Phases of Ethnology in Britain.


The historiography of a subject is part of that subject; developmental phases tie in with developments in related subjects, and can react sensitively with periods of historical change. This paper considers the growth of the subject of ethnology in Britain in three main phases: l. its late 18th-early 19th century beginnings, growing out of antiquarian learning. 2. a 20th century phase, in which a regional or national sense of identity (especially in the Celtic speaking areas) developed. 3. In the 1980s, an apparent decline in "traditional" studies of ethnology has been matched by stress on "contemporary documentation", a sharping of concern for working class social history, and the adoption of the concepts of site-interpretation (dating to the 1960s). The model for the three phases is man-nation-class. Phase 1, running up to the First World War, was all-British, contributions being made by Scots but not primarily as Scots; phase 2 is one of growing regional self-consciousness, as peripheries reacted to the core; phase 3 marks a new research awareness in working folk in urban and industrial situations and includes aspects (e.g. concern for the "green" countryside) that transcend class boundaries. These phases can almost certainly be mirrored internationally in Europe, though with variations in comparative chronology between countries. They are part of the historiographical framework of reference for the subject of European ethnology.

How to Cite

Fenton, A., (1989) “Phases of Ethnology in Britain.”, Ethnologia Europaea 20(1), 177-188. doi:


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Alexander Fenton (National Museums of Scotland)



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