Ethnography and Missionaries
Continuing on the value of ethnography, today I spent some time going through the 3-volume Conquests of the Cross, a history of Christian mission up to nearly the close of the nineteenth century. The volumes are filled with extracts from missionary letters, diaries and reports and also have hundreds of detailed line drawings. While the focus is missionaries and their activities, there is also much ethnography (in prose and image) which reminded me that many early ethnographic accounts were written by missionaries who were often the first outsiders on the scene.
I was also remined of the work of my advisor in graduate school, Raoul Naroll, on research methods and missionary reports. Much concerned with trustworthiness of information (“anthropology is about trustworthty information for untrustworthy sources”), he once did a study comparing missionary and ethnographer reports on the same communities. He found there was usually much agreement and only when it came to kinship, which required technical knowledge, was the ethnographer data clearly fuller and the missionary data more prone to error. This is not surpising as Naroll also found in other research that ethnography was fuller and more accurate when the ethnographer spoke the indigenous language and spent more than a year in the field. Missionaries often did and continue to do both.
Posted: March 29th, 2007 under Uncategorized.