Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 December 2009
Ethnography has been the heartbeat of the anthropological endeavour since the emergence of the discipline in the late nineteenth century. It is a set of methods by which anthropologists describe systematically, and record, the rich cultural tapestry of humanity. There was a time when the budding sociocultural anthropologist had to go to the field and then bring back an ethnography (i.e. a comprehensive account of a traditional society), the more exotic the better. Indeed, the great names of anthropology – Malinowski, Radcliffe-Brown, Mead, etc. – made their reputations in just this way. (Ironically, by the end of the twentieth century, these pioneering efforts were being shunned and disowned for their supposed imperialist, racist, sexist, etc., biases (see Aunger 1995, for an example of the debate).)
The composite of ethnographies for Homo sapiens worldwide is the ethnographic record. It is the master database for cross-cultural comparisons that yield both human universals and variation. The extent of information is such that massive archives are required, e.g. the Human Relations Area File (Murdock et al., 1965), and extensive atlases are needed to access them (see, for example, Price, 1990). Since the body of knowledge is so great, coding the topics of content (e.g. cooking, rites of passage, etc.) allows for wide-scale, secondhand analyses without ploughing through thousands of pages of text (see, for example, Murdock & Morrow, 1970). From the ethnographic record came studies qualitative or quantitative, descriptive or hypothesisdriven, impressionistic or reductionist.