Ethnology is a branch of anthropology that focuses on the comparative study of human societies and cultures. It seeks to understand the similarities and differences between various groups, their customs, beliefs, social structures, and ways of life. Ethnologists analyze the characteristics of different peoples and the relationships between them, drawing on research compiled by ethnographers who study single groups through direct contact with their culture.

The term “ethnology” was coined by Adam Franz Kollár, a Hungarian historian, in 1783. He defined it as “the science of nations and peoples, or, that study of learned men in which they inquire into the origins, languages, customs, and institutions of various nations, and finally into the fatherland and ancient seats, in order to be able better to judge the nations and peoples in their own times.” Kollár’s interest in linguistic and cultural diversity was influenced by the multi-ethnic and multilingual nature of the Kingdom of Hungary and the changing political landscape of the Balkans during the gradual retreat of the Ottoman Empire.

Ethnology has several key goals, including the reconstruction of human history, the identification of cultural invariants (such as the incest taboo), and the formulation of generalizations about human nature. However, the concept of “human nature” has been criticized by various philosophers since the 19th century, including Hegel, Marx, and proponents of structuralism.

The development of ethnology has been shaped by the exploration and colonization of the world by European powers, particularly since the 15th century. This process led to the formulation of new notions of the Western world (the Occident) and the concept of the “Other,” which was often associated with the term “savages.” This dualistic view of civilization versus barbarity is a classic opposition that is constitutive of ethnocentrism, a concept that has been widely shared across cultures.

The progress of ethnology, exemplified by Claude Lévi-Strauss’s structural anthropology, has led to the criticism of linear progress and the pseudo-opposition between “societies with histories” and “societies without histories.” Lévi-Strauss sought to discover universal invariants in human society, chief among which he believed to be the incest taboo. However, the claims of cultural universalism have been criticized by various social thinkers, including Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Althusser, and Deleuze.

Ethnology has developed along different paths in various parts of the world. In the United States, cultural anthropology has become the dominant approach, while in Great Britain, social anthropology has taken precedence. However, the distinction between these terms is increasingly blurry, and ethnology is sometimes conceived of as any comparative study of human groups.

The French school of ethnology has been particularly influential in the development of the discipline since the early 1950s. Key figures in this movement include Claude Lévi-Strauss, Paul Rivet, Marcel Griaule, Germaine Dieterlen, and Jean Rouch. These scholars have made significant contributions to the study of kinship, mythology, religion, and social structures across various cultures.

Ethnologists employ a range of research methods, including participant observation, interviews, and the analysis of historical and archaeological data. They also draw on insights from other disciplines, such as linguistics, psychology, and sociology, to gain a more comprehensive understanding of human societies and cultures.

In recent decades, ethnology has evolved to address contemporary issues such as globalization, migration, and cultural change. Ethnologists study how communities adapt to new environments, negotiate their identities, and interact with other groups in an increasingly interconnected world. They also examine the impact of technological advancements, economic development, and political transitions on traditional ways of life.

Moreover, ethnology has played a crucial role in challenging stereotypes, promoting cultural understanding, and advocating for the rights of indigenous and marginalized communities. By providing a nuanced and contextualized view of human diversity, ethnologists contribute to the development of more inclusive and equitable societies.