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Ethnology is a subtopic of anthropology that studies cultures around the world through comparison and analysis. Also known as cross-cultural research, ethnology developed over the latter twentieth century to focus on universal theories and broad generalizations that emphasize similarity rather than diversity across cultures.
Comparative ethnology (cross-cultural research) is a subfield of cultural anthropology. Anthropologists, psychologists, and sociologists who conduct cross-cultural research are interested primarily in developing and testing theories of human culture, society, and behavior by comparing the behaviors and customs of cultures around the world. The focus is on universal theories that explain all or some aspect of culture or behavior in all places at all times, rather than theories whose explanatory reach is only a single culture or a single geographic or cultural region. Cross-cultural research is similar to cross-national research (practiced mainly by political scientists and economists), which uses modern nation-states rather than cultures as its unit of study.
Cross-cultural research emerged as a distinct form of anthropological research during the late nineteenth century but did not garner much attention until the 1940s. By then a large quantity of ethnography (information on cultures and ethnic groups) had been gathered for hundreds of cultures around the world, providing the raw data for cross-cultural study. In the typical cross-cultural study, a researcher sets forth a theory or theories to be tested, selects a sample of cultures from around the world to be studied, collects information on the topics of interest from ethnographic reports on the cultures, converts the textual information to numeric codes of variable value, and then uses statistical tests to test the theory or theories.
With more and more ethnographic data available in the decades after World War II, cross-cultural research became more popular, with several hundred studies on kinship, child development, family life, war, religion, economics, and politics published during the 1960s and 1970s. These two decades were also a period of maturation for the field as many new research techniques were developed to make for more careful research and more trustworthy results. Among the pioneers in the field were the anthropologists George Peter Murdock at Yale, Harold Driver at Indiana University, Raoul Naroll at State University of New York at Buffalo, and John and Beatrice Whiting at Harvard. During the 1980s, as cultural anthropology became more focused on specific cultures, on the study of meaning, and on action research to assist and protect endangered peoples, cross-cultural research declined in popularity.
Cross-cultural research has always been controversial; many anthropologists who prefer intensive field research in a single culture are uncomfortable with an approach based on library research, the use of secondary data, and statistical analysis, which tend to produce broad generalizations that emphasize similarity rather than diversity across cultures.
Nonetheless, several decades of cross-cultural research have produced a number of important generalizations, especially significant for world history: (1) About 50 percent of cultural change around the world during the last two centuries can be attributed to peaceful interaction between different cultures and about 50 percent to contact through warfare and domination. (2) The type of economy in a society is an important determinant of how parents raise their children and of adult personality. For example, in agricultural societies where cooperation is important, people will be more compliant, and they will raise their children to be obedient. In foraging societies where independent action is valued, adults will be more independent and will raise their children to be self-reliant. (3) Cultural evolution has been a powerful force in human history, with more efficient control of energy and a larger population typically leading to specialization and differentiation in the institutions of a society. (4) Maintaining a large military force to deter enemies or potential enemies more often produces war than peace. Peaceful contact such as through trading or participation in joint religious rituals more often produces peace. (5) From a crosscultural perspective, there is no such thing as “female status.” Rather, female status is a complex set of beliefs and behaviors, with women often having high status and much influence in some domains such as the household economy or religion, and little status and influence in other domains such as the military. (6) Ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s culture is superior to all others, is found in all cultures. It tends to be less pronounced among neighboring cultures that are similar in many ways. (7) All societies have a basic economic concern with control over and access to natural resources. (8) All societies have a clear division of labor by sex, with some work assigned exclusively to men and other work to women. Men tend to do work that requires much strength, whereas women tend to do work that is compatible with child care. (9) Although egalitarian (relating to human equality) societies have existed, in the modern world all societies are socially stratified, often into social classes, meaning that not all groups have equal access to a society’s resources. (10) A considerable amount of radical cultural change throughout history is the result of religious movements. These movements often develop in times of societal stress and are led by charismatic figures often defined as prophets. (11) The evolutionary ideas of the nineteenth century that suggested that human society evolved through time from a state of lesser to greater civilization have no merit.
- Ember, C. R., & Levinson, D. (1991). The substantive contributions of worldwide cross-cultural studies using secondary data. Behavior Science Research, 25, 79–140.
- Levinson, D. (1977). What have we learned from cross-cultural surveys? American Behavioral Scientist, 20, 757–792.
- Levinson, D., & Malone, M. J. (1980). Toward explaining human culture. New Haven, CT: HRAF Press.
- Murdock, G. P. (1949). Social structure. New York: Macmillan.
- Naroll, R., & Cohen, R. (Eds.). (1970). A handbook of method in cultural anthropology. Garden City, NY: Natural History Press.
- Whiting, B. B., & Whiting, J. W. M. (Eds.). (1975). Children of six cultures: A psycho-cultural analysis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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