Analysing the English Collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum

Ethnology, Folk-lore and Popular Art

Plate 2 of Beatrice Blackwood's paper 'Ethnology, Folk-lore and Popular Art'

Plate 2 of Beatrice Blackwood's paper 'Ethnology, Folk-lore and Popular Art'

The introduction to Beatrice Blackwood's article 'Ethnology, Folk-lore and Popular Art' in the Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society is transcribed here because it is the best indication of Blackwood's views on anthropology and ethnology.

One of the questions frequently asked by visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum at Oxford is "Just what is meant by Ethnology?" This paper may therefore well begin with some definitions. In the first place, a difficulty arises because of a difference in the use of terms which has led to some confusion as to the relation between Ethnology and Anthropology. Continental scholars have been accustomed to use the latter for the study of man's physical characters and the former for the study of his cultural characters. But in this country we use these two words to express a difference of approach rather than a difference of content. I take my definition from the Preface to A Hundred Years of Anthropology by T.K. Penniman:

"Anthropology is the science of Man, a master-science, embracing first, such biological studies as help to explain what Man is and was, and his place in the realm of animated nature. These shade into a second group, that of psychological studies, as is clearly shown by physiologists who have studied behaviour experimentally. And since beliefs underlie institutions, psychological studies shade into yet a third group, that which studies cultures, material and spiritual, past and present. All of these must be studied in connexion with the organic and inorganic environment, the medium in which man and his cultures develop.
Ethnology is the application of any or all of the methods of Anthropology to the comparative study of races or peoples, a race ... being distinguished by physical characters, and a people ... being distinguished by cultural characters."

Thus broadly defined, ethnology will be seen to include the comparative study of all aspects of the life and culture of all the peoples of the earth at all stages of their history, past and present. As regards the branch of ethnology which deals comparatively with man as a member of the animal kingdom, that is to say the ethnological side of physical anthropology, no limitation of this comprehensive definition is desirable or even possible. For example, the physical type of the peoples of Europe, both in prehistoric times and at the present day, concerns the ethnologist as much as that of the present African Negro or the aborigines of Tasmania who became extinct during the last century. But in the realm of cultural anthropology a division of labour has been tacitly agreed upon between the ethnologist and the historian, whereby the latter takes for his special province the recorded past of the civilized areas of the world. The ethnologist depends on the historian for material from these areas which he can use in his comparative and analytical studies of cultural characters. For areas without written history, ethnologists have methods of reconstructing history when necessary for cultural or racial comparisons or analyses.

Folklore is defined in The Handbook of Folk-Lore, by C.S. Burne:

"The word folk-lore - literally 'the learning of the people' - .... has established itself as the generic term under which the traditional beliefs, customs, stories, songs and sayings current among backward peoples, or retained by the uncultured classes of more advanced peoples, are comprehended and included ... it covers everything which makes part of the mental equipment of the folk as distinguished from their technical skill. It is not the form of the plough that attracts the attention of the folk-lorist, but the rites practised by the ploughman when putting it into the soil; not the make of the net or the harpoon, but the taboos observed by the fishermen at sea: not the architecture of the bridge or the dwelling, but the sacrifice which accompanies its erection and the social life of those who use it." [p. 1]

To this G.L. Gomme's Folk-Lore as an Historical Science adds:

"The materials of folk-lore consist of traditional tales (so-called), and traditional customs and superstitions (so-called), the feature of both groups being that at the time of first being recorded and reduced to writing they existed only by the force of tradition." [p. 123]

Folk-lorists do not seem, however, any more than anthropologists, to be in complete agreement with regard to the scope of their subject. In W.R. Halliday's article "Folk-lore" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th edition) we read:

"To-day the scope of folk-lore includes what was deliberately excluded from the early definition, popular arts and crafts, i.e. the material as well as the intellectual culture of the peasantry. As the result of the work of the English anthropologists, Tylor, Frazer etc., who directed attention to the use of the analogies presented by the practices and beliefs of the lower cultures to illustrate and explain the superstitions and traditional customs of the European peasantry, no sharp boundary is drawn by English practice between the field of folk-lore and that of social anthropology. But although it is true that their content overlaps and that one can hardly be explored without assistance from the other the general implication of usage is towards restricting the province of folk-lore to the backward elements in civilized societies."

Here are two differences of opinion, first as to scope, and second as to content. In regard to the first, I should like, speaking as an ethnologist, to suggest that the folklorist can contribute most towards our common goal—the better understanding of humanity—by having with the ethnologist the same tacit agreement that the ethnologist has with the historian, and focussing his energies upon the study of civilized societies, taking as his special province the unrecorded elements (i.e. those handed down by oral tradition or customary practice) of the culture of those people whose recorded past is the province of the historian.

The second point, as to content, turns on the question whether the folk-lorist is to limit his field to the non-material elements of culture. If this is so, we have at once one of the differences between folk-lore and ethnology. To the ethnologist, the form of the plough is of just as much interest as the rites practised by the ploughman, since its technical details may throw light on the stage of development of the people using it, and possibly on their relations with other groups, past or present. It seems to me that the folk-lorist also will be the poorer if he excludes the arts and crafts of the "folk". Take again the case of the plough. In parts of Great Britain, such as the Gower Peninsula and the Isle of Skye, an old form of wooden plough has remained in use because, as the country people say, it is more suitable for their steep and rocky fields than the modern ones. Is this survival of a part of the material culture of times past no concern of the folk-lorist because there are no beliefs, customs or ritual connected with it?
Speaking as an ethnologist, I should like to depend on the folk-lorist for knowledge of the beliefs, customs, arts and crafts which are traditional among the "folk" of those societies we are accustomed to call civilized (by which I would understand those with a recorded past which is studied by the historian) and to offer, in return, comparative material from other forms of culture. For while the ethnologist uses all kinds of material, it is the special province of one branch of ethnology, properly distinguished as ethnography, to collect and present data from primitive [1] societies.

It will now be clear that the folk-lorist and the ethnologist often have, in their several fields, to deal with very similar material. But the emphasis will be different. Folk-beliefs or "superstitions," which are either disdained or ignored by the "cultured" and are items of academic interest to the folk-lorist, may indeed be firmly held as articles of faith by crofters or peasants in remote places; but in a primitive society corresponding beliefs would play a vital part in the life of the whole group.

To illustrate the foregoing discussion, I propose to consider very briefly some of the material available concerning the songs and dances of primitive peoples. This will serve to give some idea of the kind of comparative data the folk-lorist may obtain from the ethnologist. Similar comparative studies could be made of folk-stories, and of graphic and plastic art. ...

[1] Here I should perhaps explain that "primitive" does not mean "simple", for many of the societies thus described are highly complex. Neither does it mean "inferior". One of the first ideas of which the ethnologist has to rid himself is that the culture of "primitive" peoples is necessarily on a plane below his own. Again, to describe a culture as primitive is not to imply that it is at an early or immature stage of development. I agree whole-heartedly with Douglas and D'Harnoncourt that "our tendency to deal with unfamiliar manifestations of other cultures by describing them with one ambiguous and usually somewhat derogatory term is quite unfortunate." (Indian Art of the United States, p. 12). It is difficult, however, to find another single word or a conveniently short phrase to describe what the ethnologist means by "primitive". "Savage", which was in vogue during the nineteenth century, cannot be divorced from the idea of wildness or fierceness, quite alien to many of the peoples in question, and in any case irrelevant. Perhaps ethnologists may be allowed to use the term "primitive" if they state clearly that it is merely a convenient blanket term to include all forms of culture other than those of the great European and Oriental civilizations and their offshoots, and it will be thus used in this paper. [Editorial note: See here for a similar point made by Henry Balfour much earlier]

Another point should perhaps be made clear, although for most ethnologists the issue has been decided beyond the realms of controversy. No field worker who has lived for any length of time in a "primitive" community has any doubt of the fact that the mental processes of all human beings are fundamentally alike. The "pre-logical" stage assumed for the savage by Lévy-Bruhl and others of his school has no existence in fact. If a train of thought or reasoning, or a sequence of actions, does not conform to the investigator's or the reader's ideas of what is logical, that is because he either has not understood, or does not accept, the premisses on which it is based.

Beatrice Blackwood: 1942: 'Ethnology, Folk-Lore, and Popular Art'. Journal of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, Vol. 4, No. 3 (Dec., 1942), pp. 89-99

[N.B. boldenings not part of original paper text]

Transcribed by Alison Petch.

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