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The Aims of ethnology

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                Franz Boas is considered to be the “Father of Modern American Fieldwork”.  He lays down the specific principles for students of anthropology to follow.  Firstly, it is important to study the crude and derogatory descriptions people have given in their books.  The best way ethnocentrism should be prevented would be to carry out objective ethnographic fieldwork rather than depending on other books that give only subjective remarks.  Boas uses three examples travelers have given regarding other tribes and cultures.  These include that of Bushmen, Fuegians and the Andamanese.  Superficial accounts show that these tribes have primitive ways and are unintelligible.  However, if we go deeper down and examine their habits, we often find a rich social organization.

                Secondly, in several civilizations, people tend to develop beliefs which are recognized in their mythology and folk systems.  Often it is found that several of our myths are often derived from primitive groups by a process of diffusion.  Boas uses the rediscovery of the lost tribes of Israel in America and Polynesia and Phaethon and Zeus instances as an example to demonstrated the similarities that exist in various mythology and folklore.

                Thirdly, there is a development of the same cultural phenomenon in various parts of the world occurring independently or through borrowing.  When there is some amount of borrowing, it would occur from a psychic unity of mankind.  There may be no historical contacts, but it strongly suggests that there is a uniform development of the human mind everywhere.  Soil and history would cast and influence in creating such similarities, but the social and mental behavior cannot be based entirely on the characteristics of soil and history.  Boas uses the examples of the Negros going barely clothed and the Eskimos sleep during polar winter.  Boas says that wrongly calling these tribes as lazy are just a misleading process of generalization.  There are instances in which the Negros has punished people for being improperly clothed and Eskimos perform rigorous activity during the long winter.


                Frank Boas’s example of the subjective rather than the objective nature of developing an impression of other tribes and cultures were the main reason for the development of slavery and racism throughout the world.  Often the ‘White man’ would look at the primitive ways of the ‘Bushman’ and consider their race to be superior.  They have exploited Negros during the slave age.  However, if we go deeper down in the cultures and traditions of the Negros, it is often found that these ‘primitive culture’ have a very rich and advanced cultures and practices, often much beyond than the Western civilization.  Various backward cultures throughout the world have more advanced medicinal and healing systems.  Ethnocentrism is definitely developed through just superficial contact and not knowing deep down what these cultures practice.

                I do feel that the human mind and behavior have developed uniformly throughout the world, subjected to local factors such as geography and history.  No culture and civilization has stood still, and man is developing constantly.  The Negroes and other Eastern civilizations are no means backwards.  There are some laws of nature that permit development of similar mythology and folklore in various parts of the world.  This is what Boas meant as ‘psychic unity of mankind’.  Intellectually, there is a uniformity and equality in different parts of the world.  It is wrong to generalize the actions and practices of various tribes.  Generalization is misconception and if we go down deep into their practices, a different but true picture is revealed.


    Boas, F. The Aims of Ethnology.


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