What is Ethnology?

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  • Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 April 2020
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Ethnology is a specialized discipline within the larger field of anthropology. Within this discipline, the identifying characteristics of a particular cultural or ethnic group are studied in detail, with an eye toward understanding how each of those elements shape the internal function of that group. Often, the study will also encompass understanding how a particular segment of the human family uses their unique characteristics to relate with other ethnic and cultural groups.

There are several areas of interest that compose any serious ethnology research. For any racial, ethnic, or cultural group, the focus is on the components that give the group its own unique flavor. This includes elements like the origins of the community, the distribution of its members, and the internal social structure that has evolved over time. In order to fully appreciate these factors, it is also necessary to grasp the roles that religion, language, economics, and technology play in the formation of the group’s identity.


In most cases, the ethnologist will make use of resources such as printed matter, audio and video recordings, and other tools to gain a working knowledge of a given group. This contrasts with the approach of an ethnographer, who will actually spend time with the group and become a member of the community in as many ways as possible. Both approaches have their merits, with ethnography providing subtle insights that may not be immediately grasped by outsiders, and ethnology taking those findings and attempting to present them in a way that everyone can understand.

The process of ethnology study often seeks to bring to light and analyze how certain actions or concepts attain the status of being considered natural or a matter of common sense within a given social structure. At the same time, the ethnological process will explore the origins and development of actions and ideas that are considered taboo within a particular social group, and attempt to recreate the chain of events that led to these ideas and actions losing favor.

At its core, ethnology is about creating a history of the human family, with due consideration of each culture that has contributed or continues to contribute to how people today think, act, worship and live. From this perspective, the goals of wider anthropology and ethnology that focuses on social or cultural aspects within a particular group are very similar. As with all branches of anthropology, ethnology provides a productive and necessary function in understanding who we are and how we came to be what we are today.


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Post 2

@robbie21 - I think it's the most identifiable subfield of anthropology (also, I think, called cultural anthropology), but there are other kinds. Archeology is also a subfield of anthropology, for one thing.

I remember taking a class in college in biological anthropology, which has a lot to do with studying how Homo sapiens evolved. Some biological anthropologists study living apes as well. (My instructor worked with gorillas.)

I also remember taking a linguistics class that was cross-listed as both anthropology and English, so I guess that's a field in anthropology, too. I'm sure there are other subfields, but those are the ones that I'm personally familiar with.

Post 1

The description in this article is basically what I think of when I think of an anthropologist, but the article says it's just a subfield.

What else do anthropologists do? I thought they studied different cultures and described them. I guess I'm imagining people dressed in khaki journeying to darkest Africa or the deepest rainforest! (I know, I know, the reality is probably quite different.)

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