From the Desk of Han F. Vermeulen: The Origins of Ethnography

The following is a post from Han F. Vermeulen, author of Before Boas: The Genesis of Ethnography and Ethnology in the German Enlightenment (Nebraska, 2015). Vermeulen is an alumnus of Leiden University, The Netherlands, and a research associate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle (Saale), Germany.

Before Boas makes a strong case for claiming that the intellectual traditions known as ethnography and ethnology did not first emerge in the nineteenth century but, contrary to established views, were defined and practiced by German-speaking historians in eighteenth-century Imperial Russia, Enlightenment Germany, and Imperial Austria. Many scholars across disciplines and educated lay readers would find this surprising, since the discipline of anthropology is usually understood to have emerged in the second half of the nineteenth century with social evolutionists like Adolf Bastian, Edward Burnett Tylor, Lewis Henry Morgan, or Nikolai Miklukho-Maclay. The historians Peter Marshall and Glyndwr Williams concluded their study of eighteenth-century British perspectives of the world, The Great Map of Mankind, with the remark that, “Anthropology and ethnology did not emerge as recognizable disciplines until the mid-nineteenth century” (1982: 294). This view is canonic among anthropologists both in the East and the West.

Contrary to this scholarly consensus, I wrote Before Boas to argue that ethnography and ethnology were invented and practiced by German-speaking historians such as Gerhard Friedrich Müller (1705-83), August Ludwig Schlözer (1735-1809), and Adam Franz Kollár (1718-83), who coined a science of peoples and nations designated as Völker-Beschreibung (1740, i.e., ethnography), ethnographia (1767-71), Völkerkunde (1771-75, i.e., ethnology), and ethnologia (1781-83). It is notable that the German concepts appeared earlier than the neo-Greek ones.

Both historians and naturalists practiced the subject as Völker-Beschreibung (ethnography) during the Second Bering or Second Kamchatka Expedition (1733-43), leading through northern Asia to northern America, and later research expeditions through the Russian Empire. Interestingly, the other ethnos-concepts were first used in academies in Göttingen (Germany) and Vienna (Austria). German-speaking historians systematized an ethnological way of thinking in multicultural Russian, German (Holy Roman), and Austrian empires. With the birth of these terms, and the associated research program they delineated, these historians positioned themselves in a debate about the origins of, and relations between, peoples and nations worldwide.

While ethnography profited from the colonial context of Russian expansion, the colonial administrators seem to have largely ignored the foreign reports. This confirms Talal Asad’s conjecture that “the role of anthropolo­gists in maintaining structures of imperial domination has, despite slogans to the contrary, usually been trivial.” The reports, drawings, maps, and artifacts were filed and stored in the Kunstkamera, founded at St. Petersburg in 1714, which served as the museum of the Academy of Sciences, established in 1725.

Historically, ethnology developed alongside anthropology, a subject emerging from the Renaissance in the wake of Humanism: the concept first surfaced in 1501 in Leipzig and 1533 in Milan. From 1735 on, physical anthropology emerged in the work of naturalists and anatomists such as Carl Linnaeus (1707-78), Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-88), and Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840). The term “anthropology” was still polyvalent and free-floating when Blumenbach appropriated it in 1795 to denote Buffon’s “natural history of man.” This was the precursor of nineteenth-century physical anthropology, often just briefly called “anthropology.”

By contrast, ethnology emanated from history under the influence of historical linguistics and as a complement to geography. Encouraged by the philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716), historical-comparative linguistics provided the basis for most ethnographic studies conducted in Central Europe and Northern Asia during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As Leibniz, Müller, and Schlözer argued, languages rather than customs provided the basis for classifying peoples and nations. Thus, ethnography and ethnology developed parallel to the social philosophy of Immanuel Kant, Johann Gottfried Herder, and the Scottish moral philosophers, as well as to both physical and philosophical anthropology to define an entirely different basis for understanding peoples and nations.

Map of Müller’s 10-year journey through Siberia.

Apart from the language barrier, historians and sociologists of science have largely ignored these developments for two main reasons. First, influenced by West-European maritime expansion from the 1500s on, the scholarly interest in Western humanities including history and anthropology is largely focused on developments in overseas colonies. In comparison, overland expansion in Europe and Asia has received much less attention. Second, due to two world wars and the Cold War, German scholarship suffered from a lack of interest and Soviet archives were largely inaccessible to Western scholars. The only exception was Soviet-GDR scholarly cooperation, which from 1958 on, resulted in valuable editions of German manuscripts resting in Russian archives. However, Müller’s ethnographic texts were first published in German in 2003 and 2010, in Russian in 2009. In addition, Schlözer’s seminal analysis of the ethnographic and linguistic descriptions produced in the Russian Empire, Allgemeine Nordische Geschichte (1771), appeared under a different title as a volume in a series about world history. Moreover, Kollár’s first use and definition of ethnologia as the “science of peoples and nations” (notitia gentium populorumque) (1783), previously addressed by a Slovakian scholar in 1978, remained unknown in the West until after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

The German ethnographic tradition influenced scholars in Russia, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, and Bohemia, as well as in France, the United States, and Great Britain. The concepts were quickly adopted, especially in neighboring countries, such as the German-speaking parts of France, Switzerland, Bohemia and Hungary, but also in the Netherlands and possibly Poland and Denmark.

The most interesting result of Before Boas is that one has to focus on historical texts, rather than on philosophical or natural-historical treatises, to find the roots of the pan-European discourse on ethnography and ethnology. One also has to abandon the common assumption that anthropology as a general study of humankind included ethnology from the beginning. It was only later, from 1879 onward, that the American four-field approach joined studies previously developed separately (physical anthropology, ethnology, linguistics, and archaeology) under a common disciplinary label.

Nevertheless, the American reception of the ethnological research program proceeded more rapidly than in other parts of the English-speaking world. By 1797, the naturalist Benjamin Smith Barton (1766-1815) had adopted the German program when publishing his New Views of the Origin of the Tribes and Nations of America in Philadelphia (2nd ed. 1798). In 1803, he was probably the author of the appendix “Ethnological Information Desired” added by Thomas Jefferson to the aims of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06). Following the 1803 Louisiana Purchase that had almost doubled the territory of the young republic, this expedition set out to explore the western parts of the United States. Barton’s list of “ethnological information desired” echoed the list of 923 queries Müller had compiled in 1740 for expedition members to describe all peoples of Siberia as comprehensively as possible during the 1730s and early 1740s.

Map of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

It was due to Franz Boas (1858-1942), the founding father of modern anthropology, to extend the ethnological and anthropological program he had absorbed during his formative years in Germany and develop the four-field approach in anthropology in new directions. Boas added historical relativism and an anti-racist agenda to what was basically a historical research program for investigating the origins of, and relations between, tribes, peoples, nations, and states around the world.

A topic for debate, of course, is to what extent the German ethnographic program differed from earlier Spanish, French, Portuguese or Dutch reports about American and African peoples written by explorers, missionaries, and historians. Were the German ethnographies more systematic, comprehensive, or empirical than the Spanish accounts of Native Americans? If not, why did not Spanish historians develop a pueblo-logia? German-speaking historians and naturalists were part of a Protestant network within the Republic of Letters in Europe and the USA, including German, Balto-Slavic, Scandinavian, Dutch, Scottish, and Swiss scholars and engineers working in the Russian Empire. They may have had a different perspective from Roman Catholics, and could build on the Scientific Revolution’s empiricism and the Enlightenment’s universalism.

Whatever the case, Gerhard Friedrich Müller’s research program to describe all peoples of Siberia comprehensively, in order to compare them among each other and with peoples of other regions, was intellectually compelling. By the end of the eighteenth century, Russia had a number of detailed ethnographic studies few other countries of Europe could match. The ethnographic interest in Russia led to the world’s first ethnographic museum, created under this name in St. Petersburg in 1836, the founding of an academic chair in ethnography at the Academy of Sciences in 1837, and the first Geographical Society to include an ethnographic section from the beginning (1845).

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