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Ethnology (Greek ethnos: people) is a genre of anthropological study, involving the systematic comparison of the folklore, beliefs and practices of different societies. Compared to ethnography, the study of single groups through direct contact with the culture, ethnology is seen as more scholarly because it takes the research that ethnographers have compiled and then compares and contrasts different cultures to develop textbooks or research papers.

Among its goals are the reconstruction of human history, and the formulation of cultural invariants, such as the alleged incest taboo and culture change, and the formulation of generalizations about "human nature", a concept which has been criticized since the 19th century by various philosophers (Hegel, Marx, structuralism, etc.).

In some parts of the world (like the USA and Great Britain) it is also referred to as cultural or social anthropology, however ethnology is not only a single part of cultural anthropology. Ethnology has been considered as a scientific discipline since the late 18th century but can be generally applied to any comparative study of human groups.

The 15th century "discovery of America" had an important role in the new Occidental interest toward the Other, often qualified as "savages", which was either seen as a brutal barbarian or as a "noble savage". Thus, civilization was opposed in a dualist manner to barbary, a classic opposition constitutive of the even more commonly-shared ethnocentrism. The progress of ethnology, for example with Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology, led to the criticism of conceptions of a linear progress, or the pseudo-opposition between "societies with histories" and "societies without histories", judged too dependent on a limited view of history as constituted by accumulative growth.

Lévi-Strauss often referred to Montaigne's essay on anthropophagy as an early example of "ethnology". Lévi-Strauss aimed, through a structural method, at discovering universal invariants in human society, which he thought was the prohibition of the incest. However, the claims of such cultural universalism have been criticized by various 19th and 20th century social thinkers, among the more important include: Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Althusser and Deleuze.

List of scholars of ethnology

  • Amadou Hampâté Bâ
  • Johann Georg Adam Forster
  • Pierre Clastres
  • Yanagita Kunio
  • Claude Lévi-Strauss
  • Marcel Mauss
  • David Maybury-Lewis
  • Alfred Metraux
  • James Mooney
  • Augustus Pitt Rivers
  • Wilhelm Schmidt


  • Johann Georg Adam Forster Voyage round the World in His Britannic Majesty’s Sloop, Resolution, Commanded by Capt. James Cook, during the Years 1772, 3, 4, and 5 (2 vols), London (1777)
  • Lévi-Strauss, Claude, The Elementary Structurs of Kinship, (1949), [1], Structural Anthropology' (1958)[2]
  • Mauss, Marcel, originally published as Essai sur le don. Forme et raison de l'échange dans les sociétés archaïques in 1925, this classic text on gift economy appears in the English edition as The Gift: The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies[3].
  • Maybury-Lewis, David, Akwe-Shavante society. (1967) [4], The Politics of Ethnicity: Indigenous Peoples in Latin American States (2003)[5].
  • Clastres, Pierre, Society Against the State (1974), [6]

See also

Websites relating to ethnology

  • describes the languages and ethnic groups found worldwide, grouped by host nation-state.
  • - The Moving Anthropology Student Network/Moving Anthropology Social Network connects young anthropologists and anthropology students from European and other countries
  • Division of Anthropology, American Museum of Natural History - Over 160,000 objects from Pacific, North American, African, Asian ethnographic collections with images and detailed description, linked to the original catalogue pages, field notebooks, and photographs are available online.

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