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2 - Ethnology in Transit: Informants, Questionnaires and the Formation of the Ethnological Society of London

Efram Sera-Shriar
Affiliation:
York University
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Summary

The Ethnological Society will supply the want; it will be a focus for travellers where, however scanty their contributions, a permanent value will be put upon their labours.

Richard King, 1844

In 1844 the ethnologist, surgeon and Arctic explorer Richard King (1811–76) delivered the first anniversary address before the members of the Ethnological Society of London (ESL). In his speech he argued that acquiring ethnographic materials was a primary concern for the discipline if it wanted to establish and refine its theories and methods. To meet this need, the ESL began to organize a global exchange network of informants – including colonial officers, military surgeons and missionaries – whose task was to collect ethnographic evidence in situ and send their reports back to Britain, where ethnologists could use it in their inquiries. Using travellers' accounts by voyagers was nothing new for ethnology, and since the expansion of the empire from the late eighteenth century onwards, practitioners interested in human diversity incorporated a wide range of travel material into their studies.

However, early ethnologists such as William Lawrence lamented in his lectures on the Natural History of Man that the overall quality of many voyager accounts contained ‘considerable discrepancies …increased in many cases by haste and carelessness; by superficial examination, and loose choice of expressions’. A chief problem was that in many instances informants gathering ethnographic data lacked formal training and had few instructions on what sorts of observations to record and what questions to ask.

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Publisher: Pickering & Chatto
First published in: 2014

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