UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

The ethnological society of London 1843-1871 Careless, Virginia Ann Stockford


The Ethnological Society of London was a forerunner of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, the main body of professional anthropologists in Britain today. Some discussion of it exists in the literature, although it is not generally known in conventional histories of anthropology. It has also been particularly neglected in text-book accounts of the development of the discipline. What discussion does exist usually focusses upon the ESL's relationship with the Anthropological Society of London, a splinter group, formed in I863. The two united in 1871 to form the RAI. Studies to date have tried to account for the split in intellectual terms, looking at the different ideas the two groups held, and the reunion in structural terms, saying that financial difficulties drove the two together. This thesis, concerned with only one of the two groups, argues that the standard interpretations are not valid, since they neglect the all-important social aspect. The social composition of each group must be examined and, in particular, the members' social status. The outcome of this examination is the discovery that a primarily social explanation is most appropriate to understanding the events under consideration. This type of explanation asserts that the major forces at play were social, and they must be recognized and brought out. This is not to ignore or deny the importance of intellectual or structural features but to contend that any explanation based on either of these alone is inadequate. To this end, the thesis explores the social composition of the ESL and considers the implications of its particular makeup for its type of anthropology. At the same time a detailed description is given of the intellectual and structural aspects of the group. Thus, each facet of the Society is presented, so that all the evidence can be weighed together in deciding upon the most appropriate explanation. This treatment of the ESL serves another purpose: to illustrate the anthropological approach to history. The past is regarded as a culture distinct and different from our own, meriting careful and unbiassed study just as does a primitive culture. An ethnographic account of the group in question is given, relating it to its cultural context of Victorian England in order to interpret its behaviour correctly. It is argued that because of our close lineal relationship to Victorian England we do not therefore "know" our past, but rather are the more likely to fall prey to mistaken interpretation and biasses. We must regard our past to be as foreign to us as any strange culture, and approach it with the same caution. There is more than methodological significance in this reasoning. Finding that the past does contain other cultures opens up a whole new field for anthropological endeavour. Anthropologists can find in the past more societies to study, yielding more material for generalizations about the nature of culture and of Man. A further reason for a careful approach to this topic and this period is the implications it has for the history of anthropology. A certain picture of Nineteenth Century anthropologists is common to standard works of anthropological history, and particularly to textbooks of anthropology which purport to introduce the discipline to new students. This picture is described in the thesis and shown to be not only wrong but also Whiggish. Its consequences are to be deplored: anthropologists work with a misguided view of their past and learn an approach to history that looks for "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys". The functions of such historiography are explored here and an explanation for its persistence is offered, with reference to a Kuhnian framework of argument. This historiography is to be rejected and all the more since anthropologists especially, endeavour to avoid ethnocentrism; yet, where their ancestors are concerned, they are found indulging in it with no qualms at all. History of anthropology must be more accurate. This thesis is an attempt in that direction.

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