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What does an Ethnologist do?

By D. Jeffress
Updated Mar 02, 2024
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An ethnologist is an anthropologist who studies the similarities and differences between cultures. He or she might elect to spend time immersed in particular groups to speak with people and make observations, or review research conducted by other anthropologists to make comparisons. The primary goal of an ethnologist is to create a detailed, entirely objective report that compares important facets of two or more cultures. Research efforts can lead to a better understanding of human behavior, political organization, art, and other fundamental aspects of society.

Most professional ethnologists would agree that trying to compare all aspects of one culture against those of another is too overwhelming of a task. Ethnologists usually specialize by studying one or two cultural phenomena at a time so they can truly understand behaviors, motives, and outcomes. Most studies are designed to compare aspects of two contemporary groups or societies. Research can also be done to explain how parts of a single culture have changed since a particular time in the past.

An ethnologist usually begins his or her research by thoroughly investigating ethnographies, which are firsthand reports completed by other anthropologists who have spent months or years observing and interacting with people of a particular culture. The ethnologist might compare and contrast ethnographies that deal with religion, politics, education, art, family values, or any other subject of importance to humans. When time and funding make it possible to conduct personal ethnographies, researchers often opt to do so.

A researcher must be careful to avoid letting preconceived notions or personal opinions taint research results. In order for an ethnographic report to be meaningful it must be free from bias and written in objective language. A good report can be used and built upon by future ethnologists for many years. In addition, a report can have practical applications in efforts to identify and improve poor living conditions among certain peoples.

An individual who wants to become an ethnologist is usually required to obtain an advanced degree in cultural or social anthropology. Some professionals enter the field with degrees in related sciences, such as psychology and sociology. A new ethnologist typically begins his or her career as a research assistant at a college, a government organization, or an anthropological society, learning from established anthropologists and helping them in their work. By gaining experience and earning a solid reputation in the field, an ethnologist can choose to apply for grant money and undertake independent research projects.

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Discussion Comments

By gimbell — On Sep 06, 2011

@seHiro - I think ethnology would be a tough job to handle if you weren't utterly objective (and really, who is? Opinions are what make us human).

Take, for example, some of the African tribes you mentioned. In many of these, they do ritual scarification on small children. Your ethnology job wouldn't allow you to interfere, and you ideally should document the whole thing, but would you be able to sit and watch a bunch of people hold a little kid down and cut his face and chest all over without doing anything to stop them?

Here in the United States, of course, we would think of the scarification as horrible and abusive, but ethnologists have found that young men are accepted by their village if they have the same scar designs -- it becomes a social unity thing. In other words, interfering could change that kid's life for the worse culturally.

Still, I'm not sure I could sit and watch things like that for my job. Ethnologists are tough people.

By seHiro — On Sep 06, 2011

The kind of anthropology job I hear about the most always seems to be ethnology. For some reason it's always in some small African village, too. I guess that's because there are so many different tribes and customs in small villages in Africa that there's an endless amount of learning we could do about culture over there.

I think what ethnologists do is vitally important in preserving human culture, history and diversity before modernization ruins it all.

By malmal — On Sep 05, 2011

@hanley79 - You know, I never really thought about comparing Star Trek and anthropology. You're right, the crew of the Enterprise are pretty much all ethnologists, aren't they? At least the ones that go down to the planets are.

Of course, if the Star Trek cast are really doing ethnology proper then the show doesn't show all of the hours they spend documenting things, and of course in the fun world of science fiction there's a translator to make dealing with foreign languages easy.

The show does have an audience to amuse, after all, and if Star Trek played like anthropologists' real work, the audience would likely get bored and leave. (Unless they were anthropologists, too -- they tend to be fascinated with this kind of thing.)

If not for the chances of ethnology students being sorely disappointed by the hours of quiet, unglamorous work in between the exciting parts, I would say we should compare Star Trek and ethnological anthropology more often to get people interested in it.

By hanley79 — On Sep 04, 2011

I think ethnology sounds like such an interesting job! This is the kind of anthropology you see most frequently in movies, so I guess it's been romanticized a lot...but think about it.

Ethnologists get to go to another culture, live like one of the natives, learn every little scrap of cultural info they can about the people, and not try to change or judge them for how they live. It sounds like the most respectful way to research culture that I've ever heard of.

Hey, speaking of exploring civilizations, isn't ethnology basically what the crew of the Enterprise do in Star Trek? I mean, they go to cultures and study them, but aren't allowed to interfere with their own way of life.

It's a fine excuse to dress the main cast up in the planet of the day's traditional clothing, but it fits the ethnologist bill really well, too.

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