Ethnography: presented as bounded geographic zones

Țara Oașului ethnographic zone

The concept of ‘ethnographic zones’ can be argued academically to be flawed in many respects in terms of cultural parameters and the reality of geographical borders. However geographically based cultural zones remain a concept that insiders use to position music and dance in terms of people’s locational identity and locational dependent ideas in music and dance styles.

Traditional ethnography

When considering ethnography of rural ‘traditions’ and ‘customs’ it is common to document the location of the observation. In some cases a ‘tradition’, or a particular version of a folk artefact, is attributed to that location, but more often ethnographers look to make a relationship to the wider area around the location in order to identify some predominant parameters that are similar. Thus ethnographic researchers have for a long time used the idea of “ethnographic zones” as some type of bounded group of settlements that are in some way united by ethnographic data.

I suggest the terms cultural cohort or identity cohort to refer to social groupings that form along the lines of specific constellations of shared habit based in similarities of parts of the self.

Turino 2008:111

In the case of rural traditions the geographic region has long been the focus of attention as cultural elements appear to most closely relate to their geographic neighbours. This can be the case as agricultural peasants in the past mostly only travelled a limited distance, so life was based on the local, and influences from urban fashion were only slowly adopted.

Outside the study of rural traditions, geography is not necessarily the prime factor. For example popular music and rock music is most often grouped by the “decade” indicating that a time period of a number of years close to ten is an appropriate scale. Or when studying a dance phenomenon such as Argentinian tango or “international folk dance” these are trans-national scenes in ‘urban’ contexts of cultural cohorts[1].

Border and identity

The critical focus of investigation from this point of view becomes the ethnic boundary that defines the group, not the cultural stuff that it encloses.

Barth 1969:15

The understanding of borders is best understood following Barth[2] and his conception of ‘identity’. There are situations where the people internal to a region (insiders) ascribe to a certain identity, and there are situations where outsiders describe the others by an identity, but these may or may not relate to clear cultural differences or any clear geographical boundary.

Some ethnographic zones can be relatively clearly defined on the basis of a natural boundary, political boundary or ethnic separation, but more often in reality there is a continuum from one ethnographic zone to the next zone. For these reasons the Romanian ethnographers often use the term “interference zone” which in reality allows any area to be a mix of the adjacent areas.

Please note that our interest on ethnographic zones is the culture of peoples with an ancestry in speaking limba română (a form of Latin left in southeast Europe from the Roman times) and the other geographically co-located ethnicities. We are not implying or referring to the complexities of current “nation state” politics, particularly the concepts of ‘Romanian’, ‘Moldavian’ or ‘Vlach’ as terms that are used in various national political agendas.


  1. Turino, Thomas (2008) Music as social life : the politics of participation, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  2. Barth, Fredrik (1969) Introduction. In: Barth, Fredrik (ed.) Ethnic groups and boundaries : The social organization of culture difference. 9-38, Long Grove, Illinois, Waveland Press.
Published on 23rd July 2019, last modified on 4th May 2021

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