Ethnology in Northern Europe:

Some Reflections from the Fringe

Reginald Byron



The questions that I am going to address in this essay occur to me as important ones because I am on the fringes of your discipline, an outsider looking in. I also recognise, and share, the interests and concerns that come with being a native field researcher in a society were the notion of detached, disinterested scholarship is being questioned. What I see is a discipline unsure of itself, being pulled in certain directions but not at all clear as to where it wants to end up. It would be presumptuous of me to attempt a critique of your discipline, since I was not trained as you have been trained, and I have moved in a different scholarly world that overlaps yours only to a limited extent. I can, however, describe something about my scholarly world, and suggest some possible relationships to yours, in the hope that this might provoke some debate about the current concerns of your discipline and what its future might be.

I take it that the main inspiration of Northern European ethnology, which guided its development for so long, was the gathering-together and pedagogical interpretation of the national heritage. While this was to some extent driven by disinterested scholarship---in that it was a a field of intrinsic interest to its practitioners whom no one would suggest were allowing themselves to be consciously manipulated---it must now be seen, as we all recognise, as serving the interests of nation-building. This modernist project seems to have withered as the needs of the nation-state to legitimate itself and to supply a persuasive narrative which distinguishes the culture of its people from the that of nation next door has itself gradually declined in immediacy and importance over the last---thankfully peaceful---half-century. As the impetus for nation-building has run out of steam, your discipline has become more international in outlook. This openness has had the consequence that in the last quarter of a century Northern European ethnology has been buffeted by forces from two different directions: first, it has felt the effects of postmodernist critiques, which have mostly emanated from the United States; and second, it has begun to be challenged by ideas about multiculturalism, which have again been imported mainly from the United States.

My vantage-point suggests that these forces could be starting to drive Northern European ethnology in very much the same direction that American cultural anthropology has been driven in the last thirty years. The discipline which is now called "cultural anthropology" in the United States was more often called "ethnology" until the 1930s, and sometimes still is. Unlike British social anthropology, which was always firmly oriented toward research in places well beyond the shores of the British Isles (only in the 1970s did field research "at home" begin to become generally accepted for the award of doctoral degrees in British universities), ethnology in the United States was initially concerned with the documentation of the peoples and cultures of the American continent; and it continues predominantly to be an "at home" kind of anthropology. The main theoretical foundations of the discipline in America were laid by Franz Boas, who had been trained in Germany, among whose teachings was the very European idea that local populations are to be understood as historically-conditioned wholes, whose geist was made manifest in their material and cognitive products; an idea not very far removed from the ethos which informed, and still informs, the practice of ethnology in Northern Europe.

Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead, two of Boas's many pupils, developed the cognitive angle much further in a psychological direction; their tendency to equate geist with "culture", and to approach "culture" as a psycho-cognitive phenomenon, was eventually to have an enormous influence on American cultural anthropology, which continues into the present day. This tendency was and is combined with a passion for taxonomy: for creating idealized models of "cultures" or "sub-cultures", each neatly distinguished from the next and classified as if they were species of butterflies in a museum display-case. What this came to mean in practice, were two things: (1) a collapsing of what we would nowadays call social identities (in the plural) into cultural identity (in the singular), and (2) a heavy emphasis on delineating difference as opposed to similarity. American doctoral students were---and still are---expected to go out into the field and find "a culture" or "a sub-culture", write up its distinguishing psycho-cognitive characteristics (if nothing else), and put it in the museum.

Although Boas was interested in the material manifestations of culture, this branch of American cultural anthropology never really took off in the way that the psycho-cognitive branch did, and after the 1930s it was not where the theoretical action was. Since every doctoral student who had successfully completed a dissertation in cultural anthropology could be presumed to have found "a culture" to describe, the marks of distinction which led to a job at Berkeley or Bloomington eventually came to be awarded for the theorization of that culture or some aspect of it.

Indeed, by the 1970s, ethnographic or technical description, no matter how interesting or well done, was deemed unworthy of high-value publication. For a contribution to be accepted by one of the three or four major American journals or university presses, its treatment had to be theoretically innovative. Today, largely for this reason, the material culture branch of American anthropology has been largely abandoned to the archaeologists, and what remains of the anthropological interest in the material is concerned not with the physical and distributional properties of objects themselves, or the technical details of their manufacture and use, but rather with the psycho-cognitive problem of what these objects symbolise to the people of whose culture they are a part, an approach which allows the analyst to draw upon the latest developments in cultural theory.

There is a personal story here, some of which you will need to know to make sense of my viewpoint on these matters, and what I am going to say next. I grew up in the United States, and did an undergraduate degree there; unusually, it was a mixture of American-style cultural anthropology and British-style social anthropology. Thirty years ago, I left the United States to study social anthropology in London, and I have lived and taught in Britain and Ireland ever since. Until 1990, I was mainly preoccupied with research on maritime societies on this side of the North Atlantic, and for about ten years---off and on--I was interested in the fishing villages along the west coast of Sweden.

After more than twenty years away from the United States, going back only infrequently and briefly, I began to explore the possibility of doing some serious fieldwork there as a more-or-less native researcher. This interest was sparked by what I was reading in the American press and in American scholarly writing about the place where I happened to be living at the time. That place was Belfast, Northern Ireland. These interpretations of what Belfast and its people were like, and what was going on there, and what the essential nature was of the nation it was supposed to belong to, were at odds with my own experience of it as an ordinary resident of the place. I became curious to know why.

Back in the United States, as a researcher, the answer began gradually to take shape. The discursive world that I encountered in the United States in 1990 was strikingly different from the one I had known 25 years earlier. Then, people spoke of Americanness, and the ethos was that of the melting pot. Now, the idea of Americanness has fallen into disrepute, and the ideology was one of multiculturalism. As an American, I was now told, by those who wrote about me (and people like me), that I was supposed to embody "a culture" to which I was meant to feel an affinity. This "culture" was not that of Americanness, which is merely an illusion, a now-discredited hegemonic project, but rather the authentic culture of my ancestors. I was meant to be a hyphenated something-American, and to derive my sense of being-in-the-world, my essential nature, my geist, from the embodied essence that I had somehow inherited from my nineteenth-century immigrant ancestors.

My problem was, quite simply, that I did not know which of my ancestral essences was being talked about. Like most Americans of old-stock European ancestry, I am a mongrel. If I cannot be just an American, since is this really only a mystification, then I am an English-American, a Scots-American, a German-American, and perhaps a little Irish-American. But if I am not allowed to be all of these, which one am I? And what am I supposed to feel? Which geist inhabits me, and how do I recognise its manifestations? Or is my geist buried so deep---in my unconscious psyche, or my unreflectable-upon habitus, or my obscured-to-me-by-hegemonic-smokescreens positional relation to capitalism or colonialism---that it is detectable only by a qualified diagnostician, a sort of cultural psychoanalyst? I wondered if there was something wrong with me in not being able to see in myself or in my experience the things that were being asserted about me; or whether there might be something questionable about the assumptions and methods of the people who presumed to write about me.

I was, at the time, working on a research project in Albany, New York, a city which has one of the greatest concentrations of people of Irish ancestry in the United States. What I concluded from this, after talking to more than 500 people and interviewing them repeatedly and at length over two years about the nature of their Irishnness, and working through this data for another four or five years, was that nearly all of them were pretty much like me. They too were of mixed pedigree, and they were not, by any measurable criterion that a competent sociologist would regard as reasonably respectable, ethnically Irish-American; they were as unethnically (or ethnically) American as I am. If ethnically-distinctive Irish-Americanness does not register significantly on any scale of measurement that I could devise in Albany, working with a fairly large sample of people in a place where people of Irish ancestry were unusually thick on the ground, it is unlikely that it exists in measurable quantities anywhere in the United States. Yet there are dozens of books and monographs on "the Irish-Americans" written by people who are apparently reputable within their fields of cultural anthropology, ethnic studies, and social history, which claim them to be a clearly-bounded and culturally-distinct ethnie, and, nowadays, every schoolteacher's textbook on multiculturalism contains a chapter on "the Irish-Americans" as a so-called "ethnic group."

Were my findings somehow unrepresentative? The United States Census shows, in the case of people who have Irish ancestry in their pedigrees, that there are no significant statistical salients in the intermarriage rates between these Irish-ancestry people and those of English, Scots, Welsh, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Finnish, and anglophone French ancestry. Within this field, people intermarry freely and at rates which would not be any different if these choices were made totally at random and their spouses' ancestral backgrounds were completely unknown to them. This has certainly been the case since 1980 (which was the first time the U. S. Census asked an "ethnicity" question; see Alba 1990, Lieberson and Waters 1988), and according to my own genealogical investigations in Albany, probably had been the case over most of the preceding half-century (Byron 1999: ch. 5). In recent decades, intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants, and marriages between people of old-stock European ancestry, European Jews, and the later-arriving Italians and Poles have also been rapidly declining towards the point where, soon, no preference for in-marriage will any longer be detectable; these rates have already declined to this point in some parts of the United States.

After 150 years of intermarriage, approaching 100 percent of those people having Irish ancestry whose forebears arrived in America in the mid-nineteenth century are of mixed pedigree and, potentially, could have eight great-grandparents each of a different European immigrant origin (several of my informants in Albany had six or seven different ancestries in their pedigrees). The intermarriage rate is the most intimate and accurate gauge of the strength of any given ethnic boundary, and of the existence and effectiveness of any social sanctions which might have the effect of encouraging or discouraging boundary-crossing. The evidence can mean only one thing: that the descendants of Europe's nineteenth-century immigrants to the United States now form one single marriage pool. The "ethnic" similarities and differences that these people might recognize in a potential life-partner are not important enough to register in the aggregate. These "ethnic" categories, then, are not distinct ethnies or bounded groups in any sociologically or culturally meaningful sense: to assert that they are is simply to ignore an overwhelming weight of evidence to the contrary.

One does not have to subscribe to assimilationism as a political ideology to accept, on the evidence of the U. S. Census, that there is a great deal of merging-together going on in American society, and that this merging-together is something more than just somebody's biassed ideological claim. The extent of intermarriage within the population, and of its acceleration and ever-widening compass over the generations, are facts that are highly inconvenient to multiculturalism. Multiculturalism, as a political philosophy, is tenable only on the assumption that a discontinuous set of cultures actually exists, and that the boundaries of each are, in principle, definable. Its programme is that each culture be recognised as equally authentic and worthy, as the source of its members' identity and sense of being-in-the-world, and so deserving of its place in the sun. The Census data on ancestral mixing, however, reveals assumptions about enduring discontinuities of "culture" to be extremely unsafe. It is no longer possible to sort most people of European ancestry into pigeonholes as hyphenated something-Americans.

The psycho-cognitive interpretation of culture, as it was developed by Franz Boas's pupils, was elastic and ambiguous enough to have left itself wide open to methodological and political manipulation. This saved it from extinction under the postmodernist onslaught and gave it a new lease on life in the multiculturalist discourse. The price of its survival, however, was the loss of its integrity as the scientific concept that Boas intended it to be. Generation upon generation of American cultural anthropologists were taught that a culture is an ideational system; and that its is both internal and external to the individual. Since culture is shared, it is a collective phenomenon; since it is collective, it is not reducible to the individual.

No individual contrary case challenges the validity of model, because the model, if rigorously generated in the first place according to the traditional rules of procedure, is based upon large number of datum points. Where these datum points cluster together in the middle of a bell curve, we are justified in making some generalization or positing an ideal-typical case, but in nature there are always outlying datum points that we are usually entitled to discard, though they may often have interesting features and ought to provoke us to ask further questions. For most of the twentieth century, it could safely be assumed that these bell curves were always there, behind any statement than an ethnologist or anthropologist might make about a cultural belief or practice, if not in the article one happened to be reading, then no further away than in the author's doctoral dissertation, if one wanted to take the trouble to consult it.

In the United States, one can no longer take this for granted. Theoretical innovation is eagerly sought: that is what brings distinction within the profession. Theoretical innovation, however, has turned out largely to have been at the expense of methodological rigour. Those theorists of the last quarter of the twentieth century who held centre-stage in American cultural anthropology (not all of these theorists were Americans, or cultural anthropologists) did not always feel it necessary to reveal exactly what distributions of what sorts of data were in the mysterious black boxes from which their exciting new models of culture emerged. Somewhere along the line, attitudes toward evidence began to change. Distributions of datum points did not seem to play an obvious part in what one heard and read about these new approaches to culture. Simultaneously, postmodernist critiques were casting suspicion on the notion that such data could actually have any legitimacy anyway, because empiricism was tainted by its association with positivism and could never be entirely value-free. The rise of multiculturalism played its part too, by encouraging the analyst to stress the unity and uniqueness of each competing cultural category, and the distinctness of its boundaries. In time, it became increasingly accepted in American cultural anthropology that the bell curves could be dispensed with. Books were, and continue to be, published by reputable university presses whose authors purport to represent something about the deep essence of "the Other's culture" which is based on nothing more than selected fragments of conversation between the anthropologist and his or her informants, with no information at all being given on how and why those particular words of those particular informants were chosen. Apparently, the selected words of even just one single interlocutor were considered, by some influential people, to be sufficient to demonstrate and interpret cultural difference.

One is entitled, I think, to have reservations about where these turns of events have taken American cultural anthropology. For if we remove from the Boasian idea of culture the obligation to produce validating evidence which can be demonstrated to be representative, then limitless horizons open up. The idea of culture and the subject-matter of cultural anthropology comes to mean, and encompass, anything and everything. Methodologically, one can proceed merely by giving convenient illustration of whatever point one has decided, in advance, that one wishes to make. "Culture" becomes a perfect tool for speculative theorizing. The village, the dialect-area, or the population of folktales and windmills is no longer the methodological horizon. Not only ethnies, cultures, and nations, but seemingly any abstraction---capitalism, modernity, even history itself---can be asserted to have a geist which collapses untold billions of episodes of human agency into a thing whose essential character can be established, it seems, on pretty much whatever basis the imaginative theorist likes, and then turned round to "explain" the thoughts and acts of individual human beings.

If indeed it is the case that we, as anthropologists and ethnologists, in Europe as in America, failed to notice---or care enough about---the methodological sleight-of-hand that was going on while were were dazzled by the theoretical fireworks, and distracted by the criticisms of postmodernism and the political pressures brought about by multiculturalism, we have only ourselves to blame for losing our way. We lionized them, bought their books, quoted them in our papers, and made heroes of the theorists of the 1970s and 1980s and 1990s along with those earlier armchair thinkers whose work had been ignored in the days when the notion of validating evidence had counted for something.

Not nearly often enough did we demand of these theorists and their followers what was always demanded of graduate students a generation or two ago: to prove it, to tell us exactly how many of what sort of people they spoke to, or how many pieces of what kind of data they collected, and to dispute with them what their correlations might have indicated and what weight of interpretation their data could safely have borne. If we have not defended our discipline against the loss of its only distinguishing feature---the obligation to produce demonstrably representative evidence in support of our correspondingly necessarily limited statements about culture---then we too have joined the ranks of the philosophers, psychoanalysts, and partisans. We can hardly complain if other people start talking about cultural theory, or if they use the concept of culture in sweeping, reifying or politically-loaded ways that we don't like, or if our pride is hurt because all these other people who are nowadays talking about "culture" don't seem to pay any special attention to us any more.

These remarks mostly concern American cultural anthropology, not Nordic ethnology. They are provoked, firstly, by my difficulties with what the practitioners of American cultural anthropology are now saying about me as an individual human being; and, secondly by my scholarly difficulty with reconciling what the literature says about "Irish-American ethnicity" and the evidence derived from my study of 500 people of Irish ancestry in Albany and from the U. S. Census. It seems to me that both things are accounted for by a general move away from the harsh discipline of bell curves. This now allow things to be construed, much too often, in ways that either cannot be readily substantiated, and so ultimately depend on nothing more substantial than the author's powers of persuasion; or can be readily demonstrated not to have been based on representative evidence, either because no effort was made to collect it in the first place, or because it was tactically omitted from the story the author wanted to tell.

If any of what I have been saying sounds uncomfortably familiar to you as Nordic ethnologists, then your discipline may be at a crossroads; a point at which you should be asking yourselves some searching questions. You ought, perhaps, to be asking yourselves whether there is, or should be, some absolute, defining, and non-negotiable criterion of what constitutes a defensible ethnological statement about culture. You cannot reclaim ownership over the concept of "culture" itself, and so define the discipline in terms of its subject-matter. It is too late for that, if it was ever really possible. But it may not be too late to redefine your discipline in terms of its methods. American cultural anthropologists still cling to the notion of fieldwork, which is now strongly identified with participant observation and not much else. In practice, however, this no longer means very much if acceptable dissertations about culture can rely entirely upon introspection, impressions, and anecdotal illustration. This is a big weakness, which diminishes the authority of what cultural anthropologists have to say about culture vis-a-vis the other disciplines in the United States which also deal with culture as their subject-matter.

One possibility, if it is still possible in your discipline, may be to reaffirm the requirement that every statement an ethnologist (or anyone else) makes about culture ought to have a demonstrable bell curve behind it. Were you to do this, it would strengthen your discipline enormously. It would put it in a strategic position to mount a powerful challenge to slipshod thinking by putting to rigorous tests and field-trials a good deal of the speculative theorizing about "culture" which now crowds the scholarly landscape. Otherwise, your fate may be to get crowded out.



Alba, Richard. 1990. Ethnic Identity: The Transformation of White America. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Byron, Reginald. 1999. Irish America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lieberson, Stanley and Mary Waters. 1988. From Many Strands: Ethnic and Racial Groups in Contemporary America. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.




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