Sense and Sensibility.


How does one understand and describe cultural life which no longer exists? That is, life which must be reconstructed by the researcher through his conceptions and intuitive sensations of those traces of the past we turn into "sources". I would like to base this discussion on the presentation of some example material on the rural population of the 18th century. The material comes from a recently concluded study of a Danish estate region. I want to demonstrate how it is possible to get considerably closer to people's activities than one normally does in historical accounts. The analyses indicate that we do not, as generally assumed, have just one, but two lifestyles among the inhabitants of the same village. Through a description of the forms that feudal practice took, we can understand how the two kinds of life were reproduced in (conflictful) coexistence. I would then like to raise the issue of whether this description - illuminating as it may be - is also enough for us to experience the existence of the rural population in those days as something living. The identification of the inner rationale of the two kinds of practice is not the same as contextualizing them as lives that can also be heard, smelt and "seen" - which can be sensed by the reader as something much more "present". If we are to combine these two dimensions in one and the same description, ethnology may have to break with some of the prevailing norms for scientific research and rediscover forgotten aspects of its own roots in J. G. Herder's philosophy.

How to Cite

Christiansen, P. O., (1992) “Sense and Sensibility.”, Ethnologia Europaea 22(1), 127-144. doi:

Publisher Notes

  • This article was previously published by Museum Tusculanum Press.


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Palle Ove Christiansen (University of Copenhagen)



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