Ethnoscience (Anthropology)

Ethnoscience, or the ‘New Ethnography’ as it was often called in the 1960s, consists of a set of methods for analysing indigenous systems of classification, for example, of diseases, species of plants or types of food. Methods have changed through time. In the 1960s the heyday of ethnoscience, componential analysis was the primary method through which ethnoscience was practised, and some practitioners regarded a description of the process of eliciting data and constructing the analysis as equally crucial to the exercise (e.g. Black 1969).

The realization that not all hierarchically ordered classification systems are amenable to componential analysis had already, in the 1960s, led to the notion that some areas of culture and language were practical for ethnoscientific research and others were not. Thus early concerns concentrated on topics like kinship and on those aspects of botany and zoology in which the components of meaning were quite transparent: e.g. the classification of animals within a species by age and sex, or the classification of species through a complex of differentiating anatomical characteristics.

One important early questioning of the notion of arbitrariness in the cultural classification of observable phenomena occurred in 1969, when Brent Berlin and Paul Kay reported that colours are distinguished in a set order which is universal for all cultures. This helped spur interest in the relation between cognitive categories and cognitive psychology, and even neuropsychology. Also from inside the field of ethnoscience, fRoger Keesing (1972) challenged colleagues to rethink the ‘new ethnography’ they had modelled on the ‘old linguistics’. For Keesing, the link between ethnoscience and structural linguistics had to be severed and a new one formed with the linguistic theories of Noam Chomsky. From outside the field, the main critique of ethnoscience has come from those who favour interpretive approaches to culture. fClifford Geertz (1973), in particular, has argued against the formalism and fpositivism of ethnoscience.


Over the past twenty years research in ethno-science has moved closer to cognitive psychology, and in so doing, has jettisoned its former close link with linguistics (see e.g. Atran 1993). Moreover, the primary focus today among many practitioners is in the way individuals, when as children, learn culture, rather than in the psychological validity of models constructed by anthropologists or linguists (see emic and etic). Thus the old label ‘ethnoscience’ has taken on both new meanings and new methodologies. It nevertheless retains its association with methods designed to capture the ways of thought which make up cultural knowledge. It is just that these methods now seem set to find their touchstone less in formal structures of the lexicon per se, and more in thought processes which may in fact and indeed ironically, be more universal than culture-specific. If this is the case, then the old label may well have truly changed its meaning well beyond the intentions of its early practitioners.

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