The genre of literary ethnography is the written description of peoples, cultures, and societies. It involves a wide variety of styles and can be adapted to many different purposes. Descriptions of nature–naturalist writings, or natural histories as they are sometimes called–have a similar character. Descriptions of the land, its peoples, and its natural resources are central to narratives of contact and exploration and dominate promotional writings designed to encourage investment and colonization. They are often enthusiastic in tone.
Another tone of this type of writing uses religiously inflected language of wonders and portents, sometimes associated with demonic influence. Drawing on folk beliefs as well as Christian traditions, they recorded observations in a quasi-scientific language influenced by the rise of empiricism, but they applied that language to events, or objects, that were not empirically observable in any direct way.
Eighteenth-century writings distinguished from these earlier works by a deepening empiricism and a complexly self-reflective tone that is often manifested through humor. Travel narratives pay substantial attention to the communities and landscapes they encountered on their journeys, offering rich instances of authors seeking new ways to understand cultures and natural environments.