MultiSession Ethnography, Ethnology, and Science, 1500-1800, Part 2: Traditions and Genres for Observation, Analysis, and Synthesis

AHA Session 227
Sunday, January 8, 2012: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Mississippi Room (Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers)
Karen Ordahl Kupperman, New York University
David Harris Sacks, Reed College

Session Abstract

This is the second of three linked panels on ‘Ethnography, Ethnology and Science, 1500-1800’. It focuses on the path of ethnological information from observation, to analysis and, finally, to interpretation and synthesis. Early modern science and travel shared a preoccupation with empirical observations. Equally, both were practices within which preconceptions and traditions were also relevant. Of particular importance to the papers in this panel are the discourses and textual genres within which travellers attempted to describe and understand exotic peoples. Together, they highlight the multiple epistemological frameworks and genres available for those who sought to produce ethnographic writing. 

Daniel Carey’s paper explores connections between methods for describing exotic others and two other spheres of activity: observing and describing the inhabitants of Europe, and observing nature. The importance of evaluating the morality of customs, and in distinguishing between those that were civil and savage, was impressed upon young men engaged in Continental travel. In addition, methods of observation, the rhetorical conventions of the travel account, and the distinctive moral voice in these texts were derived in part from traditions of natural history writing.

Richard Raiswell’s paper shows how a pair of conceptual frameworks, empirical and moral, overlapped in a single ethnological text of the mid-seventeenth century. This allowed its author to construct a text that served two sets of assumptions and purposes. For him, empirical observation was a way of garnering information to fit into an existing tradition, rather than a mode of suspending disbelief.

Hugh Glenn Cagle’s paper expands our understanding of early modern maps, showing how a group of early sixteenth-century manuscript examples facilitated a relational understanding of ethnology, geography, botany and natural history through the use of a medium that was both textual and visual. The way in which such maps fully integrated ethnological information into a holistic geography challenges the traditional distinction between ethnography and science in the study of early modern knowledge.