Study of a Human Society

Honestly, I never heard of the word “ethnography” before starting my Travel Writing Rhetoric class for my English Masters degree. I had to Google the meaning of the word, and according to it means, “The branch of anthropology that deals with the scientific description of individual human societies.” I would agree that SOME travel writing deals with ethnography. Yes, sometimes travel writing does deal with description of individual cultures; other times it is just a journal, for fun, or just because. We were assigned to read a section of Joan Pau Rubies’, “Travel Writing and Ethnography” for class. I found it difficult to understand. Essentially, the point of his work was to explain how much travel writing deals with ethnography, “European travelers, by recording their observations of other lands and peoples, became essential contributors to the growth of a new, empirically informed discourse about both man and nature.”  Here is another good quote from the section that explain ethnography and ethnology:

“Although the emergence of an academic discourse based on comparison, classification, and historical lineage called ethnology is a nineteenth-century phenomenon, in reality both ethnography and ethnology existed within the humanistic disciplines of early modern Europe in the primary forms of travel writing, cosmography, and history, which often informed specific debates about the capabilities and origins of the American Indians, the definition of ‘natural man,’ the influence of climate on national characteristics, or the existence of stages in the history of civilization. On the back of the growth of travel writing both ethnography and ethnology were, in fact, crucial to the Enlightenment Project of a world-historical science of mankind.”

I understand what Rubies is saying, but I don’t know if I necessarily agree with it completely. I think travel writing was inadvertently crucial to the Enlightenment Project, but that isn’t want it its initial purpose was. I think when historians reviewed history, travel writing became a form of ethnography, but its initial purposes were either for fun, journal, or for governmental purposes.


2 thoughts on “Study of a Human Society

  1. jessicadaviswrites says:

    I, too, was a little confused the first time I read Rubies text. Ethnography was more relevant when the world was still being “conquered.” Travel was not for pleasure at this time, but more for exploration. To see what was new, and report back to their King/Queen.

    Today, I would agree that travel writing deals more with the pleasure of having travel experiences, although some writers have ulterior motives.

    As I said before, I think these first posts are a great introduction to who you are as a travel writer and what you want out of your travels. Since you do not agree with Rubies, what do you focus on in your travels? Do you look at the environment, the people, the customs? Something to think about: How do you want your audience to take away from your writings?

    • That is a great question. To answer you, maybe I don’t FULLY know what I want the audience to take away from my writings. I think overall I want people to see that traveling all over the world is possible, no matter how tight your budget. I also want to promote traveling and why it is such a positive and wonderful experience. I hope people feel my passion as I explain my past travels and how I was able to do them, and then have the urge to start to plan their own trip.


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