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Ethnoscientists generally perform the same or similar duties as their counterparts in the traditional sciences, but from the perspective of the knowledge and belief systems of a particular indigenous group or culture. Not only do ethnoscientists conduct research in their particular area of study, but they immerse themselves in the culture and talk to the inhabitants to find out about, for example, the local knowledge and use (medicinally or otherwise) of plants (ethnobotanist or ethnopharmacologist), the local use of language (ethnolinguist), or the local use of implements, utensils, tools, or other items (ethnoarchaeologists). Ethnoscientists classify information based on traditional methods and concepts while at the same time drawing on linguistic and cognitive theories.
Because ethnoscientists study other cultural groups, they often have to travel to conduct their research and talk to the local people. It is important that ethnoscientists are not intrusive when conducting field research. They must always remember that they are acting as observers rather than agents of change.
Ethnobiologists study what people in other cultures around the world know about biology—meaning what they know about the plants and animals of their local environment. A typical ethnobiology field expedition involves the collection of specimens (such as plants, insects, fungi) and the recording of ethnographic information in the native language of the people of the community where the research takes place. Ethnobiologists also teach ethnobiology courses.
Ethnoveterinarians study how people manage animal health care and production. Most ethnoveterinarians are either anthropologists who study veterinary medicine or veterinarians who are interested in traditional health care practices. Primary duties for ethnoveterinarians include doing laboratory research or a participatory research study in the field, collecting and summarizing literature, running a network on raising the awareness of the value of local knowledge, and doing project evaluations. Research entails documentation, laboratory and fieldwork, studying how to integrate local practices, and incorporating ethnoveterinary medicine into education programs.
Ethnobiologists and ethnoveterinarians account for only two of the many ethnoscience specialties. Given the multidisciplinary approach of the ethnosciences, there is great variance in definition, focus, and process among its many areas. But at the core of the ethnosciences is an immersion in other cultures and a desire to learn what is known, believed, and practiced by local inhabitants.
Ethnoarchaeologists explore contemporary cultural groups with the goal of understanding cultures of the past. They examine current customs and rituals, gather ancient and current artifacts, and talk to local inhabitants about their lifestyle. Based on their findings, ethnoarchaeologists hypothesize about a group's social organization and history.
Ethnobotanists study the use and classification of indigenous plants by a particular cultural group. Plants may be used as drugs, food, cosmetics, clothing, building material, or as part of religious ceremonies. Ethnobotanists also evaluate whether these plants have more widespread value outside the region, especially in the case of medicinal plants.
Many wild plants can only be grown in their native environment—the Amazon rainforest, for example. Ethnobotanists must be especially aware that taking plants from their environment affects the entire ecosystem, including its human inhabitants.
Economic botany, the study of plants that are commercially important, is closely related to ethnobotany. Ethnopharmacologists conduct research that is similar to that of ethnobotanists. The difference is that ethnopharmacologists study indigenous plants focusing on their medicinal value and use only. Ethnopharmacologists examine current indigenous remedies derived from either plant or animal substances and look for ways to develop new and better drugs. Both ethnobotanists and ethnopharmacologists must be sure that the intellectual property rights of the local people are observed, and that they receive a share in whatever financial returns may result from knowledge or use elsewhere of indigenous plants.
Ethnoecologists focus on the knowledge and understanding that indigenous peoples have of their local ecology—that is, how they interact with their environment and other organisms.
Ethnohistorians research the history of various cultures, such as Native Americans and other non-European peoples. They study maps, music, paintings, photography, folklore, oral tradition, ecology, archaeological sites and materials, museum collections, enduring customs, language, and place names.
Ethnolinguists examine the relationship between the language and the culture of a specific people. They study the structure of speech and modification of language. They look at how language is used to convey understanding and knowledge.
Ethnomusicologists study the music made by certain cultural groups as well as study the musicians themselves. The process of making music, the sound of the music being made, musical instruments, what the music means to the creators and listeners, and dances or ceremonies associated with certain music all are components of ethnomusicology. In order to preserve a culture's music, ethnomusicologists usually make audio and video recordings in addition to written notation.
Ethnopsychiatrists are concerned with how indigenous peoples perceive and treat mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders of others within their own societies. Ethnopsychologists explore cultural influences on human behavior and mental characteristics of indigenous peoples, as well as their own theories of psychology.
No matter what the specialty, membership in professional organizations and reading books and scholarly journals are important aspects of an ethnoscientist's job.
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