The question [of human origin] belongs to the domain of natural history and physiology; we must be contented to proceed in our examination in the slow and humble, but sure method of observation.William Lawrence, 1819
Observation has been central to studying human diversity from its earliest days as a field of inquiry. The ability to identify and organize different ethnicities into groupings based on similarities of form and structure was the cornerstone of ethnological inquiries. Since the eighteenth century, naturalists, medical practitioners and explorers had been developing increasingly sophisticated modes for observing and interpreting the natural world and its inhabitants. Early ethnologists such as James Cowles Prichard and William Lawrence built their analytical frameworks for studying humans on these well-established observational traditions. Taking their contributions as its focus, this chapter seeks to enlarge our understanding of early ethnological practices by looking at how researchers at the beginning of the nineteenth century based their observational techniques for studying human diversity on natural history, anatomy and physiology, and travel writing. Prichard and Lawrence are good examples for this examination because their research utilized aspects from all three traditions.
Prichard is a difficult case because he has traditionally been positioned as a passive observer who anthologized the reports of others. However, a close examination of his work shows that he was a skilled scientific observer who actively utilized a highly sophisticated methodology for collecting, analysing and representing his ethnographic material.