Captain Cook as Ethnographer : The Role of Cook's Journals in the Formation of the Ethnographic Genre

Thumbnail Image
Lind, Erica
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
Lethbridge Undergraduate Research Journal
To study the formation of a genre is to study the evolution of human thought and expression regarding a certain element of our experience. The evolution of ethnography (the descriptive documentation of a culture) in particular is important to study in that it allows us to reflect on how we have identified with one another over time. From this we can see how we have perceived our similar and different modes of social action and our varying perceptions of the world around us, how these have changed over time, and how they have shaped our interactions and, indeed, the majority of history itself. Captain James Cook was writing at a time (1768 to 1779) during which a significant shift in European attitudes was occurring. After centuries of major Euro-ethnocentrism (a European attitude of cultural superiority), Europeans began to take on a more accepting view of other cultures. This shift in ideology is evident in Cook's writing – in fact, Cook's words show a higher degree of anti-ethnocentrism than was common at the time or, indeed, for years after. The evolution of ethnography is not a much-studied subject. The informal roots of formal ethnographic work lie in the information gathered and reflected upon by such early explorers as Cook, not to mention the techniques they employed to record such information, yet informal ethnographies often go unacknowledged. There have been a few writers who have acknowledged Cook's role in early anthropology, and his journals have been thoroughly studied for a variety of purposes. However, neither the journals' rhetoric nor the journals' place within the evolution of ethnography have been thoroughly studied. Throughout the following pages I aim to demonstrate how Cook's journals constitute an early form of ethnography and how they show the formal genre of ethnography taking shape.
Cook, James, 1728-1779 , Ethnology.