Linguistics and Ethnographic Description1


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    I am indebted to my colleague Roy A. Rappaport not only for the original suggestion that I organize my ideas on this subject for presentation to one of our classes, but also for numerous cogent ideas that emerged in our many subsequent discussions. Joseph Jorgensen has tried to help me untangle a few notions I had about the relationship between statistics and rules.


The anthropological activity of providing ethnographic descriptions is much like the linguistic activity of providing grammatical descriptions. Both offer rules that account for the occurrence of some phenomena (such as, for instance, particular household types or particular sequences of vocal noises), but at the same time rule others out. How the rules are “discovered” is irrelevant to their status, and their degree of cognitive reality need not be crucial in judging their significance. The rules stand or fall only by their ability to account for linguistic or cultural behavior.