Traditional Navigation of Western Polynesia

Bodies of Knowledge
and Cultural Anthropology

Describing the content and organization of the many and diverse bodies of knowledge that comprise human understanding is a major concern of cultural anthropology. Ethnography, as it is called, aims to describe what one needs to know in order to engage with a society's members in all their activities in a manner that meets their standards of performance. Such knowledge is what is meant by a society's culture. Like a language or a game, a culture is something one has to learn before one can describe it. Ethnography is thus an exercise in the systematic learning and presentation of what people know, including the things they use as standards for perceiving and interpreting their world. It also tries to describe how people apply and use such knowledge in the affairs of life.

Steve Thomas (r) looks on as a navigation map is explained.

The products of ethnography provide necessary information for a number of scientific and practical interests. If American businessmen do not understand the Japanese culture for doing business and how Japanese actually use it, they are likely to have trouble negotiating business deals with their Japanese counterparts. We need adequate descriptions of the content of cultures to reveal reliably the range of difference among them. Without this, we cannot find the underlying similarities that unite us as humans.

In their search for pattern, for example, do humans learn and organize experience in fundamentally similar ways, as we asked at the beginning of this presentation? To what extent do they use similar techniques for storing and retrieving information? Traditional navigation in Micronesia provides one example of how ethnography may contribute to answering such questions.

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