Introduction: Image and Science in Early Ethnology

During the second half of the nineteenth century, in German circles linked to anthropology, a movement of scientific systematization arose from the need to cope, scientifically and institutionally, with the great masses of data that had been collected over nearly a century of colonial enterprises and geographical discoveries. The most important German cities – Berlin, Bonn and Leipzig – laid a foundation of museums, learned societies, academies and scientific journals to set the agenda and limits for a new discipline: ethnology. Ethnology was supposed to develop a new knowledge of man as a being capable of culture. Mediating between ethnographic practices and anthropological science, ethnology at this time was difficult to distinguish from physiology and the study of man as a physical being , which were part of the natural sciences. In the struggle to attain the status of “science,” anthropology had credentials as good as any nineteenth century discipline, because of its early commitment to physiology and adoption of statistical tools. But it was also the first human science to question substantially the adequateness of the scientific method and the pretension of objectivity as it involved very unstable research materials focused on human culture and behavior.[1]

This essay will analyze the case of two founders of German anthropology, Adolf Bastian (1826-1905) and Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904), and examine the challenges they faced in creating images to use as scientific tools in their ethnological approaches. The absence of descriptive, paradigmatic and documentary image tools in the major ethnology handbooks of the time stands in contrast to the clear awareness of anthropologists of the urgent need to codify a coherent and comprehensive system of representations, and to give a symbolic account of the complex results of their discipline.

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