Beginning in the 15th century and for the next 200 years, European explorers and traders roamed the world in search of peoples to conquer and resources to plunder. In doing so, they came into contact with people who looked, dressed, and acted in ways they had never seen or imagined. And they believed these peoples were innately inferior in every way.
The Report of the Philippine Commission, written in 1902, was one of the earliest formal ethnographies: “The government is attempting to develop a new standard of relationship between the white man and the Malay. Success will depend on our understanding of these peoples.”
The success the report was referring to was how to make better workers out of the Malaysians. For a very long time, ethnographies were written just like this – as instructions for how to dominate and control “inferior” peoples.
Then along came Claude Levi-Strauss.
An anthropologist, he had a different perspective. He saw colonialism as “The larger part of mankind being made subservient to the other, with millions of innocent human beings having their resources plundered while they were ruthlessly killed and thrown into bondage.”
His NY Times obituary said “his revolutionary studies of what was once called ‘primitive man’ transformed Western understanding of the nature of cultures, customs and civilizations.” They transformed ethnographies, too.
What was important for the new ethnographies was the way he approached subjects.
The old way, from the outside, was used to take advantage. The new way, from the inside, was objective, rational, and non-judgmental. The notion was to understand different peoples and cultures on their own terms.
To anyone conducting research into human behavior, this should still be the goal.