Ethnohistory uses both historical and ethnographic data as its foundation. Its historical methods and materials go beyond the standard use of documents and manuscripts. Practitioners recognize the utility of such source material as maps, music, paintings, photography, folklore, oral tradition, site exploration, archaeological materials, museum collections, enduring customs, language, and place names.
As Harkin (2010) argues, ethnohistory was part of the general rapprochement between history and anthropology in the late 20th century of mid-twentieth-century social science. In the U.S. the field arose out of the study of American Indian communities required by the Indian Claims Commission. It gained a pragmatic rather than a theoretical orientation, with practitioners testifying both in favor of and against Indian claims. The emerging methodology used documentary historical sources and ethnographic methods. It was a leader in involving women scholars. By the 1980s the field's geographic scope extended to Latin America, where archival resources and the opportunities for ethnographic research were plentiful. It also reached into Melanesia, where recent European contact allowed researchers to observe the early postcontact period directly and to address important theoretical questions.
Ethnohistory grew organically thanks to external non-scholarly pressures, without an overarching figure or conscious plan; even so it came to engage central issues in cultural and historical analysis. Ethnohistorians take pride in using their special knowledge of specific groups, their linguistic insights, and their interpretation of cultural phenomena. They claim to achieve a more in-depth analysis than the average historian is capable of doing based solely on written documents produced by and for one group. They try to understand culture on its own terms and according to its own cultural code. Ethnohistory differs from other historically-related methodologies in that it embraces emic perspectives as tools of analysis. The field and its techniques are well suited for writing histories of Native American peoples because of its holistic and inclusive framework. It is especially important because of its ability to bridge differing frameworks and access a more informed context for interpretations of the past.
The definition of the field has become more refined over the years. Early on, ethnohistory differed from history proper in that it added a new dimension, specifically "the critical use of ethnological concepts and materials in the examination and use of historical source material," as described by William N. Fenton. Later, Axtell described ethnohistory as "the use of historical and ethnological methods to gain knowledge of the nature and causes of change in a culture defined by ethnological concepts and categories". Others have focused this basic concept on previously ignored historical actors. Schieffelin asserted, for example, that ethnohistory must fundamentally take into account the people's own sense of how events are constituted, and their ways of culturally constructing the past. Finally, Simmons formulated his understanding of ethnohistory as "a form of cultural biography that draws upon as many kinds of testimony as possible over as long a time period as the sources allow." He described ethnohistory as an endeavor based on a holistic, diachronic approach that is most rewarding when it can be "joined to the memories and voices of living people".
Reflecting upon the history of ethnohistory as research field, Michael Harkin (2010) has situated it within (1) the broader context of convergences and divergences of the fields of history and anthropology and (2) the special circumstances of American Indian land claims and legal history in North American in the middle 20th century.
- Axtell, J. (1979). "Ethnohistory: An Historian's Viewpoint". Ethnohistory 26 (1): 3–4. doi:10.2307/481465.
- Michael E. Harkin, "Ethnohistory's Ethnohistory," Social Science History, Summer 2010, Vol. 34#2 pp 113-128
- Lurie, N. (1961). "Ethnohistory: An Ethnological Point of View". Ethnohistory 8 (1): 83. doi:10.2307/480349.
- DeMallie, Raymond J. (1993). "These Have No Ears": Narrative and the Ethnohistorical Method". Ethnohistory 40 (4): 515–538. doi:10.2307/482586. JSTOR 482586.
- Fenton, W. N. (1966). "Field Work, Museum Studies, and Ethnohistorical Research". Ethnohistory 13 (1/2): 75.
- Schieffelin, E. and D. Gewertz (1985), History and Ethnohistory in Papua New Guinea, 3
- Simmons, W. S. (1988). "Culture Theory in Contemporary Ethnohistory". Ethnohistory 35 (1): 10. doi:10.2307/482430.
- Harkin, Michael (2010). "Ethnohistory's Ethnohistory: Creating a Discipline from the Ground Up". Social Science History 34 (2): 113–128. doi:10.1215/01455532-2009-022.