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Ethnology (from the Greek ethnos, meaning "people") is the branch of anthropology that compares and analyses the origins, distribution, technology, religion, language, and social structure of the racial or national divisions of humanity. Compared to ethnography, the study of single groups through direct contact with the culture, ethnology takes the research that ethnographers have compiled and then compares and contrasts different cultures.

Among its goals are the reconstruction of human history, and the formulation of cultural invariants, such as the alleged incest taboo and culture change, and the formulation of generalizations about "human nature", a concept which has been criticized since the 19th century by various philosophers (Hegel, Marx, structuralism, etc.).

In some parts of the world (like the USA and Great Britain) it is also referred to as cultural or social anthropology, however ethnology is not only a single part of cultural anthropology. Ethnology has been considered as a scientific discipline since the late 18th century but can be generally applied to any comparative study of human groups.

The 15th century "discovery of America" had an important role in the new Occidental interest toward the Other, often qualified as "savages", which was either seen as a brutal barbarian or as a "noble savage". Thus, civilization was opposed in a dualist manner to barbary, a classic opposition constitutive of the even more commonly-shared ethnocentrism. The progress of ethnology, for example with Claude Lévi-Strauss's structural anthropology, led to the criticism of conceptions of a linear progress, or the pseudo-opposition between "societies with histories" and "societies without histories", judged too dependent on a limited view of history as constituted by accumulative growth.

Lévi-Strauss often referred to Montaigne's essay on anthropophagy as an early example of "ethnology". Lévi-Strauss aimed, through a structural method, at discovering universal invariants in human society, which he thought was the prohibition of the incest. However, the claims of such cultural universalism have been criticized by various 19th and 20th century social thinkers, among the more important include: Marx, Nietzsche, Michel Foucault, Althusser and Deleuze.


See also

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