In this blog, we focus on Ethnographic sources, a type of primary source that is inconsistently outside of academia, and yet they are invaluable. So far we have already covered Primary Sources and the Lens of Research, as well as Secondary and Tertiary Sources in previous blog posts. In both modern and historical situations, ethnographic sources can aid you many things. They allow us to teach crafts, understand cultures, and learn about daily life in a historical context.
“Ethnography”: a written account of a culture.
Ethnography refers to descriptions of a culture written by or sometimes for outsiders. In Anthropology, it is the systematic study of a people and their culture based on participant observation, or learning about a community by living and participating in daily life in that community. Ethnographic sources today are written descriptions and analyses of the complexity of a culture. They address how various cultural institutions and practices intersect. These observances are often recorded after the researcher has lived and studied in that culture for an extended period of time. Interestingly, this is true for both modern ethnographers and historical ones.
Ethnography is a recent scholarly innovation.
The modern concept of ethnographic sources, as academics think of them today, is a relatively recent scholarly innovation. It developed in the late 19th century. These ethnographic works were written by anthropologists, experts in their particular area of study. They spent years training to think as much outside the assumptions of their cultural boxes as possible. Whether the ethnography focuses on a specific element of culture, such as religious practices, or the culture in its entirety, the goal is to describe how the pieces of culture interconnect as part of a larger whole.
While this form of formal, academic ethnography, is new, however, written cultural descriptions are not new. For as long as people were both literate and in contact with other cultures, people have written about those interactions. Many of those accounts have survived until today. As a result, we have accounts dating back to many historical periods where people of one culture interacted with people of another culture and wrote about it.
Some examples of ethnographic sources.
Excellent examples of ethnography were written in the 10th Century called Ibn Fadlan and the Land of Darkness. Ahmad Ibn Fadlan was sent from Baghdad in 921 on a journey that took him to the Volgar and Rus. He wrote his observations on his travels. These observations allowed researchers to glean great amounts of information about the places he visited. Fadlan also illuminated the history of his own people due to the perceptions he had when he encountered differences between his culture and the Norse.
Like diaries and autobiographies, these firsthand descriptions of another culture are primary resources. These accounts are certainly biased, as they are filtered through the cultural perspectives of the authors. Often they are written in contexts of conquest or religious conversion. They note aspects of the other culture that may be taken for granted by people of those cultures. The things of day to day life that a people take for granted are not typically written about. So, having an outside perspective allows us to learn things that we might not have, otherwise.
Ethnographic accounts of Japanese visitors to Rome, Marco Polo’s descriptions of Mongolia and China, and accounts of the Crusades from both sides are great examples. Each of these very different cultures intersected and wrote about their interactions. And while their interpretations of what people are doing and why are doing it are often wildly inaccurate, their descriptions of what people wore, said, and did are vital. They give yet another valuable insight into what life was like in those cultures. This is especially true when taken into consideration with other primary sources available from that time and place.
Ethnographic sources are valuable to the variety of researchers.
Whether you are writing a historical novel, a research paper for school, or putting together a class lesson with a cultural focus, ethnographic sources offer windows into the lives of people. Always consider the lens behind how the ethnography was written. Consider the author and how the data was collected. As your self what kinds of questions they asked, and what information the writer had access to. That said, ethnographic sources are one of the most valuable sources we have available. They allow us to understand how people from other times and cultures lived.
RoseAnna & Galen
The Researcher’s Gateway