"The categories of their ethnoscience"


Charles O. Frake, Cultural Ecology and Ethnography,
American Anthropologist, New Series,
Vol. 64, No. 1, Part 1 (Feb., 1962), pp. 53-59.

In comparison with studying religious conceptions or kinship relations, the description of the tangible objects of a culture's ecosystem is usually regarded as one of the ethnographer's simpler tasks. If he does not know a word for a specimen of fauna, flora, or soil, he can always ship it off to a specialist for "identification." However, if one insists that no specimen has been described ethnographically until one has stated the rules for its identification in the culture being studied, then the problem of describing a tangible object such as a plant may become rather more complex than the relatively simple task of defining contrasts between categories of kinsmen.

Consider, for example, the problem of identifying plants according to the Hanunoo system of folk botany (Conklin 1954, 1957). The Hanunoo, tropical-forest agriculturists of the central Philippines, exhaustively partition their plant world into more than 1,600 categories, whereas systematic botanists classify the same flora into less than 1,200 species. To place correctly, by Hanunoo standards, a newly encountered plant specimen in the appropriate one of the 1,600 categories requires rather fine discriminations among plants and these discriminations rely on features generally remote from the botanist's count of stamens and carpels. By discovering what one must know in order to classify plants and other ecological components in Hanunoo fashion, one learns what the Hanunoo consider worth attending to when making decisions or how to behave within their ecosystem.

An ethnographer, then, cannot be satisfied with a mere cataloguing of the components of a cultural ecosystem according to the categories of Western science. He must also describe the environment as the people themselves construe it according to the categories of their ethnoscience.