ECOLOGICAL ANTHROPOLOGY by STACY McGRATH
Ecological anthropology focuses upon the complex relations between people and their environment. Human populations have ongoing contact with and impact upon the land, climate, plant, and animal species in their vicinities, and these elements of their environment have reciprocal impacts on humans (Salzman and Attwood 1996:169). Ecological anthropology investigates the ways that a population shapes its environment and the subsequent manners in which these relations form the population’s social, economic, and political life (Salzman and Attwood 1996:169). In a general sense, ecological anthropology attempts to provide a materialist explanation of human society and culture as products of adaptation to given environmental conditions (Seymour-Smith 1986:62).
In The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin presents a synthetic theory of evolution based on the idea of descent with modification. In each generation, more individuals are produced than can survive (because of limited resources), and competition between individuals arises. Individuals with favorable characteristics, or variations, survive to reproduce. It is the environmental context that determines whether or not a trait is beneficial. Thomas R. Malthus (see Leading Figures) has an obvious influence on Darwin's formulations. Malthus pioneered demographic studies, arguing that human populations naturally tend to outstrip their food supply (Seymour-Smith 1986:87). This circumstance leads to disease and hunger which eventually put a limit on the growth of the population (Seymour-Smith 1986:87). The word ‘ecology’ is derived from the Greek oikos, meaning habitation. Haekel coined our modern understanding of ecology in 1870, defining it as "the study of the economy, of the household, of animal organisms. This includes the relationships of animals with the inorganic and organic environments, above all the beneficial and inimical relations Darwin referred to as the conditions for the struggle of existence" (Netting 1977:1). Therefore, an ecosystem (see Principal Concepts) consists of organisms acting in a bounded environment.
As a reaction to Darwin’s theory, some anthropologists eventually turned to environmental determinism (see Principal Concepts) as a mechanism for explanation. The earliest attempts at environmental determinism mapped cultural features of human populations according to environmental information (for example, correlations were drawn between natural features and human technologies) (Milton 1997). The detailed ethnographic accounts of Boas, Malinowski, and others led to the realization that environmental determinism could not sufficiently account for observed realities, and a weaker form of determinism began to emerge (Milton 1997). At this time, Julian Steward coined the term ‘cultural ecology’ (see Principal Concepts). He looked for the adaptive responses to similar environments that gave rise to cross-cultural similarities (Netting 1996:267). Steward’s theory centered around a culture core, which he defined as "the constellation of features which are most closely related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements" (Steward 1955:37).
By the 1960s and 1970s, cultural ecology and environmental determinism lost favor within anthropology. Ecological anthropologists formed new schools of thought, including the ecosystem model, ethnoecology, and historical ecology (Barfield 1997:138). Researchers hoped that ecological anthropology and the study of adaptations would provide explanations of customs and institutions (Salzman and Attwood 1996:169). Ecological anthropologists believe that populations are not engaged with the total environment around them, but rather with a habitat consisting of certain selected aspects and elements. Furthermore, each population has its own adaptations institutionalized in the culture of the group, especially in their technologies (Salzman and Attwood 1996:169).
A field such as ecological anthropology is particularly relevant to contemporary concerns with the state of the general environment. Anthropological knowledge has the potential to inform and instruct humans about how to construct sustainable ways of life. Anthropology, especially when it has an environmental focus, also demonstrates the importance of preserving cultural diversity. Biological diversity is necessary for the adaptation and survival of all species; culture diversity may serve a similar role for the human species because it is clearly one of our most important mechanisms of adaptation.
Points of Reaction
In the 1950s a dissatisfaction with existing vague and rigid theories of cultural change stimulated the adoption of an ecological perspective. This new perspective considers the role of the physical environment in cultural change in a more sophisticated manner than environmental determinism (see Cultural Ecology web page at http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/eco.htm ). Ecological anthropology is also a reaction to idealism, which is the idea that all objects in nature and experience are representations of the mind. Ecological anthropology inherently opposes the notion that ideas drive all human activities and existence. This particular field illustrates a turn toward the study of the material conditions of the environment, which have the potential to affect ideas. Furthermore, Steward was disillusioned with historical particularism and culture area approaches, and he subsequently emphasized environmental influences on culture and cultural evolution (Barfield 1997:448). Boas and his students (representing historical particularism) argue that cultures are unique and cannot be compared (Barfield 1997:491). In response, Steward’s methodological approach to multilinear evolution calls for a detailed comparison of a small number of cultures that were at the same level of sociocultural integration and in similar environments, yet vastly separated geographically (Barfield 1997:449).
Malthus, Thomas R. (1766-1834)- Thomas R. Malthus is the author of Essay on Population (1798), which greatly influenced Charles Darwin. Malthus argues that populations grow exponentially, while resources only grow geometrically. Eventually, populations deplete their resources to such a degree that competition for survival becomes inevitable. This assumes that a struggle for existence will ensue, and only a certain number of individuals will survive. Malthus' ideas help to form the ecological basis for Darwin’s theory of natural selection.
Steward, Julian (1902-1972)- Steward developed the cultural ecology paradigm and introduced the idea of the culture core. He studied the Shoshone of the Great Basin in the 1930s and noted that they were hunter-gatherers heavily dependent on the pinon nut tree. Steward demonstrates that lower population densities exist in areas where the tree is sparsely distributed, thus illustrating the direct relationship between resource base and population density. He was also interested in the expression of this relationship in regards to water availability and management. His ideas on cultural ecology were also influenced by studies of South American indigenous groups. He edited a handbook on South American Indians, which was published after World War II. Steward’s theories are presently regarded as examples of specific evolution, where cross-cultural regularities exist due to the presence of similar environments. Steward specifies three steps in the investigation of the cultural ecology of a society: (1) describing the natural resources and the technology used to extract and process them; (2) outlining the social organization of work for these subsistence and economic activities; (3) tracing the influence of these two phenomena on other aspects of culture (Barfield 1997:448). Julian Steward often fluctuated between determinism and possiblism (Balee 1996). He was interested in the comparative method in order to discover the laws of cultural phenomena (Barfield 1997:448).
White, Leslie (1900-1975)- White’s principal preoccupation is with the process of general evolution, and he is best known for his strict materialist approach (Barfield 1997:491). He believes that the evolution of culture increases as does energy use per capita. Since hominid times, man has continued to harness more energy. This results in cultural evolution. White describes a process of universal evolution , in which all cultures of the earth evolve along a certain course (this course can be understood in measure of energy expenditure per capita). In comparison, Steward only claims to see regularities cross-culturally. White describes anthropology as ‘culturology" (Barfield 1997:491). He proposed a law to explain cultural evolution- C=E * T (where C=culture, E=energy, and T=technology). White also subscribes to a technological determinism, with technology ultimately determining the way people think (Balee 1996).
Harris, Marvin (1927-present)- Marvin Harris completed fieldwork in Africa and Brazil, but he is best known for his development of cultural materialism, which centers around the notion that technological and economic features of a society have the primary role in shaping its particular characteristics. He assigns research priority to infrastructure over structure and superstructure (Barfield 1997:137). The infrastructure is composed of the mode of production, demography, and mating patterns. Structure refers to domestic and political economy, and superstructure consists of recreational and aesthetic products and services. Harris’ purpose is to demonstrate the adaptive, materialist rationality of all cultural features by relating them to their particular environment (Milton 1997). Marvin Harris received his Ph.D. from Columbia University in1953, and he taught at Columbia University. He is currently a research professor at the University of Florida (see American Materialism web page at http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/murphy/material.htm and the Cultural Materialism web page at ).
Rappaport, Roy A. (1926-1997)- Roy A. Rappaport is responsible for bringing ecology and structural functionalism together. Rappaport defines and is included in a paradigm called neofunctionalism (see Principal Concepts). He sees culture as a function of the ecosystem. The carrying capacity (see Principal Concepts) and energy expenditure are central themes in Rappaport’s studies, conducted in New Guinea. He completed the first systematic study of ritual, religion, and ecology, and this study is characterized as synchronic (see Principal Concepts) and functionalist. The scientific revolution, functionalism in anthropology, and new ecology are the three main influences upon Rappaport. Furthermore, like Steward and Harris, he is more interested in the infrastructural aspects of society, similar to Steward. Rappaport is the first scientist to successfully reconcile ecological sciences and cybernetics with functionalism in anthropology (Balee 1996). Roy A. Rappaport was Professor of Anthropology at the University of Michigan and President of the American Anthropological Association (1987-89) (Moran 1990:xiii).
Vayda, Andrew P. is Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and Ecology at Rutgers University and Senior Research Associate of the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) in Bogor, Indonesia. Formerly a professor at Columbia University, he has taught also at the University of Indonesia and other Indonesian universities. He specializes in methodology and explanation at the interface between social and ecological science and has directed and participated in numerous research projects on people’s interactions with forests in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. He has published some hundred articles and several books and is now preparing a selection of his methodological essays for publication by AltaMira Press. The journal, Human Ecology, was founded by him, and he was its editor for five years. He serves at present on the editorial boards of Anthropological Theory, Borneo Research Council publications, and Human Ecology and is a founding board member of the Association for Fire Ecology of the Tropics.
Netting, Robert McC.- Robert McC. Netting writes about agricultural practices, household organization, land tenure, warfare, historical demography, and cultural ecology (Netting 1977). He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and was a Professor of Anthropology at the University of Arizona. He has published Hill Farmers of Nigeria: Cultural Ecology of the Kofyar of the Jos Plateau, Cultural Ecology, and Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in a Swiss Mountain Community (Moran 1984:xii).
Conklin, Harold (1926- )- Harold Conklin is most noted within ecological anthropology for showing that slash-and-burn cultivation under conditions of abundant land and sparse population is not environmentally destructive (Netting 1996:268). Furthermore, he gives complete descriptions of the wide and detailed knowledge of plant and animal species, climate, topography, and soils that makes up the ethnoscientific repertoire of indigenous food producers (Netting 1996:268). He sets the standards for ecological description with detailed maps of topography, land use, and village boundaries (Netting 1996:268). Conklin’s work focuses on integrating the ethnoecology and cultural ecology of the agroecosystems of the Hanunoo and Ifugao in the Philippines (Barfield 1997:138).
Moran, Emilio F.- Emilio F. Moran was a specialist in ecological anthropology, resource management, and agricultural development (Moran 1984:ix). Moran studied the Brazilian Amazon extensively. He demonstrated the a micro-level ecosystem analysis of soils in the Amazon revealed substantial areas of nutrient rich soils, which are completely overlooked in macro-level analyses (Balee 1996). Emilio F. Moran was a professor at Indiana University and has published Human Adaptability, Developing the Amazon, and The Dilemma of Amazonian Development (Moran 1984:ix).
Ellen, Roy F.(1947- )- Roy F. Ellen studies the ecology of subsistence behaviors, ethnobiology, classification, and the social organization of trade (Moran 1990:x). He is a Professor of Anthropology and Human Ecology at the University of Kent (Moran 1990:x). Ellen has published Nuaulu Settlement and Ecology; Environment, Subsistence and System; Social and Ecological Systems; and Malinowski between Worlds.
Balee, William (1954- )- William Balee works within the historical ecology (see Principal Concepts) paradigm (Barfield 1997:138). Balee completed valuable ecological research among the Ka’apor in the Amazon of Brazil. Balee seeks to integrate aspects of ethnoecology, cultural ecology, biological ecology, political ecology, and regional ecology in a processual framework (Barfield 1997:138). Furthermore, Balee demonstrates an unconscious form of management among the Ka’apor with respect to one of their main resources- the yellow-footed tortoise. This indigenous group moves before the turtle becomes extinct in their immediate vicinity, and they also learn to exploit more of the area around the village in search of the tortoise (Balee 1996). He published Footprints of the Forest: Ka’apor Ethnobotany—The Historical Ecology of Plant Utilization by an Amazonian People and is the editor of Advances in Historical Ecology. William Balee received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, and he is a Professor of Anthropology at Tulane University.
Steward, Julian. 1955. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press. Julian Steward advocates multilinear evolution in this seminal book. Multilinear evolution "…assumes that certain basic types of culture may develop in similar ways under similar conditions but that few concrete aspects of culture will appear among all groups of mankind in a regular sequence" (Steward 1955:4). Steward sought the causes of cultural changes and attempted to devise a method for recognizing the ways in which culture change is induced by adaptation to the environment (Steward 1955:4). This adaptation is called cultural ecology. According to Steward (1955:4), "The cross-cultural regularities which arise from similar adaptive processes in similar environments are … synchronic in nature." The fundamental problem of cultural ecology is to determine whether the adjustments of human societies to their environments require particular modes of behavior or whether they permit latitude for a certain range of possible behaviors (Steward 1955:36). Steward also defines the culture core and discusses the method of cultural ecology, variation in ecological adaptation, development of complex societies, and various examples of the application of cultural ecology. This is a pioneering work that influenced many ecological anthropologists and subsequently led to the formation of new, more holistic theories and methodologies.
Harris, Marvin. 1992. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Current Anthropology 7:51-66. This article is Harris’ best example of the application of cultural materialism, specifically to the Hindu taboo against eating beef. He demonstrates that this taboo makes sense in terms of the local environment, because cattle are important in several ways (Milton 1997). Thus, the religious taboo is rational, in a materialist sense, because it ensures the conservation of resources provided by the cattle (Milton 1997). Harris comments upon the classification of numerous cattle as ‘useless.’ Ecologically, it is doubtful that any of the cattle are actually useless, especially when they are viewed as part of an ecosystem rather than as a sector of the price market (Harris 1992:52). For example, cows provide dung, milk, and labor, and Harris explores all of these instances thoroughly in this article. He notes that dung is used as an energy source and fertilizer. Nearly 46.7% of India's dairy products come from cow's milk (Harris 1966:53). Harris (1966:53) states, "The principal positive ecological effect of India's bovine cattle is in their contribution to production of grain crops, from which about 80% of the human calorie ration comes." Cattle are the single most important means of traction for farmers. Furthermore, 25,000,000 cattle and buffalo die each year, and this provides the ecosystem with a substantial amount of protein (Harris 1966:54). By studying cattle of India with a holistic perspective, Harris provides a strong argument against the claim that these animals are useless and economically irrational.
Rappaport, Roy A. 1968. Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. New Haven: Yale University Press. This book examines the Tsembaga Maring in New Guinea. The actual study group consists of approximately 200 people who live in two relatively isolated valleys. The Tsembaga Maring practice animal husbandry with pigs as their primary resource. Rappaport found that pigs consume the same food as humans in this environment, so the Tsembaga must produce a surplus in order to maintain their pig populations. Pigs are slaughtered for brideprice and at the end of war. So, the pigs must be kept at exactly the right numbers. This is accomplished through a cycle of war, pig slaughter for ritual purposes, and regrowth of the pig populations. Such a cycle takes ten to eleven years to complete. Rappaport illustrates that "…indigenous beliefs in the sacrifice of pigs for the ancestors were a cognized model that produced operational changes in physical factors, such as the size and spatial spread of human and animal populations" (Netting 1996:269). Thus, religion and the kaiko ritual are cybernetic factors that act as a gauge to assist in maintaining equilibrium within the ecosystem (Netting 1996:269). The kaiko is a ritual of the Tsembaga during which they slaughter their pigs and partake in feasting. The kaiko can be understood easily as 'ritual pig slaughter.' The "biologization" of the ecological approach that this study represents within cultural anthropology led to the label ecological anthropology, replacing Steward’s cultural ecology (Barfield 1997:137).
Netting, Robert McC. 1977. Cultural Ecology. Reading, Massachusetts: Cummings Publishing Company. This book is a comprehensive review of ecological anthropology, highlighting its potential contributions to understanding humankind and its limitations. Netting uses his study of a Swiss alpine community to show relationships between land tenure and land use. He also discusses the future of shifting cultivation and the consequences of the Green Revolution (Netting 1997:Preface). Cultural Ecology contains chapters that focus on ecological perspectives, hunter-gatherers, Northwest coast fishermen, East African pastoralists, cultivators, field methods, and the limitations of ecology. This book provides numerous examples and applications of ecological anthropology and is an excellent outline and profile of the ecological movement in anthropology. [I personally recommend Netting’s Cultural Ecology to students who are interested in learning more about ecological anthropology.]
Carrying Capacity- According to Moran (1979:326), carrying capacity is "[t]he number of individuals that a habitat can support." This idea is related to population pressure, referring to the demands of a population on the resources of its ecosystem (Moran 1979:334). If the technology of a people changes, the carrying capacity is altered. An example of the application of carrying capacity within ecological anthropology is demonstrated in Rappaport’s study of the Tsembaga Maring.
Cultural Ecology- Cultural ecology is the study of the adaptation of human societies or populations to their environments, emphasizing the arrangements of technique, economy, and social organization through which culture mediates the experience of the natural world (Winthrop 1991:47).
Culture Core- Julian Steward (1955:37) defines the cultural core as the features of a society that are the most closely related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements. Furthermore, the core includes political, religious, and social patterns that are connected to (or in relationship with) such arrangements (Steward 1955:37).
Diachronic Study- A diachronic study is one that includes an historical or evolutionary time dimension (Moran 1979:328). Steward used a diachronic approach in his studies (Moran 1979:42).
Ecology- Ecology is the study of the interaction between living and nonliving components of the environment (Moran 1979:328). This pertains to the relationship between an organism and all aspects of its environment (see Basic Premises for further detail).
Ecosystem- An ecosystem is the structural and functional interrelationships among living organisms and the environment of which they are a part (Moran 1990:3). Ecosystems are complex and can be viewed on different scales or levels. Moran’s study of soils in the Amazon is an example of micro-level ecosystem analysis (see Leading Figures).
Ecosystem Approach/Model- This is an approach used by some ecological anthropologists that focuses on physical (abiotic) components. Moran (1990:3) claims that this view uses the physical environment as the basis around which evolving species and adaptive responses are examined. The ecosystem approach had played a central role within ecological anthropology (see Methodologies for more details).
Environmental Determinism- A deterministic approach assigns one factor as the dominant influence in explanations. Environmental determinism is based on the assumption that cultural and natural areas are coterminous, because culture represents an adaptation to the particular environment (Steward 1955:35). Therefore, environmental factors determine human social and cultural behaviors (Milton 1997).
Ethnoecology- Ethnoecology is the paradigm that investigates native thought about environmental phenomena (Barfield 1997:138). Studies in ethnoecology often focus on indigenous classification hierarchies referring to particular aspects of the environment (for example, soil types, plants, and animals).
Historical Ecology- Historical ecology examines how culture and environment mutually influence each other over time (Barfield 1997:138). These studies have diachronic dimensions. Historical ecology is holistic and affirms that life is not independent from culture. This is an ecological perspective adhering to the idea that the relationship between a human population and its physical environment can be examined holistically, rather than deterministically. Landscapes can be understood historically, as well as ecologically. Historical ecology attempts to study land as an artifact of human activity (Balee 1996).
Latent Function-A latent function of a behavior is not explicitly stated, recognized, or intended by the people involved. Thus, they are identified by observers. Latent functions are associated with etic and operational models. For example, in Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People, the latent function of the sacrifice is the presence of too many pigs, while its manifest function is the sacrifice of pigs to ancestors (Balee 1996).
Limiting Factor- In the 1960s cultural ecology focused on showing how resources could be limiting factors. A limiting factor is a variable in a region that, despite the limits or settings of any other variable, will limit the carrying capacity of that region to a certain number.
Manifest Function- A manifest function is explicitly stated and understood by the participants in the relevant action. The manifest function of a rain dance is to produce rain, and this outcome is intended and desired by people participating in the ritual. This could also be defined as emic with cognized models.
Neofunctionalism- This term represents a productive but short-lived 1960s revision of structural-functionalism. Neofunctionalism attends explicitly to the modeling of systems-level interactions, especially negative feedback, and assigns primary importance to techno-environmental forces, especially environment, ecology, and population (Bettinger 1996:851). Within neofunctionalism, culture is reduced to an adaptation, and functional behaviors are homeostatic and deviation counteracting, serving to maintain the system at large (Bettinger 1996:851). Neofunctional well being is measured in tangible currencies, such as population density, that relate to fitness (as in evolutionary biology) (Bettinger 1996:852).
Synchronic Study- Rappaport conducted synchronic studies. These are short-term investigations that occur at one point in time and do not consider historical processes.
Ecological anthropology has utilized several different methodologies during the course of its development. The methodology employed by cultural ecology, popular in the 1950s and early 1960s, involved the initial identification of the technology employed by populations in the use of environmental resources (Milton 1997). Patterns of behavior relevant to the use of that technology are then defined, and lastly, the extent to which these behaviors affect other cultural characteristics is examined (Milton 1997).
Marvin Harris’ work led to the development of new methodologies in the 1960s. For Harris, cultural change begins at the infrastructural level (see Cultural Materialism web page at ). Harris’ cultural materialism incorporates the ecological explanation and advances a more explicit and systematic scientific research strategy (Barfield 1997:137). The concept of adaptation is Harris’ main explanatory mechanism (Milton 1997). Marvin Harris’ accomplishments and research indicate a desire to move anthropology in a Darwinian direction.
Rappaport and Vayda also contributed importantly to the application of new methodologies in the 1960s. They focus upon the ecosystem approach, systems functioning, and the flow of energy. These methods rely on the usage of measurements such as caloric expenditure and protein consumption. Careful attention was given to concepts derived from biological ecology, such as carrying capacity, limiting factors, homeostasis, and adaptation. This ecosystem approach remained popular among ecological anthropologists during the 1960s and the 1970s (Milton 1997). Ethnoecology was a prevalent approach throughout the same decades. The methodology of ethnoecology falls within cognitive anthropology (refer to the Cognitive Anthropology web page at http://www.as.ua.edu/ant/murphy/coganth.htm ).
The 1970s and 1980s saw the emergence of radical cultural relativism. In the 1990s, ecological anthropologists rejected extreme cultural relativism and attacked modernist dichotomies (body and mind, action and thought, nature and culture) (Milton 1997). Recent ecological anthropology studies have included political ecology, uniting more traditional concerns for the environment–technology-social-organization nexus with the emphasis of political economy on power and inequality seen historically, the evaluation and critique of Third World development programs, and the analysis of environmental degradation (Netting 1996:270).
Anthropological knowledge has been advanced by ecological approaches. The application of biological ecology to cultural anthropology adds a new, scientific perspective to the discipline. Ecological anthropology contributes to the development of extended models of sustainability for humankind. Through research and study with indigenous peoples in an ecological framework, anthropologists learn more about intimate interactions between humans and their environments. In the 1990s, this field has enhanced our perceptions of the consequences of the development of the Amazon. The presence of ecology, an interdisciplinary undertaking, and the concept of the ecosystem in anthropology add new dimensions to theory and methodology. Thus, ecological investigations bring additional hybrid vigor to the field of anthropology.
Discuss the theoretical, methodolgoical and empirical problems and limitations of the approach identified by its critics. How have these criticisms been met?
Fewer and fewer ecological anthropologists actually subscribe to the notion of cultural ecology today. Studies conducted within cultural ecology were limited to egalitarian societies. Furthermore, it is a theory and methodology used to explain how things stay the same, as opposed to how things can change (Balee 1996). There is an obvious lack of concern for the historical perspective, as well. By the 1960s, many anthropologists turned away from Steward’s views and adopted the new idea that cultures could be involved in mutual activity with the environment. The term ecological anthropology was coined to label this new approach.
The cultural materialism of Marvin Harris has also been criticized. According to Milton (1997), "his presentation of cultural features as adaptive effectively makes his approach deterministic…" In fact, some scholars claim that the cultural materialism is more deterministic than cultural ecology. Environmental determinism was largely discarded in the 1960s for the ecosystem approach.
Moran (1990:16) criticizes the ecosystem approach for its tendency to endow the ecosystem with the properties of a biological organism, a tendency for models to ignore time and structural change, a tendency to neglect the role of individuals, and a tendency to overemphasize stability in ecosystems.
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