Academic journal article Ethnology

Introduction: Units for Describing and Analyzing Culture and Society

Academic journal article Ethnology

Introduction: Units for Describing and Analyzing Culture and Society

Article excerpt

Cross-cultural research currently has a refugee status in anthropology. I explain why this is so by briefly tracing the history of cross-cultural research from the time of Tylor to the present. The main problem for ethnologists has been to define and develop adequate and equivalent cultural units for cross-cultural comparison. I argue that this is also a problem for ethnographers. I conclude with a brief review of the articles in this edition, each of which takes a different approach to addressing the cultural units problem. (Cultural units, ethnology, ethnography, method, nomothetic theories)

In 1889, Sir Edward Tylor gave the first presentation of a cross-cultural study in anthropology. For Tylor, anthropology had two complementary missions: ethnography and ethnology. Ethnography has dominated the field while ethnology has been shunted aside to near-refugee status. One would think that scholars would avail themselves of cross-cultural databases such as the electronic version of the Human Relations Area Files (e-HRAF) or the World Atlas in order to propose and test nomothetic theories. Further, one would think that as ethnographic fieldwork becomes more hazardous and expensive (Howell 1990), there would be a corresponding turn to cross-cultural analysis. But this has not occurred.

Strauss and Orans (1975:573) suggest that the "extremely pessimistic appraisal of the possibility of verifying lawful relations between cultural traits ... has doubtless profoundly shaped anthropological research." Phillips (1990:19) also notes that "a person does not have to read very widely in the contemporary methodological or theoretical literature pertaining to research in the social sciences and related applied areas ... in order to discover that objectivity is dead." Those who view human life as always fluid and contingent and consider any analysis of it to be subjectively constructed will logically focus their energies on thick, descriptive ethnographies and avoid generalizations. Searching for historic, intracultural, or cross-cultural patterns presumes that systematic and objective descriptions and analyses of human life are possible and from these one can propose and test theories. The argument that all human life can only be subjectively understood is itself a universal proposition that can, by definition, be rejected.

Strauss and Orans's (1975) bleak appraisal of comparative research is traced back to Sir John Galton, who commented on Tylor's study:

It was extremely desirable for the sake of those who may wish to study the evidence for Dr. Tylor's conclusions, that full information should be given as to the degree in which the customs of the tribes and races which are compared together are independent. It might be that some of the tribes had derived them from a common source, so that they were duplicate copies of the same original. (Tylor 1961[1889]:26)

Tylor (1961:28) responded by stating that "the only way of meeting this objection is to make separate classifications depend on well-marked differences, and to do this all over the world" (1961:28).

Of course, we cannot possibly know what he meant by "well-marked differences," nor how to classify traits accordingly. If language is a criterion for well-marked differences, then presumably groups speaking different languages also have different cultures and therefore consist of bundles of independent cultural units that can be statistically compared. But as articles by Korotayev and by de Munck and Korotayev (this issue) show, it is not easy to establish cultural independence on the basis of one assumptively universal criterion. To take a simple example, there are likely to be strong similarities in religious, marriage, and inheritance practices among Islamic societies despite linguistic differences. It is easy to establish independence on the basis of what would seem to be salient indicators of cultural differences.

Tylor (1961:27) also quotes Flower, who said that comparative research methods "depended entirely upon the units of comparison being of equivalent value. …

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