Danish ethnographer and geographer Kaj Birket-Smith worked at the Ethnographic Collections at the National Museum in Copenhagen from 1929 to 1963, where he influenced the fields of anthropology, ethnology, and Eskimology. During his leadership, the ethnographic displays at the National Museum, particularly the Inuit section, were extensively expanded and modernized. Birket-Smith published widely on ethnography and anthropology, extending his initial empirical focus on the Arctic into wide-ranging descriptions of human cultures and civilization based on an almost polyhistorical knowledge of both contemporary and historical societies.

Historians generally regard Birket-Smith as one of the founders of professional ethnography in Denmark. He was the first scholar to lecture in the discipline at

Copenhagen University from 1946 to 1963. In 1912, while still a student in geography, Birket-Smith participated in a zoological expedition to Greenland. This trip initiated a lifelong engagement with the ethnography of the Arctic. After graduation in 1917, Birket-Smith traveled to West Greenland in 1918 to conduct ethnographical studies and to collect material culture. He participated as an ethnographer on the Fifth Thule Expedition, led by Knud Rasmussen, to the American Arctic in 1921-1923, and in 1933 he traveled the North West Coast of the United States with American anthropologist Frederica de Laguna. This was Birket-Smith's last trip to the Arctic, although he returned to the ethnographic field as a member of the Galathea Expedition, the Danish circumnavigation of the globe that took place in 1951, during which he conducted fieldwork among the Igorots of Northwestern Luzon (the Philippines) and on Rennell Island (of the Solomon Islands).

Birket-Smith's first scientific monograph Ethnography of the Egedesminde District (1923), based on his 1918 fieldwork, contained a comprehensive and unparalleled description of the material culture of West Greenland. Birket-Smith thoroughly reviewed the existing literature on social organization and belief systems, and this anthropological work allowed him to draft the early outlines of a historical comparison between various cultural systems. He further elaborated this theme in his dissertation, The Caribou Eskimos, based on his work during the Fifth Thule Expedition among inland Inuit at Barren Grounds, Canada. In his research Birket-Smith argued that a culture should not be understood as a closed, organic totality because various elements were constantly exchanged among groups. An analysis of the origin of various traits, technological, material, and the like would hence allow a statistical analysis in order to reconstruct the cultural history. His findings included work with the Caribou Eskimos—who did not practice, for example, seal hunting or whaling and did not use blubber for heating—yet still shared 80% of elements common to the Eskimo. Birket-Smith claimed to have identified in the Caribou Eskimo an ancient Eskimo culture that had not yet adapted to the life at sea.

This model for cultural analysis was later applied to other Inuit and Indian groups encountered during fieldwork in the 1920s and 1930s and to the Pacific area after the Galathea Expedition, most notably in Studies in Circumpacific Culture Relations (1967).

Along his scientific work, Birket-Smith heavily engaged in popularizing anthropology through published works such as The Eskimos (1927), Vi Mennesker (1940), an account of evolutionary anthropology, and the wide-ranging Kulturens veje (1941) translated as The Paths of Culture (1960).

Later generations of social anthropologists have criticized Birket-Smith for displaying somewhat paternalistic attitudes toward the Inuit whom he interviewed and studied; such critics have argued that his attempts to model ethnography on the natural sciences could lead to unfortunate political implications. However, through the meticulous attention to details in material culture, the comparative perspective, and the attempts to model processes of cultural exchange and communication, Birket-Smith has left a legacy that still carries tremendous weight within ethnography.

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