Ethnological Theory

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Ethnological Theory


a theory in folklore studies that arose in England in the 1860’s and was current in world scholarship until the early 20th century. The originators of the ethnological theory were E. B. Tylor and A. Lang. Among the theory’s chief proponents were E. S. Hartland, J. G. Frazer, A. B. Gomme, L. B. Gomme, and R. R. Marett of Great Britain; W. Mannhardt, H. Usener, E. Rohde, and A. Dieterich of Germany; S. Reinach and E. Durkheim of France; and F. Boas of the USA. Some of these scholars later abandoned the ethnological theory and founded other schools; for example, Durkheim founded the sociological school, and Boas became an advocate of diffusionism. In Russia, the ethnological theory influenced N. F. Sumtsov, A. I. Kirpichnikov, and others. It especially influenced A. N. Veselovskii, who, however, was critical of some of the theory’s tenets.

The ethnological theory attributes analogous phenomena in the mythology and folklore of different peoples and races—types, motifs, and plots—to the communality of the psychological laws and patterns of intellectual creativity of all humanity. According to the theory, this communality derives from “similar human nature” (Tylor), that is, from man’s anthropological essence alone. Some proponents of the theory also took into account the similarity in living conditions of different peoples and tribes; as a result, the thesis was sometimes formulated as the “theory of psychological autogenesis as determined by living conditions” (Veselovskii). However, these folklorists went no further than to acknowledge folklore’s basis in living conditions.

The ethnological theory represented an advance in folklore studies in comparison to earlier theories, such as the mythological school and the migration theory. It still failed, however, to provide a scientific and materialist explanation for the genesis and development of similar phenomena in folklore that were determined primarily by a similarity and communality of social relations. It introduced the concept of survivals into folklore studies to refer to elements of “primitive culture”—customs of daily life and religion, superstitions, and so forth—that “civilized” nations had inherited and that had survived in contemporary culture. Lang and other proponents of the theory reduced the very essence of folklore to such survivals, which often led these folklorists to regard it as the aggregate of relic phenomena subject to no evolution in the course of history.

In their understanding of history, the adherents of the ethnological theory were evolutionists. Because of the wealth of facts introduced to science, the breadth of comparative studies, the scholarly criticism of sources, and the objectivity of the conclusions reached by many proponents of the theory, the theory can be regarded as one of the highest achievements of pre-Marxian folklore studies and retains importance even for contemporary scholarship. It is also of interest to historians of mythology and religion because of its well-developed hypotheses about such phenomena as animism, totemism, and magic.

A number of Soviet scholars consider the concept of the ethnological theory to be inadequate as a designation of an entire school of thought. They believe the concept should be used only as a conventional designation for the viewpoint of scholars of the most varied schools that opposes to the migration theory the idea that similar plots developed independently among various peoples. This viewpoint was first defended in detail by Tylor, Lang, and other representatives of the British anthropological school, even though this concept was for them only one aspect of a multifaceted theory.


Veselovskii, A. N. Sobr. soch., vol. 16. Moscow-Leningrad, 1938. Pages 212–30.
Veselovskii, A. N. Istoricheskaia poetika. Leningrad, 1940. Pages 512–15.
Azadovskii, M. K. Istoriia russkoi fol’kloristiki, vol. 2. Moscow, 1963.
Cocchiara, G. Istoriia fol’kloristiki v Evrope. Moscow, 1960. (Translated from Italian.)
Lowie, R. H. The History of Ethnological Theory. London, 1937.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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