyond the borders of Europe and have led to a greater overlap with ethnology. These substantive and methodological approximations, which have continued to this day, have led to debates about the dividing lines between the two subjects in recent years .

Research fields in ethnology

Ethnology includes almost all social science topics as a sub-discipline, as well as scientific aspects such as ethnopharmacy or ethnomathematics . Ethnology thus claims to be an interdisciplinary basic or leading science because the societies researched allow very far-reaching cultural comparisons due to their great historical or spatial separation . This gives a particularly good overview of the mutual dependencies and influences of social subsystems, which are usually only examined individually.

The most important subjects of ethnology taught at universities today are:

Further fields of research are, for example, ethnolinguistics , ethnomedicine (with ethnopharmacology , ethnopharmacology , ethnopsychiatry , ethnopsychoanalysis ), ethnoecology , ethno-dentistry , cognitive ethnology , art ethnology , ethno- pedagogy and intercultural communication (see also list of topics: Subjects of ethnology ).

Partly ethnological specialties are now also with the addition of anthropology called (anthropology), the economic anthropology, for example, also known as economic anthropology out and there is the religious anthropology , the anthropology of law or the music anthropology .


The first reports on foreign cultures contained in most cases considerable falsifications of the real conditions, since the reporters assessed their subjective impressions Eurocentrically in comparison with the Christian-European tradition - which they considered to be the only civilized point of view. Often, therefore, particularly strange phenomena (ritual cannibalism , human sacrifice, extraordinary human physiognomy, etc.) were emphasized beyond measure. The explorers, adventurers, colonial officials, merchants, and missionaries who toured the colonies had no idea of ​​modern scholarly work, and so spread distorted ethnographic records . Regardless of this, ethnologists used such data well into the early 20th century. Since the 1920s, they have mostly been collecting this data themselves. In the past, ethnology primarily obtained material data, ethnographic objects and less oral culture (stories, myths) were evaluated. The material focus arose from the fact that most ethnologists did not work at universities as they do today, but at museums.

Today the most important method for data collection is ethnological field research . The most characteristic method during the field visit is participatory observation , which is the integration of the researcher into the life of a group in order to really understand their everyday life. The long-lasting on-site eyewitness is an indispensable basis of research for all ethnologists - unless they are committed to cultural-historical issues (an orientation equivalent to field research ethnology). This also distinguishes ethnology from other disciplines such as cultural studies, which mostly focus on the analysis of media products, and from qualitative sociology, which at most carries out interviews.

During the time of field research, anthropologists live closely with the local population and get to know their everyday lives. The peculiarity of this method is the communication-led procedure in order to be guided by the on-site encounters during your work. Incidentally, this means that the subject can work less theory-guided than, for example, the neighboring disciplines: from the field itself, and often only the ultimately relevant theoretical questions arise - and the research results.

Any field research inevitably leads to an influence on the people observed. In order to keep this as low as possible, the sociologist Roland Girtler formulated the “ten commandments of field research” in 2001:

  1. Recognition of customs and rules;
  2. Generosity and impartiality, recognition of foreign values ​​and principles that are not one's own;
  3. do not blaspheme and talk disparagingly about hosts;
  4. Knowledge about history and social conditions;
  5. Knowledge about geographical conditions;
  6. Report on what has been experienced, if possible without prejudice, keeping a research diary about thoughts, problems, joys, sorrows, annoyances etc .;
  7. Don't see and treat people as mere data providers;
  8. Make an effort to assess interlocutors to some extent so as not to be tricked or deliberately lied to;
  9. do not act as a missionary or social worker, do not have an educational effect;
  10. good constitution, ability to eat, drink and sleep at all times.

In addition to this very time-consuming research, various other qualitative techniques of data acquisition are used: ethnographic interviews , which can be structured, semi-structured and open, expert and focus group discussions, systematic observations, biographical methods (see also ethnographic methods ). Learning the language (s) spoken in the research area is seen as essential. In accordance with the orientation of current questions on the connections and interdependencies between different places, research in several places (multi-sited ethnography) has established itself as a possible approach.


Subject history

Ancient to early modern times

Ethnology - in a broader sense, ethnography (i.e. the description of foreign peoples) - was practiced as early as Greek and Roman antiquity . In the 5th century BC BC Herodotus of Halicarnassus already gave a detailed and empirically supported presentation of the peoples of the then known world and their customs . Descriptions of other cultures can also be found in Plato , Aristotle and others.

  • Herodotus (490-425 BC) was a historian who traveled to the Anatolian, Syrian-Iraqi and Arab countries. His writings are considered an important source for the history of the ancient world . Herodotus wrote in the Historiai in the fifth century BC about the “barbaric” tribes in the north and east of the Greek peninsula, compared to the customs and ideas of the Athenians.
  • Cornelius Tacitus (approx. 56 to approx. 120): De origine et situ Germanorum
  • Marco Polo (1254–1324): Le divisament dou monde / Il Milione
  • Ibn Chaldun (1332-1406): Muqaddima

Two theological schools coined universal ideas:

  1. The Augustinian School: Augustine (354-430) relates all problems of life in reconnection to God. The immediate power of the church - deus et anima - creates a path to the theocratic social order. Aegidius Humanus thinks that every unbeliever lives in enmity with God. This “heathen problem” denies unbelievers any possessions because everything is “from God”. Pope Innocent IV legitimizes violence against “ pagans ”, recognizes the formation of states from non-Christians, but believes that free will is a law of nature. By submission to the power of the Pope, will and humanity are granted to people. The explorers read out corresponding texts that should serve as a template for indigenous cultures. If the discovered did not act according to Christian guidelines, violence was legitimized .
  2. The Thomistic school: Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) saw God as the cause of the world, the power of the church as indirect. God exists in Aristotelian thought, which is based on experience , because of the existence of the world. The movement of the world and the legal order were based on experience. Personal freedom , property rights and statehood were his natural rights .
  • 1537: The bull Sublimus Dei of Pope Paul III. describes the discovered as veri homines , as true people who can be won over and evangelized for Christianity . The absolute position of the church, which claims all discoveries as well as sovereign decisions, leads to a confrontation of ecclesiastical and secular power after the investiture dispute .
  • José de Acosta (1540–1600): On the basis of a comprehensive humanistic education, the Jesuit José de Acosta created an outstanding work with his Historia natural y mortal de las Indias , which informs impartially about the " new world " and its inhabitants and the American ones Comparing cultures with European ones and relating them.

In addition to the above-mentioned occidental schools, traditions rooted in other cultures must also be taken into account. This includes the perception of the foreign by those cultures to which ethnology traditionally turns. Fritz W. Kramer's work The Red Fez about the perception of European invaders by African tribes is a work that exemplarily turns to such reflections.

Early modern times until today

15th to 17th centuries

Europe was a religious but not a political entity. The community of values ​​of Christianity counteracted the political disunity in Europe. Therefore, belief still has political significance today. The Spanish Inquisition presented Christianity as the right faith and hoped in this way to solve the Moors problem. In 1492 the last Moorish kingdom was destroyed, America rediscovered by Christopher Columbus , and in 1610 the last expulsions of Moors from Spain took place. Spaniards and Portuguese traveled to Africa, India, Central and South America to steal raw materials, gold and riches. Christianity should be spread. After the discoveries, a Eurocentric view prevailed, which until the 20th century was little questioned by researchers and colonialists.

Bernardino de Sahagún (1499–1590) deals with customs, practices, promiscuity and cannibalism in the Historia general de las cosas de Nueva Espana .

In 1557, Hans Staden (approx. 1525 - approx. 1576) wrote the Truthful Historia and supported hostile behavior towards savages who were brutally viewed as non-humans. Staden was on the side of the church. Distorted images from this period portrayed nudity, cannibalism, and promiscuity. Disadvantageous representations arose from assumptions and fantasies, for example on engravings . Cannibals in indigenous peoples are not evangelical, savages cannot be won over to Christianity. The ideological message prevented mutual respect and overcame the inhibition to kill.

Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679) Leviathan (1649/1651), Antonio de Oliveira de Cadornega (1610–1690), Joseph-Francois Lafiteau (1681–1746), Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the Contrat Social (1762).

18th century

Ethnology as an independent science emerged in the German and Russian Enlightenment. It was developed in the 18th century by historians, geographers and linguists as a "science of the peoples" (Gr. Ethnos, people). The historian Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705–1783) can be regarded as the founder of ethnography . Müller carried out historical, geographical, ethnographic, linguistic and archaeological research in Siberia on behalf of the Russian Tsarina Catherine II (1729–1796) as a participant in the Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733–1743). He invoked Joseph François Lafitaus (1681–1746) comparative objectives and developed a program for the “description of the Siberian peoples” with the aim of comparing them with one another and with peoples from other parts of the world. In 1740 he referred to this program as the “people description”. Müller put it into practice with other scientists during the expedition and developed methods for field research and dealing with informants. The natural objects and artefacts collected by the expedition participants were archived in the Kunstkammer (founded in 1714) . Müller is at the beginning of a new tradition, ethnography, and saw this science as a separate discipline alongside his two main subjects, history and geography.

The historian August Ludwig Schlözer (1735–1809) formulated a general “ethnology” in Göttingen from 1771–1772 and devised an “ethnographic method” of history. Göttingen had connections with Russia and Eastern Europe as well as with England and became the center of the new science. Around 1780 the historian Adam Franz Kollár (1718–1783) coined the term "ethnology" in Vienna and gave the first definition in 1783: " ethnologia [...] est notitia gentium populorumque " (German: "Ethnology is the study of peoples and nations") ). Schlözer viewed ethnology as part of a global world history in which all peoples were connected to one another.

While ethnography emerged in the German-Russian Early Enlightenment, ethnology emerged from the German-Austrian Late Enlightenment. For Müller in Russia, Schlözer in Germany and Kollár in Austria, questions about the togetherness of peoples were of great importance. Almost all researchers in Russia followed the suggestion of Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646–1716) that only a comparison of languages, not customs, could provide information about the origins and relationships of peoples.

19th to 21st century

For the modern age , the epoch of great voyages of discovery led to new contacts with foreign peoples, which are reflected in many ways in travelogues and other texts, for example in Montaigne's On Cannibals or Montesquieu (1689–1755).

In the 19th century, ethnology was determined by evolutionism , whose concern was the design of a cultural sequence. Often the theories were not based on their own research, but on reports from missionaries (armchair ethnology) .

In Germany, most of the ethnologists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries worked on cultural history and tried to reconstruct the history of the writeless peoples. This interest was not shared in other academic nations - for example, the British Social Anthropologists, who found the interest in history unscientific, rather asked about the way societies functioned.

In addition to the cultural historians (especially the Viennese school around Father Wilhelm Schmidt , but also less dogmatic, history-oriented researchers), ethnologists with a cultural and morphological focus (in the tradition of Leo Frobenius ) worked in Germany until the 1950s . The ethno-sociological orientation Richard Thurn Forest , which since the 1960s by his student Wilhelm Emil Sears has become influential, played until then in Germany, rather a small role.

During the time of National Socialism , German-speaking ethnology was racist and sometimes esoteric .

Although earlier anthropologists were already active in field research , it was only Bronisław Malinowski (1884–1942) who established the research method of participatory observation , which is still essential for the subject today, as the central approach to the subject.

Ethnology has long been a European-influenced science and has found its most important exponents in some of those states that have claimed power around the world, above all Russia , England and France . It thus exemplifies the charge of Eurocentrism . Today the subject is significantly influenced by American cultural anthropology, so that one can speak more of an "Amerocentrism" than of a Eurocentrism. In the meantime, significant ethnologies of their own have developed in countries outside Europe (for example in India, Brazil and Japan). Ethnologists from the Global South are becoming more and more present in the global professional debate. As a counter-concept to ethnocentrism which was interculturalism developed.

Today the term “ethnology” is mostly avoided because the focus of research is less on peoples (which have long been understood as natural communities) than on ethnic groups as “imagined communities”.

History of theory

Today, ethnology works more in researching and creating theory than in testing it: while most other disciplines develop theories and then apply them to empirical reality, ethnology takes the opposite path and develops its theories from empirical material. Major theories in the scientific history: Analytical Ethnology , evolutionism , diffusionism , functionalism , structural functionalism , structuralism , neoevolutionism , cultural relativism , cultural materialism , cognitive anthropology , cultural ecology , symbolic anthropology .

Personal history


18th century

19th century

20th century

Contemporary anthropology (+)

(+) Even if many institutes in German-speaking countries have chosen 'ethnology' as their subject, the term 'anthropology' should reflect the current strong influence of English-language anthropology and French-language anthropology . However, a change in meaning is also becoming apparent in the German-speaking area, which is juxtaposing an anthropology that was previously understood more physically, biologically or philosophically with a social and cultural anthropology.

Current German-speaking ethnologists

See also

Portal: Ethnology  - Wikipedia content on ethnology


Basics and introductions:

Reference books:

History and theoretical currents:

Web links

Commons : Ethnology  - Images and Media Files
Wiktionary: Ethnology  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations
Wikibooks: Anthropology  - Learning and teaching materials (English)
Wikiquote: Anthropology  - Quotes from anthropologists
Wikisource: Ethnology  - Sources and full texts
→ to the English "Portal: Anthropology" ... en: Portal: Anthropology - Wikipedia content on Anthropology

Individual evidence

  1. The Ethnographic Atlas by George P. Murdock now contains data sets on 1300 ethnic groups (as of December 2012 in the InterSciWiki ), of which often only samples were evaluated, for example in the international HRAF project.
  2. Christoph Antweiler : Urbanity and Ethnology. Current theoretical trends and the methodology of ethnological urban research. In: Journal of Ethnology . Volume 129, Issue 2, 2004, pp. 285-307.
  3. Professorship for Comparative Cultural and Social Anthropology. European University Viadrina (EUV), Faculty of Cultural Studies, Frankfurt (Oder), 2014, accessed on June 11, 2014 : "The subject area" Comparative Cultural and Social Anthropology "is usually referred to as" Ethnology "at other German universities. or "ethnology" represented. By changing the name from ethnology to anthropology, the European University Viadrina emphasizes, on the one hand, that the subject is not limited to the study of foreign cultures, but also focuses on its own culture and society. "
  4. Michel Panoff, Michel Perrin: Pocket Dictionary of Ethnology. Berlin 1982, pp. 93-95.
  5. ^ Nikolaus Münzel: Brief introduction to ethnomedicine. In: Würzburg medical history reports. Volume 3, 1985, pp. 5-9, here: pp. 5 f. (quoted)
  6. Compare Alexander Knorr aka Zephyrin Xirdal: Folklore vs. Ethnology? "Cultural studies technology research" and "Cyberanthropology". In: Own blog, February 16, 2006, accessed June 11, 2014 .
  7. Klaus E. Müller : The magical universe of identity. Elementary forms of social behavior. An ethnological plan. Campus, Frankfurt u. a. 1987, ISBN 3-593-33855-6 , pp. 386-387.
  8. Hans-Jürgen Greschat: Naturreligionen, published in: Horst Balz et al. (Ed.): Theologische Realenzyklopädie, Volume 24: "Napoleonic Epoch - Authorities". Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1994, ISBN 978-3-11-019098-4 . Pp. 185-188.
  9. David Gibbons: Atlas of Faith. The religions of the world. Translation from English, Frederking & Thaler, Munich 2008, ISBN 978-3-89405-719-0 . P. 92.
  10. Philip Franz Fridolin Gondecki: We defend our forest. Dissertation at the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Bonn , (PDF) University and State Library Bonn, published on January 22, 2015, p. 144.
  11. Han F. Vermeulen : Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln / London 2015, ISBN 978-0-8032-5542-5 .
  12. Jürgen Jensen : The history of ethnology - a series of doctrines from a few experts? Hamburg 2008; Literature report on Rössler German-speaking ethnology up to approx. 1960. A historical outline 2007; (PDF; 57 kB; 7 pages).
  13. Heike Drotbohm: Ethnology. In: Helmut Reinalter , Peter J. Brenner (eds.): Lexicon of the humanities: technical terms - disciplines - people. Böhlau, Vienna a. a. 2011, ISBN 978-3-205-78540-8 , pp. 919-929, here p. 921.