Tuesday, February 26, 2008

New Ethnography


Minor Research Project

Kabir Krishna
Master of Philosophy (Social Anthropology)
Department of Anthropology
University of Delhi


New Ethnography began in the early 1960s in America and during that time two more school of thoughts came up. They were Structure Functionalism and Structuralism. (The writings of Strauss in French originally published in 1940s got translated in 60s). This branch is also known as Ethno science or Ethno semantics or Cognitive Anthropology. It emerged in America in response to the existing intellectual tradition in United Kingdom and France. In United Kingdom there was rigorous Structure Functionalist tradition in which ethnographic writings were regarded as scientific emphasizing behavior. In France, the studies emphasized human mind. The new ethnography differed from both of them.

In comparison to the British counterparts, it believed that the wealth of the cultural data could only come from the way people actually thought, of what they think. It involves the local idiom of perceiving, relating and understanding a phenomenon. The new ethnographers said that a phenomenon could only be studied by making a journey into the cultural cognition of people thereby decussating shift of studying human behavior, to study the categories, indigenous classification of nature, kin members, Gods, cosmos which will tell us the way in which people perceive things so this departure was marked with emphasis on the human thought categories.

In contrast to the French counterpart, it believed in certain principles by which human mind functions but it never believed that there are any universal principles regulating the human mind.

According to Tyler (1969:3), New Ethnography or Cognitive Anthropology is an idealist approach to studying the human condition. The field of cognitive anthropology focuses on the study of the relation between human culture and human thought. In contrast with some earlier anthropological approaches to culture, cultures are not regarded as material phenomena, but rather cognitive organizations of material phenomena.

Source: Fig. 1 (Colby 1996:210)

New Ethnography in modern anthropology can be traced back to Franz Boas (Colby 1996:210). Boas, who first turned to anthropology during his research on the Eskimo and their perception of the color of ice and water, realized that different peoples had different conceptions of the world around them. He was so affected that he began to focus his life’s work on understanding the relation between the human mind and the environment (Shore 1996:19). This work, which was fueled by his revolt against the racist thinking of the day, would direct Boas towards trying to understand the psychology of tribal peoples. This aspect of his work is best expressed in his essay "Psychological Problems in Anthropology" (1910), and culminates in his volume The Mind of Primitive Man (1911). Boas encouraged investigations of tribal categories of sense and perception, such as color, topics that would be critical in the later development of New Ethnography (Shore 1996:20-21).

The essence of New Ethnography is:
It has a different way of dealing with the culture. It regarded culture as a system of shared cognitive knowledge and beliefs.
According to it human mind creates culture by means of certain principles or by a finite (not infinite) set of logic, number of rules primarily guided at an unconscious level.
This different way of conceptualizing culture or creation of culture is closely related to certain fields like linguistics and cognitive psychology. It differed from structure functionalism in a fundamental manner i.e. structure functionalism is interested in knowing the cultural grammar of all societies. But New Ethnography believes that each culture each culture has its own grammar and it is the task of the anthropologist to unravel this.

New Ethnographers study how people understand and organize the material objects, events and experiences that make up their world as the people they study perceive it. It is an approach that stresses how people make sense of reality according to their own indigenous cognitive categories, not those of the anthropologist. New Ethnography says that each culture orders events, material life and ideas, to its own criteria. The fundamental aim of new ethnography is to reliably represent the logical systems of thought of other people according to criteria, which can be discovered and replicated through analysis.

According to Goodenough, ethnoscience studies the form of things that people have in mind, the people's mode of perceiving, relating and otherwise integrating them with one another. ethnoscience attempts to find out how members of a community or culture ‘see’ and ‘describe’ their world thus unraveling the ‘emic’ point of view. This view is opposite of ‘etic’ point of view. According to new ethnographers, the ‘emic’ point of view uses the indigenous categories and these categories are not borrowed from the outside science. These categories come from the cultural logic, rooted in the local language and such an attempt believes that the local nuances can’t be understood the movement ethic category is used.

A missionary linguistic Kenneth Pike (1954) was the first to use these terms- ‘emic’ and ‘etic’. In fact he was interested in the phenomena of phonemic and phonetic. The phenomenon of phonemic is a linguistic phenomenon which leads to structural results like two sounds which are distinguished from one another in terms of slight variation like bat and bad. Pike argued that study of such unique sounds that distinguish from one another takes us to structural study. An exhaustive classification of local sounds would take us to non-structural results thereby taking us to ‘etic’ study. Kenneth Pike was regarded as the first one to have used these terms elaborating upon their distinction. From these distinctions, we come across the distinction between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’. Etic is a useful category for that branch of science which use quantitative method but for science using qualitative method there is greater reliance on emic data. Such compartmentalization is artificial because social reality is a complex area and division of it into qualitative and quantitative data is done at the cost of organic unity of reality.

New Ethnographers are of the opinion that emic point of view refers to logical empirical system where units and things are built up of contrast and distinction, regarded as significant or appropriate by actions themselves. In other word steps that are involved in discovering the emic point of view could be identified in following manner

It begins with assumption that every culture has its own logic. Therefore the major task is to discover logico-emperical system.
This system comprises of units and units are related to one another. Underlying this relationship is the principle of contrast, discrimination, comparison by certain parameters regarded as significant by actors themselves. For example in a culture one has several statements made by local people (emic) but does the researcher involve all statements? Any statement made by a person qualifies to be included in the data.

Frake and Conklin (1964) have commented on the manner in which an emic point of view is established. According to them, emic statements have a structural fit with total cognitive calculus of cultures. In case there is a misfit, it is of doubtful validity. According to them, the validity of an emic point of view is established when the researcher can appropriately anticipate the behavior. They used the word instead of prediction. New ethnography using cultural logic method anticipates behaviour instead of predict. There is difference between what is ‘actual’ and what is ‘ideal’. There exists this dichotomy between them. While ideal point of view is emic, the actual behaviour can be studied from both perspectives

The term New Ethnography was coined American Anthropologist Stuart Vant in 1964. When this term was coined, it was free from criticism. He coined the term to describe the ethnographic outputs carried out or done by contemporaries using method of ethnoscience, where classification of folk categories provided basis for analysis.

New Ethnography regards anthropology as a formal science. They maintain that culture is composed of logical rules that are based on ideas that can be accessed in the mind. New ethnography emphasizes the rules of behavior, not behavior itself. It does not claim that it can predict human behavior but delineates what is socially and culturally expected or appropriate in given situations, circumstances, and contexts. It is not concerned with describing events in order to explain or discover processes of change. Furthermore, this approach declares that every culture embodies its own unique organizational system for understanding things, events, and behavior. Some scholars contend that it is necessary to develop several theories of cultures before striving for could eventually lead to a grand theory of Culture (Applebaum, 1987:409).

Characteristics of New Ethnography

1. Those aspects of culture which most clearly reflects the native's conception of physical space, nature, social order and spiritual entities. This approach studies those aspects of culture which are reflection of peoples’ point of views like classification of plants and animals or Gods.
2. They study the linguistic expressions and the categories of speech, though those are responsible for providing a classification of space, animals, human beings, Gods etc. In other word they also study the linguistic expressions that directly express the principal that organise human thinking i.e. there are certain principal organizing human thinking in terms of linguistic categories.
3. Study the terminological system of folk classification that people use to describe plants, animals, colours, human beings, kins, emotions etc. They also study the symbols that provide meaning to a wide range of phenomenon relating to subsystem. Each subsystem is guided by organizing principles which have to be discovered because they regulate symbols giving rise to systems. Unlike structural anthropology, new ethnography is not interested in underlying universal cultural logic or to decipher it logics of individual cultures.
4. The new ethnography relies on two important methodological concepts like metaphors and narratives. Metaphor refers to applying a term to an action, imaginatively and not literally. When Clifford Geertz said that culture is like an old city (metaphor) so it is an imaginative and not literary description. Narrators on the other hand are written or spoken account of connected happenings in order of occurrence. A narrative is a vivid description of a phenomenon, which clearly brings out the local flavor. New ethnography uses these two methodologies or tools to describe cultural phenomenons. Heavy reliance is on metaphor and narratives because it is through them they want to construct cultural texts and they are not used by researcher himself but by the people themselves. Each and every culture has metaphors.

Gloria Goodwin Raheja in her work examined the marriage songs from the point of view of subversion, patriarchy and gender. Analyzing the content of these songs she argues that in highly patriarchal and oppressive society of North India, marriage songs give opportunity to subvert through recreation, imagination and creating space for themselves. This is an instrument to challenge existing order and negotiate identity. She has extensively relied on metaphors and narratives to prove her point.

After 1960s many such works came up in India. McKim Marriot’s work on India through Hindu categories is a landmark study in new ethnography. Through his work, he shows that what is the Hindu way of perceiving space, society, and cosmos.

Principal Concepts

Cultural Model: "Cultural model" is not a precisely articulated concept but rather it "serves as a catchall phrase for many different kinds of cultural knowledge" (Shore 1996:45). Also known as folk models, cultural models generally refer to the unconscious set of assumptions and understandings members of a society or group share. They greatly affect people’s understanding of the world and of human behavior. Cultural models can be thought of as loose, interpretative frameworks. They are both overtly and unconsciously taught and are rooted in knowledge learned from others as well as from accumulated personal experience. Cultural models are not fixed entities but are malleable structures by nature

Domain: A domain is comprised of a set of related ideas or items that form a larger category. Weller and Romney (1988: 9) define domain as "an organized set of words, concepts, or sentences, all on the same level of contrast that jointly refer to a single conceptual sphere". The individual items within a domain partially achieve their meaning from their relationship to other items in a "mutually interdependent system reflecting the way in which a given language or culture classified the relevant conceptual sphere" (1988:9).

Folk Models: "Games, music, god sets, and other cultural phenomena in one domain can be seen as models for behavior and conceptualization in another domain. The model domain is an area with little conflict or anxiety, but the domain mapped by the model is often conflicted, anxiety producing, and stressful” (Colby 1996:212).

Folk Taxonomies: Much of the early work in ethnoscience concentrated on folk taxonomies, that is how people organize certain classes of objects or notions. There is an enormous amount of work in this area.

Knowledge structures: Knowledge structures go beyond the analysis of taxonomies to try to elucidate the knowledge and beliefs associated with the various taxonomies and terminology systems. This includes the study of consensus among individuals in a group, and an analysis of how their knowledge is organized and used as mental scripts and schemata (Colby 1996:210).

Mazeway: Wallace defines mazeway as "the mental image of society and culture" (D’Andrade, 1995:17). The maze is comprised of perceptions of material objects and how people can manipulate the maze to reduce stress. Wallace proposed this concept as part of his study of revitalization movements. Wallace postulated that revitalization movements were sparked by a charismatic leader who embodied a special vision about how life ought to be. The realization of this vision required a change in the social mazeway.

Mental Scripts: Scripts can be thought of as a set of certain actions one performs in a given situation. Examples would include behavior in a doctor's office, or in a restaurant. There are certain codified and predictable exchanges with minor individual variations (Shore 1996:43). Existing scripts do not guide every daily action; rather, they are set schemes or recipes for action in a given social situation.

Prototypes: Prototype theory is a theory of categorization. The "best example" of a category is a prototype (Lakoff, 1987). Prototpyes are used as a reference point in making judgements of the similarities and differences in other experiences and things in the world. Lakoff (1982:16), for example, states that in comparison to other types of birds the features of robins are judged to be more representative of the category "bird" just as desk chairs are considered more exemplary of the category chair than are rocking chairs or electric chairs. Membership largely hinges on a cluster of features a form embodies. Every member may not possess all of the attributes but is nonetheless still regarded as a type. When a type is contrasted with the prototype certain clusters of features are typically more crucial for category measurement (Lakoff 1984:16). Furthermore, two members of a category can have no resemblance with each other but share resemblance with the prototype and therefore be judged as members of the same category. However, the qualities of a prototype do not dictate category membership exclusively. The degree to which similarity is exhibited by an object or experience does not automatically project that object or experience into category membership. For example, pigs are not categorized as dogs just because they share some features with the prototype of dog (Lakoff 1982, 17).

Schemata: This has been one of the most important and powerful concepts for cognitive anthropology in the past twenty years. Bartlett first developed the notion of a schema in the 1930s. He proposed that remembering is guided by a mental structure, a schema, "an active organization of past reactions, or of past experiences, which must always be supposed to be operational in any well-adapted organic response (Schacter 1989:692). New Ethnographers and scientists have modified this notion somewhat since then. A schema is an "organizing experience," it implies activation of the whole.

Semantic studies: Concerned primarily with terminology classifications, especially kinship classification (e.g. Lounsbury 1956), and plant taxonomies. In recent years, a greater emphasis has been directed towards the development of semantic theory (Colby 1996:210).

Semantic theory: A development of recent times, semantic theory is built upon an extensionistic approach that was first developed with kin terminologies and then extended to other domains (Colby 1996:211). There are core meanings and extensional meanings, the core meanings varying less among informants than the extensional meanings.

A key feature of new ethnography is that respondents are asked to define categories and terms in their own language. It is assumed that the anthropologist and the respondents do not have identical understandings of domains. Therefore, the elicitation of a specific domain is typically the first step in these studies. The boundaries of culturally relevant items within a domain can be determined through a variety of techniques.


According to Marvin Harris, this approach did not have anything to offer. He asked that what was new in this approach. He said that the claims that were made by new ethnographers have already been done by classical ethnographers. He cited three examples.
Clyde Kluckhon
Radcliffe Brown

He said that the works of all three contained the seeds of new ethnography. He was of the opinion that practitioners of this discipline were not aware of history of such a practice.

Clyde Kluckhon (1949) argued that the first task of an anthropologist was to study the events as seen by the people. It implies an orientation towards emic perspective. Malinowski, in 1922 clearly told that the final goal of an ethnographer was to grasp the native’s point of view. He further went on to say that understanding of subject, feeling is one of the tasks of ethnographers. Besides there lay an entire range of kinship, descent alliance theories and they were all modeled in accordance with the emic point of view. While in these theories, the emic point of view emerged in a central manner. Therefore, emic point of view was newly emphasized being ignorant of western practices.

Rodney Needham in his book ‘Structure and Sentiment’ clearly mentioned that the social order was a question of underlying logical and symbolic congruence. He was of the opinion that it was only after understanding logical and symbolic harmony, we can comment on social order. He was also aware of phenomenon of logic or symbolism. So Marvin Harries concluded that practitioners of new ethnography were seemingly unaware of history.

Some of the most severe criticisms of cognitive anthropology have come from its own practitioners. According to Keesing (1972:307) the so-called "new ethnography" was unable to move beyond the analysis of artificially simplified and often trivial semantic domains. Ethnoscientists tended to study such things as color categories and folk taxonomies, without being able to elucidate their relevance to understanding culture as a whole. Taking a lead from generative grammar in linguistics, ethnoscientists sought cultural grammars, intending to move beyond the analyses of semantic categories and domains into wider behavioral realms. Ethnoscientists attempted to discern how people construe their world from the way they label and talk about it (Keesing 1972:306).


New Ethnography has helped to provide a bridge between culture and the functioning of the mind (D'Andrade 1995:251-252). It has helped reveal some of the inner workings of the human mind, and given us a greater understanding of how people order and perceive the world around them. New Ethnography has something to offer each of anthropology’s four fields: archaeology, biological anthropology, linguistics, and cultural anthropology

New Ethnography deals with abstract theories regarding the nature of the mind. While there have been countless methods for accessing culture contained in the mind, questions remain about whether results in fact reflect how individuals organize and perceive society, or whether they are merely manufactured by investigators having no foundation in their subjects’ reality (Romney 1999:105).

Moreover, it has significantly changed the face of cultural anthropology, particularly with respect to its methodological development. New Ethnography are used in a variety of anthropological contexts and applied to a variety of subjects. While cognitive anthropology has relied on a strong tradition of linguistic and cultural approaches, perhaps its greatest challenge lay in demonstrating its applicability to the biological and archaeological subfields. In short, new ethnography holds much promise for the future of cultural analysis.

To conclude, New Ethnography is a concept that has increased the position and his opinions in the researchers’ study. Involving Metaphors and Narratives has complemented the arena of New Ethnography.


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Weller, Susan C and A. Kimball Romney. 1988. Systematic Data Collection. Newbury Park, CA: Sage University Press.

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