Theoretical &Methodological Approach Environmental Anthro | UPSC Important Notes & Study Material

Notes By-
Sachin Gupta
Cleared UPSC 2017 with AIR-3



Anthropology has a long-standing interest in the interaction of humans with
their environments. Since the beginning of the discipline in the 19th century,
scholars have been concerned with the ways in which societies interact with
their environment and utilise natural resources, as with the ways in which natural
processes are conceptualised and classified.

Anthropology is, by its very nature and tradition, a kind of multidisciplinary
science. The four branches of Anthropology, despite a common concern with the
central concept of culture and of social behaviour, have quite different traditions
of theory, training, method, and practice. Environmental Anthropology is the
study of human interactions with Nature. It can be the basis for understanding
how past and present human populations contribute and respond to local and
global environmental changes. Traditionally, ecological anthropologists have
focused upon how humans adjusted to their environments through cultural and
biological adaptation. On the other hand, the new Ecological or Environmental
Anthropology blends theory and analysis with political awareness and policy
concerns. Accordingly, new approaches and strategies have emerged, such as
Environmentalism, applied Ecological Anthropology, Historical Ecology and
Political Ecology etc. All these approaches in the cultural ecological tradition
have important bearings for modern Anthropology. First, the works in cultural
ecology not only signify a shift in the theoretical orientation in Anthropology in
the explanation of intra and intercultural variations, but they also point to a very
strong down-to-earth approach in Anthropology. The theoretical shift broadened
the structure-functional or cultural holism into environmental holism and the
down-to-earth approach demanded attention towards the material level of culture
which gradually fell into oblivion during the golden period of structurefunctionalism.

This block explores key concepts, theories, current approaches and methodological
issues in the study of human culture and social activity in relation to ecological
systems and the environment. The block starts with some of the main theoretical
approaches and practical applications of the study of Environmental Anthropology
(in particular, the cultural ecology of Steward, the concepts of carrying capacity
and limiting factors as used in eco-systematic models, historical and political
ecology, and new approaches deriving from post- structural anthropology). It
also discuss some of the main cultural and social aspects of the humanenvironment
interface, such as the relationship between social organisation and
ecology; alternative forms of land use and management (with special reference
to rain forest peoples); the impact of processes of globalisation on human
interactions with the environment in a number of non-western societies; and the
cultural dimension of human adaptation to the environment.


Theoretical and Methodological Issues of Environmental Anthropology

The units in this block unit 1 discuss the relationship between culture and
environment from an anthropological perspective. Unit 2 deals with the
application of the ecosystem approach in anthropology provided a materialistic,
objective and empirical ground to view culture and society as human adaptation
to the natural environment. Unit 3 talk about current approaches, which helps
anthropologists in understanding the interrelationship between human beings
and environment from an anthropological perspective. Unit 4 discuss about the
various methods and techniques by which the relationship between human society
and its environment has been studied by anthropologists.


Culture Environment UNIT 1 CULTURE-ENVIRONMENT Relationship

1.1 Introduction
1.2 Understanding Culture-environment Relationship: Theoretical Perspectives
in Environmental or Ecological Anthropology
1.2.1 Environmental Determinism
1.2.2 Environmental Possibilism
1.2.3 Concept of Culture Area
1.2.4 Cultural Ecology
1.2.5 The Concept of Ecosystem
1.3 Limitations of the Ecosystem Concept
1.4 Cultural Materialism
1.5 Historical Ecology
1.6 Summary
1.7 References
Suggested Reading

Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
At the end of this unit, you will be able to:
• understand the relationship between culture and environment from an
anthropological perspective;
• encompass a sound grasp of the old to the recent theories advanced in
anthropological theory on this relationship; and
• gain a greater appreciation of the role of Anthropology in contemporary
environmental discourses.


Once a central concern of Anthropology, culture- environment relationship or
nature-society interface, in the recent years has tended to be relegated to the
fringes of anthropological discussions, as post-modernism and culturalist
perspectives have dominated the centre stage of theoretical developments in the
social sciences generally (Descola and Pálsson, 1996). It has been pointed out
that the situation is, however, changing again, as anthropologists are increasingly
returning to the study of culture- environment issues, but with new perspectives

There are a number of reasons why this theme is now in the forefront of the
public agenda, one of them being the ongoing changes in the culture-environment
relationship, with anthropologists getting an opportunity to use their competence
to address debated environmental issues such as the mechanisms of a sustainable
mode of livelihood in non-industrial societies, the scope and status of indigenous

Theoretical and Methodological Issues of Environmental Anthropology

or traditional knowledge and techniques of resource management, the ideological
foundations of conservationist movements, the challenges coming up in the wake
of climate change etc. The challenge before Anthropology is not only to embrace
the world of man but also that part of the world with which humans interact.
In this unit, we will be basically studying the main anthropological theories which
have attempted to provide an understanding of the culture-environment
relationship. In the process, we will also trace the development of Environmental
or Ecological Anthropology as a specialised sub-discipline within Anthropology.


Environmental or Ecological Anthropology embraces within its realm, the study
of the complex relations between people and their environments (Salzman and
Attwood, 1996). The environment refers not just to biophysical context, but also
to human interaction with, and interpretation of that context which is culturally
perceived; the environment, therefore, is not just a set of things to which people
adapt, but also a set of ongoing relations of mutual adaptation between culture
and material context (ibid.).
According to Anderson (1977), in common usage,
studies that deal in any way with man-environment relations are labelled
‘ecological’. However, as such a broad range is quite ineffective in guiding inquiry;
he felt that it is pertinent to start with a workable definition which must begin
with what ecology is not. Ecology is usually understood as the study of relations
between organisms and their environment. Anderson (ibid.) pointed out that it is
not equivalent to environment, although it is frequently used in this sense.

It does not, in any strict sense, refer to the unforeseen consequences of many of
man’s activities, as in the phrase ‘ecological disaster’; neither it is synonymous
with conservation, narrowly construed. He preferred to define ecology as ‘the
study of entire assemblages of living organisms and their physical milieus, which
together constitute integrated systems’ (ibid, p.182). This definition in his view
has the advantage of providing a framework that includes the study of all species.
Moreover, environment in this view is seen not as external, but as an integral
component of the total system- the ‘givens’ of the system.

Human populations, socially organised and oriented by means of particular
cultures, have ongoing contact with and impact upon the land, climate, plant and
animal species, and other humans in their environments and these in turn have
reciprocal impacts. Environmental or Ecological Anthropology directs our
attention to the ways in which a particular population purposely or unintentionally
shapes its environment, and the ways in which its relations with the environment
shape its culture and its social, economic and political life. Attention to the impact
of environments on human societies has been longstanding in Philosophy and
Geography, but in Social and Cultural Anthropology, stress on the ecological
dimension is relatively recent. Environmental or ecological anthropology only
became fully established in the 1960s. Nevertheless, anthropological interest in
the environment and ecology goes back a long way. The following constitute the
main theories regarding the relationship between culture and environment and
how these have evolved over time and with the development of Anthropology as
a discipline.


Culture Environment Relationship
1.2.1 Environmental Determinism
The theory of environmental determinism claims that environmental features
have a direct impact on the features of human behaviour, and thus, on human
society. It is based on the belief that the environment (most notably its physical
factors such as landforms and/or climate) determines the patterns of human culture
and societal development. This theory rose to prominence in the late nineteenth
century as a central concern of Human Geography, or Anthropogeography, as it
is sometimes called. The German scholar Friedrich Ratzel was impressed by the
influence of the natural setting on the ways of life of peoples and held the view
that the habitat of a people cannot be neglected in assessing those influences that
play on the formation and functioning of culture. However, his followers changed
this to a more rigid formulation, which held that the habitat is the determining
factor in shaping a way of life, which is called environmental determinism.
Anthropology’s initial development is linked with an intellectual emphasis to
abandon various forms of racial and environmental determinism and the overgeneralisations
of Anthropogeography widespread in the late nineteenth century.

1.2.2 Environmental Possibilism
The early work of American anthropologists like that of Goldenweisser (1937)
was characterised by a stress on historical and cultural descriptions, which focused
on the uniqueness of human groups. According to this view, which has come to
be known as historical particularism, environment was seen as an inert force that
narrows human options but which played no dynamic role in the surfacing of
observable human traits or institutions. In The Mind of Primitive Man (1911),
Boas noted that the environment furnishes the material out of which people shaped
and developed the artefacts of daily life but it was historical forces and diffusion,
which primarily explained the particular forms that given artefact took.

Out of these basic works, thus, grew the theory of environmental possibilism or
the particularist position that cultures, environments and histories are so variable
that any generalisation is difficult. While the theory recognizes the primacy of
the physical condition in the development of social and cultural patterns, it has
paid sufficient attention to variation- the extent to which human beings has altered
his environments and how subsistence patterns were moulded by social
organisation and belief. The theory cautioned against simple geographical controls
and advocated the meticulous analysis of each society and its most important
legacy is the focus on empirical fieldwork.

1.2.3 Concept of Culture Area

In its most basic form, the concept of culture area denotes the spatial or
geographical delineation of entire social formations, or associations of linked
cultural particularities. It has its immediate scientific origins in the work of Ratzel,
to which further developments were made by Mason. The latter delineated, though
imprecisely (Vayda and Rappaport, 1968, p. 481), twelve ‘ethnic environments’
for the North American region. It was further developed and employed by Wisler
in 1926 when he used it to orient his work on American Indian cultures. In this
approach, geographical regions were divided into culture areas based on the fact
that when cultures are viewed objectively, they are seen to form clusters,
sufficiently homogeneous so that the regions in which they occur can be delimited
on a map (Herskovits, 1952). This view was strongly espoused well into the

Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
1930’s, particularly by Kroeber (1939), who systematically observed the
relationship between environmental and cultural variables for the same region.
Vayda and Rappaport (op.cit.) opine that not only have the units selected been
too gross spatially, some of sub-continenta proportions, but those of widely
divergent size have frequently been lumped together indiscriminately as culture
areas. Also, the selection of the criteria for designating a particular culture area
has tended to be intrinsically arbitrary and, therefore, of inconsequential validity.

1.2.4 Cultural Ecology

During the 1950s, scholars witnessed one of the seminal works regarding the
relationship between culture and environment, which remains to this day, a legacy
that informs the dominant stream of interactional- analytical thinking on this
issue. This was Steward’s basic notion of ‘adaptive interaction’, which is the
basis for his Cultural Ecology. His theory of Cultural Ecology stands intermediate
between the deterministic and possibilist position and refers to ‘a reciprocal or
interactional phrasing of man-environment relations which assumes that neither
man nor environment is necessarily dominant’ (Anderson, 1973, p.185). Steward
developed Cultural Ecology as a framework for causal explanation of cultural
differences and similarities. He seized on ecological considerations and
environmental influences as a remedy to cultural relativism and ‘the fruitless
assumption that culture comes from culture’ (Steward, 1955, p.36) that pervaded
Anthropology in the first half of this century. The principle of Cultural Relativism
is based on the premise that it is culture that interprets the data of human
experience by drawing the distinguishing lines and that the reaction to habitat
differs among peoples who live in a single natural setting but whose cultures
differ (Herskovits, 1952). Steward was generally familiar with the ecological
and biological principles of his time and felt that the principal meaning of Ecology
was adaptation to environment.
Steward framed his approach in terms of adaptation and the adaptive processes
through which a historically derived culture is modified in a particular
environment, arguing on analytical and empirical grounds that over the millennia,
cultures in different environments have changed tremendously, and these changes
are basically traceable to new adaptations required by changing technology and
productive arrangements. Thus, the method of Cultural Ecology developed by
him stressed on technology, asserting that the key to the adaptation of a culture is
its technology. However, he emphasised that the extent to which productive
activities influence a culture is always an empirical problem.
Steward was concerned with cross-cultural comparisons and with the causal
connection between social structure and modes of subsistence. The crucial focus
in his approach was neither on environment nor culture. Rather, the process of
resource utilisation, in its fullest sense, was research priority. The cultural
ecological approach proposed by him involved both a problem and a method.
The problem was to test whether the adjustment of human societies to their
environments required specific type of behaviour or whether there is considerable
latitude to human responses. The method, according to him, involved three
• To analyse the inter-relationship of exploitative or productive technology
and environment.
Culture Environment
• To analyse the behaviour patterns involved in the exploitation of a particular
area by means of a particular technology.
• To ascertain the extent to which the behaviour pattern entailed in exploiting
the environment affect other aspects of culture.
The theory of Cultural Ecology, as developed by Steward, paid primary attention
to those features which empirical analysis showed to be most closely involved in
the utilisation of environment in culturally prescribed ways, which he referred to
as culture core. He defined a culture core as the constellation of features which
are most closely related to subsistence activities and economic arrangements
(1955, p.35). However, he had insisted that the expression ‘culturally prescribed
ways’, must be taken with caution, for its anthropological usage is frequently
‘loaded’. The normative concept, which views culture as a system of mutually
reinforcing practices backed by a set of attitudes and values, seems to regard all
human behaviour as so completely determined by culture that environmental
adaptations have no effect. It considers that the entire pattern of technology, land
use, land tenure, and social features derive entirely from culture. Steward’s concept
of Cultural Ecology, however, is less concerned with the origin and diffusion of
technologies than with the fact that they may be used differently and entails
different social arrangements in each environment. The environment is not only
permissive or prohibitive with respect to these technologies, but special local
features may require social adaptations, which have far-reaching consequences.
According to Moran (1984), the value of Cultural Ecology lies in the fact that
from the broad generalities of the environmental determinists and the detailed
inductive findings of the possibilists, Steward proposed a research method that
paid both careful attention to empirical details that causally linked the cognized
environment, social organisation, and the behavioural expressions of human
resource use. Steward delimited, more than anyone before him, the field of human/
environment interactions. He viewed social institutions as having a functional
unity that expressed solutions to recurrent subsistence problems. Cultural
Anthropology had been described as a methodological tool for ascertaining how
the adaptation of a culture to its environment may entail certain changes. However,
Geertz (1963) has pointed out that the concept of culture core, as advanced by
Steward, proved to underestimate the scope, complexity, variability, and subtlety
of environmental and social systems. Vayda and Rappaport (1968), among others,
found the concept of the culture core to give undue weight to culture as the
primary unit of analysis, and found the presumption that organisation for
subsistence had causal priority to other aspects of human society and culture to
be both untested and premature.
1.2.5 The Concept of Ecosystem
The concept of ecosystem made its way into Anthropology in the 1960s, when
critiques of Steward’s Cultural Ecology paradigm led anthropologists towards a
more explicitly biological paradigm. The term ‘ecosystem’ refers to one of the
specialised concepts developed in biology pertaining to empirical systems and
consists of a set of generalisations about the interdependent nutritional and
populational processes of plant and animal species living in defined physical
environments (Bennett, 1984). In his Fundamentals of Ecology (1953), Odum
offered the ecosystem as an organising principle emphasizing interdependence,
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
obligatory and causal relationships. The primary assumption was that ecosystems
are cybernetic entities—that is, they are self-regulating and self-organising systems
controlled by information-carrying feedback loops. In keeping with the cybernetic
view, ecosystems were portrayed as orderly, stable, homeostatic, functional and
Geertz in his Agricultural Involution (1963) was the first to argue for the
usefulness of the ecosystem as a unit of analysis in Social/Cultural Anthropology.
Its merits were stated: system theory provided a broad framework, essentially
qualitative and descriptive, that emphasised the internal dynamics of such systems
and how they develop and change. Vayda and Rappaport (1968, p.492) were
perhaps the first anthropologists to advance the notion of ‘the possibility and
desirability of a single science of ecology with laws and principles that apply to
man as they do to other species’. They argued that the cybernetic approach to
ecosystems ecology should be adopted in analyzing the ‘regulating or homeostatic
functions of cultural practices’ (1968, p.495). They first focused on an analysis
of energy input and output in technology and social organisation of work to
collect and produce food. All of this was set within the biological framework of
limiting factors and carrying capacity. Components of culture such as religion
and warfare were viewed as regulating mechanisms that helped to maintain a
balance between the population and its resources. This theoretical framework
was implemented by Rappaport (1967) in his fieldwork among the Tsembaga of
New Guinea. He viewed their ritual and warfare as regulating the delicate balance
between the human and pig populations to reduce competition between the two
species, with humans being surprisingly close to pigs in physiology, body and
group size and omnivorous diet. He argued that a human population was a species
within the ecosystem; that the system operated according to laws of nature that
could be understood in the light of system theory. In this framework major cultural
processes like ritual could be understood to play cybernetic functions.
This ‘biologisation’ of the ecological approach in Cultural Anthropology led to
the label of Ecological Anthropology replacing Steward’s label of Cultural
Ecology, although the two are sometimes used as synonyms. Through the work
of Rappaport in particular, the cybernetic/ecosystemic view became a dominant
trend in environmental or Ecological Anthropology. To cybernetic ecological
anthropologists, adaptation of ecological units does not refer to Darwinian struggle
for reproductive success or efficient resource utilisation, but rather to maintenance
of equilibrium, homeostasis, and above all an un-degraded ecosystem. Rappaport
(1977, p.168), for example, defined adaptation as ‘the process through which
living systems maintain homeostasis’ and he explicitly included ecosystems within
this class of adaptive systems, arguing that ‘the proper goal of adaptive system is
merely to persist’ (ibid., p.178.). A generation of anthropologists, trained in
Ecology and Systems Theory, then went to the field to measure the flow of energy
through the throphic levels of the ecosystems of which humans were but a part
(Rappaport, 1967). The choice of research site was still a local community, and
was often treated as a closed system for the purposes of analysis.
According to Moran (op.cit.), perhaps no work had a greater impact on the
development of an ecosystem approach in Anthropology than Rappaport’s study
Culture Environment
of the New Guinea population (1967) nor had any other study attracted as many
critics of an ecological approach. The main challenge for human ecology, as
Vayda and McCay (1975) saw it, was to discover and identify the actual problems
people face and to delineate their ways of coping with these problems. However,
there are a number of problems in applying the ecosystem concept to
Anthropology. According to Ellen (1981), anthropological ecosystem studies
over-emphasised the self-regulatory feature of ecosystems to the neglect of
processes by which systems transform themselves in response to either external
or internal dynamics. Cognitive dimensions of human behaviour had been
neglected despite the knowledge that cultural factors mediate such ecological
dimensions as population size and resource use. Another shortcoming of the
‘ecosystemic’ approach was pointed out to be an over-emphasis on constraints
to the neglect of innovation on the part of organisms in general, and humans in
particular. There is also a tendency for models to ignore time and structural change,
thereby overemphasizing stability in ecosystems. According to Vayda and McCay
(op.cit.), ecosystem analysis is more complete and more attuned to ecological
theory when it moves beyond the detailed appraisal of how a population survives
and how its members respond to various ‘perturbations.’ Consideration of how
they respond differently from one generation to the next, how they respond to
novel and sometimes externally induced problem allows for explanations that
are more consistent with our understanding of the adaptability of human
Following the above developments in the realm of Environmental or Ecological
Anthropology, Marvin Harris attempted to advance the ecological explanation
as well as description of cultures by developing an explicit and systematic
scientific research strategy, which he called cultural materialism. Harris and his
students applied this research strategy to explain seemingly arbitrary religious
beliefs and customs in terms of ecological adaptation. According to Harris (1979),
the granting of sacred status to cattle among the Hindus of India and the
consequent prohibition on beef eating was necessary for a high density population
of pre-industrial rural cultivators. The high caloric and spatial cost of raising
livestock for meat consumption could not be sustained and was rejected in favour
of more efficient grain consumption. But in this adaptation of grain production
and consumption, cattle played an important part, supplying traction for ploughs,
manure for fertiliser, and milk and butter for consumption. Holy status protected
cattle from consumption as meat and saved them for supporting grain cultivation.
Harris had shown that the composition of village cattle herds varies predictably
in accordance with farmers’ pragmatic needs for different ratios of bovine species
and sexes in different eco-zones, which means that Indian villages use mainly
practical criteria rather than mystical ones for managing their livestock. The
work of Harris and others working along similar lines have been criticized on
many points, but especially for confusing origins and functions and for assuming
that almost anything that persists is adaptive (Salzman and Attwood, 1996).
A few anthropologists had tried to transcend some of the limitations of the above
approaches by adding a diachronic dimension in examining how both culture
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
and environment mutually influence and change each other over time, an approach
called historical ecology. Most notable is the work of William Balée in the early
1990s on the Ka’apor in the Amazon of Brazil, who recognizes 768 species of
plants from seed to reproductive adult stages, the largest ethno-botanical repertoire
reported for any people in the Amazon (Barfield, 1997). Balée has tried to apply
Historical Ecology to integrate aspects of Ethno Ecology, Political Ecology and
Regional Ecology in a processual framework. In this context, he has analyzed
the Ka’apor’s response to adaptive constraints and opportunities in both their
social and natural environments, including other indigenous societies, AfroAmericans,
and European migrants who have each had an impact on their natural
The anthropological approaches to human-environment interactions described
above have been largely confined to basic research with very little attention being
paid to applied problems, let alone to action or advocacy work. Early studies of
humans and their environment moved from the “Environmental Determinism”
to the “Environmental Possibilism” and to the “Cultural Ecology” of Julian
Steward. The first major theory regarding the interaction between culture and
environment, one that has been in circulation since the time of classical Greece,
is Environmental Determinism (ED), or Evironmentalism. This idea basically
states that environment mechanically “dictates” how a culture adapts. Later on
the general orientation of explanations of man-environment interrelations in the
United States shifted towards what came to be called “Possibilism”/
Environmental Possibilism (EP) in the late 1920s and the 1930s. In Possibilism,
the environment is seen as a limiting or enabling factor rather than a determining
factor. In the 1950s-60s significant progress came from the development of what
came to be known as “Cultural Ecology,” engaged with the analysis of cultural
adaptation to natural environments an approach proposed by Julian H. Steward.
He also developed the concept of culture core as the behavior patterns most
closely linked to the environment (e.g., subsistence and food acquisition). Other
approaches followed Cultural Ecology that expanded the scope of environmental
research in Anthropology. As scholarly paradigms evolved in the latter half of
the 20th century, Roy Rappaport and Vayda, A.P (1968), developed an ecosystem
approach that treated human populations as one of a number of interacting species
and physical components and transformed Cultural Ecology into Ecological
Anthropology. The idea of cultural materialism in anthropology was most
prominently and vigorously proposed by the American anthropologist Marvin
Harris (1927-2001). He strongly held the view that similar technologies applied
to similar environments tend to produce similar kinds of economic and
sociocultural arrangements. According to the theory of cultural materialism,
cultural systems are nothing but adaptive responses to solve practical problems
of human survival and resource management in specific environments which
should be analyzed from a historical perspective.
According to Wolf (1964, p.94), ‘the goal of Anthropology is the creation of an
image of man that will be adequate to the experience of our times’. Such an
image of man must take cognizance of the experience of man within the context
of the whole biosphere. A science of man, according to Anderson (1973) must
seek to integrate a concern for human ends with the scientific mode of thought,
Culture Environment
which owes its success to its emphasis upon means. According to him, calls
heard for greater concern of Anthropology with crucial social and biological
issues are certainly justified. In developing a new scientific humanism, the
anthropologist should fuse the scientist’s commitment to truth and the humanist’s
commitment to human welfare. In an adequate scientific humanism, the
scientifically relevant and the humanly relevant should coincide. An ecological
perspective, including an adequate ecological ethic, may provide the soundest
basis for judging social relevance and for defining the frame of scientific enquiry.
This is perhaps the strongest argument for going beyond an Anthropological or
Ecological Anthropology towards the multi-disciplinary development of
Anthropological Ecology or “Ecosystematology” (Schultz, 1967). The effect of
these debates has been that ecological anthropology is gradually being
incorporated into more general theoretical discourse with current awareness of
global environmental problems drawing Ecological Anthropology into
multidisciplinary debates over ‘sustainable development’ and how Anthropology
could contribute to the environmentalist discourse.
Anderson, J.N. 1973. “Ecological Anthropology and Anthropological Ecology”
in J.J. Honigmann, (ed.), Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology,
Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, pp.179-239.
Barfield, Thomas (ed.). 1997. The Dictionary of Anthropology, Oxford UK:
Blackwell Publishers, pp. 137-139.
Bennett, J.W. 1984. “Ecosystems, Environmentalism, Resource Conservation
and Anthropological Research” in E.F. Moran, (ed.), The Ecosystem Concept in
Anthropology, Colorado: Westview Press, Inc., pp.289-310.
Boas, F. 1911. The Mind of Primitive Man, New York: Macmillan.
Descola, P., Pálsson .G. 1996. “Introduction” in P. Descola and G. Pálsson (ed.),
Nature and Society: Anthroplogical Perspectives, London: Routledge, pp. 1-22.
Ellen, R.F. 1981. Environment, Subsistence and System, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Forde, C.D. 1934. Habitat, Economy and Society, New York: Dutton.
Geertz, C., 1963, Agricultural Involution, Berkeley: University of California
Goldenweisser, A. 1937. Anthropology, New York: F.S. Crofts.
Harris, M. 1979. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture,
New York: Random House.
Kroeber, A. 1939. Cultural and Natural Areas of Native North America, Berkeley:
University of California Press.
Moran, E. F. 1984. “Limitations and Advances in Ecosystems Research”, in E.F.
Moran (ed), 1984, The Ecosystems Concept in Anthropology, Colorado: Westview
Press, pp.3-32.
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
Rappaport, R. 1967. Pigs for the Ancestors, New Haven: Yale University Press.
Rappaport, R. 1977. “Ecology, Adaptation and the Ills of Functionalism”,
Michigan Discussions in Anthropology 2.
Salzman, P.C., Attwood. D.W. 1996. “Ecological Anthropology” in A. Barnard,
J. Spencer (ed.), 1996, Encyclopedia of Social and Cultural Anthropology,
London: Routledge, p.169-172.
Schultz, A.M. 1967. “The Ecosystem as a Conceptual Tool in the Management
of Natural Resources” in S.V. Ciriacy-Wantrup, J.J. Parsons (ed.), Natural
Resources: Quality and Quantity, Berkeley: University of California, pp. 139-
Steward, J. 1955. The Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear
Evolution, Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Vayda, A.P., McCay. B. 1975. “New Directions in Ecology and Ecological
Anthropology”, Annual Review in Anthropology; 4, pp. 293-306.
Vayda, A.P., Rappaport. R. 1968. “Ecology, Cultural and Non- Cultural” in J.
Clifton, (ed.), Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, Boston: Houghton and
Wolf, E.R. 1964. Anthropology, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
Suggested Reading
Anderson, J.N. 1973. “Ecological Anthropology and Anthropological Ecology”
in J.J. Honigmann, (ed.), Handbook of Social and Cultural Anthropology,
Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, pp.179-239.
Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson. 2010. Introduction to Cultural Ecology. A
division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Ellen, R.F. 1981. Environment, Subsistence and System, Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press.
Sample Questions
1) What are the main anthropological theories regarding the relationship
between culture and environment?
2) What are the key aspects of Julian Steward’s theory of Cultural Ecology?
3) How did the ‘Ecosystem’ approach gain importance in Anthropology? What
are its limitations?
4) Write short notes on the following:
a) Environmental Possibilism
b) Cultural Materialism
Culture Environment UNIT 2 APPLICATION OF CONCEPT OF Relationship
2.1 Introduction
2.2 Concept of Ecosystem
2.3 Historical Background of the Idea of Ecosystem in Anthropology
2.4 Pioneers of the Ecosystem Concept in Anthropology
2.5 Notable Contributions on Application of Concept of Ecosystem in
2.5.1 The Relationship between Environment and Productive Technology
2.5.2 Generalised and Specialised Ecosystems
2.5.3 Ethnic Groups and Ecological Niches
2.5.4 Population Expansion through Warfare
2.5.5 Resource Management through Religious Ritual
2.5.6 The Ecological Sustainability of Peasant Economy
2.5.7 An Ecosystem Approach to Caste System
2.5.8 Criticisms of the Ecosystem Approach
2.5.9 Ethno-Ecology
2.5.10 Cultural Materialism
2.6 Summary
2.7 References
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
At the end of this unit, you will be able to:
• understand the historical background and the importance of the concept of
ecosystem in Anthropology;
• know about the pioneering and classical works done by anthropologists who
applied the concept of ecology and ecosystem in the study of the relationship
between culture and environment;
• gain knowledge about the notable works done by the Indian anthropologists
in the field of ecological anthropology;
• know about the basic tenets of ethno-ecology and cultural materialism; and
• understand in brief about the criticisms of the ecosystem approach in
Other approaches followed Cultural Ecology that expanded the scope of
environmental research in Anthropology. In the 1960s and 1970s, the field became
influenced by new concepts developed by anthropologists who largely structured
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
their data based on ecological models. Roy A. Rappaport, and Andrew P. Vayda
(1968), developed an Ecosystem Approach that treated human populations as
one of a number of interacting species and physical components and transformed
Cultural Ecology into Ecological Anthropology. While Steward tied culture into
the environment, a new approach, called the “New Ecology,” tied culture into
the emerging science of Systems Ecology (e.g.,Vayda and Rappaport 1968). They
suggested that instead of studying how cultures are adapted to the environment,
attention should be focused on the relationship of specific human population to
specific ecosystem. In their view, human beings constitute simply another
population among the many populations of plants and animals species that interact
with each other with the non-living components (climate, soil, water etc) of their
local ecosystem. Thus, the ecosystem rather that culture, constitutes the
fundamental unit of analysis in their conceptual framework for Human Ecology.
The analytic unit shifted from “culture” to the ecological population, which was
seen as using culture as a means (the primary means) of adaptation to
environments. It was argued that human cultures were not unique but formed
only one of the population units interacting “to form food webs, biotic
communities, and ecosystems” (Vayda and Rappaport, 1968). This approach
placed humans within a unified science of Ecology so that what was learned
about human behaviour would have greater applicability as a way to conduct
holistic studies of humans in their environment. The ecosystem approach was
adopted from General Systems Theory, which had been developed within Ecology
in the 1930s and 1940s. General systems theory emphasised wholeness,
connectedness and feedback.
The concept of ecosystem originated in the biological sciences wherein living
organisms were viewed as interrelated parts of the physical environment, and
together they constituted a whole that maintained stability over time through
mutual feedbacks (Miller 2004). The concept owes its origin to the works of the
biologists who studied the interrelationships between the abiotic (non-living)
and biotic (living) parts of the environment. Ecosystem basically refers to
interdependence of the inorganic and organic parts of any geographical space in
which continuous exchange of matter and energy takes place. The anthropological
implication of the concept of ecosystem is significant because humans can also
be viewed as a part of this system participating in the process of energy flow and
cycling of matter within the system (Moran, 1990 & 1996). The concept of
ecosystem is employed by the scientists both as a concrete reality as well as a
model to understand the complex relationship between the inorganic and organic
components of nature. It is difficult to draw neat boundaries of ecosystems as
well as to determine their size. Ecosystems can be as small as a pond and as big
as large forests and deserts and different ecosystems often overlap. The application
of the concept of ecosystem by the biologists and anthropologists has also been
influenced by the General Systems Theory in Philosophy under which ecosystems
are viewed as a series of interdependent parts wherein each part functions for the
maintenance of the whole system. Another important concept within ecosystem
approach is “feedback”. Feedbacks are mechanisms by which an ecosystem
maintains equilibrium by returning to its original condition under stress. This is
known “negative feedback”. There is another kind of feedback by which the
ecosystem moves toward disequilibrium and change. This is known as “positive
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
feedback”. Anthropologists like A.P.Vyada and Roy Rappaport employed
Ecosystem Approach and the concept of feedbacks in the line of System Theory
to understand the cultural factors which regulated the relationship between small
human communities and the biotic and abiotic components of the natural
Although, the application of the sophisticated concepts of ‘Ecosystem’ took
place much later, the interest of the anthropologists in looking at the relationship
between culture and natural environment can be traced back to the works of the
German geographer Friedrich Ratzel (1844-1904) in the late nineteenth century
who held that culture is largely shaped by the immediate geographical
environment and much of cultural diversity was caused by the variation in the
natural environment. Followers of Ratzel in Europe and America continued this
tradition of research and formed a school which later became famous as
‘Geographical or Environmental determinism’. These scholars were also known
as ‘Anthropogeographers’. Later, a number of anthropologists in United States
of America were influenced by the works of Geographical Determinists and made
attempts to find out the relationship between culture and natural areas. A notable
pioneer in this culture and natural area research was Clark Wissler (1870-1947)
who was a student of Franz Boas (1858-1942), the founding father of American
anthropology. Wissler first recognized that the natural areas of native North
America corresponded closely with the culture areas. He particularly gave
emphasis on the close relationship between subsistence pattern and physical
environment but at the same time Wissler also noted the fact that culture areas
are not always identical to their natural areas. The work of Wissler was further
extended by Alfred Kroeber (1876-1960) another student of Franz Boas, who
examined the relationship between geographical environment and culture areas
in North America. Although, Kroeber did extensive research on the relationship
between environment and culture, he believed that environment only plays the
role of a limiting factor in shaping culture traits, a view which was also shared
by Boas. In other words, both Kroeber and Boas believed and they attempted to
demonstrate through research that it may be possible to predict what type of
culture traits cannot survive or exist in a particular natural area. For example,
one may say that woolen garments will not be worn by women and men in a hot
desert. But one cannot predict the number of possible culture traits in a particular
environment. So, one will not be able to say exactly the specific kind of light
garments women and men would wear in a desert. This view, which granted
importance to environment and bestowed a relative autonomy to culture and
historical factors to understand the dynamics of human society, was later
designated as ‘cultural possibilism’. Within the framework of possibilism, the
British social anthropologist, Daryll Forde (1902-1973) made an outstanding
study in his book Habitat, Economy and Society(1934) about the relationship
between geographical environment and culture traits, in which he concentrated
more on material culture(tools, technology and economic pursuits) in a
comparative framework.
Despite the difference, ‘environmental determinism’ and ‘cultural possibilism’
had one fundamental similarity: both schools of thought viewed ‘environment’
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
and ‘culture’ as separate and distinct domains which interacted with the other. In
the mid 1930s, Julian H. Steward (1902-1972) a student of Kroeber who was
working under a possibilist tradition developed the idea of ‘Cultural Ecology’ in
which ‘Environment’ and ‘Culture’ were viewed for the first time as two causally
related components in a single framework. Historically, the roots of the ecosystem
concept could be traced back to the concept of Cultural Ecology as developed by
Identify a community in your locality and list the biotic and abiotic
components which surround the community.
Julian Steward was a student of A.L.Kroeber and started his research under the
influence of Cultural Possibilism. Steward, however moved away from culture
area approach and emphasised more on the close relationship between technology
and environment but Steward was not an Environmental Determinist. While
both groups of scholars within the fold of Environmental Determinism and
Cultural Possibilsm viewed ‘Culture’ and ‘Environment’ as separate domains
which influence each other, Steward treated them as interacting entities in a
single framework. He viewed culture as an adaptive mechanism by which human
beings adjust with their natural environment. According to Steward, every aspect
of a culture does not adapt with the physical environment in the same manner.
Although, he began his research in Archaeology, Steward gradually moved
towards ethnographic studies of small populations. He found that the technologies
of production and the related behaviour patterns and social organisational features
of a small community are linked more intensively with the immediate natural
environment and forms a constellation, which he termed as the ‘culture core’.
Thus, among the Shoshone hunter-gatherers of North America Steward found
that the technology of hunting is related with patrilineal kinship, patrilocal
residence, band exogamy and low population density, which in turn helped the
community members to successfully use their scarce hunting game resource base
within a restricted area. According to him, hunter-gatherers under restricted and
scarce resource base may have different types of hunting implements but
patrilineal band structure is the common feature among them, and this is the
‘core’ of the hunting-gathering societies which has evolved over a long period of
time in order to adapt in a specific type of environmental conditions. So, there is
a causal relation between environment and the behaviour of human beings related
to the productive technology and this relation recurs through history. The idea of
Ecosystem was embedded in Steward’s thought since he viewed environment,
productive technologies and related cultural behaviour is a causally interrelated
network of relation which persist over time. For Steward, the principal meaning
of ecology is concerned with the adaptation of human beings with the natural
environment but human beings do not only adapt like animals, they adapt by
means of culture(Steward, 1955:31). To understand human adaptations to the
natural environment, Steward employed a new concept which he termed as
Cultural Ecology. According to Steward, Cultural Ecology is the study of the
relationship between culture and natural environment in which two orders of
phenomena are involved: (i) all the biotic and abiotic features of the natural
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
environment and (ii) the cultural elements by which human beings adapt with
the environment including technology and economic organisation (Hatch 1973:
114-115). But Steward did not believe in a circular causality of all the parts of
the ecosystem in which every part has an equal role to play for the maintenance
of the whole. This is the reason that he subdivided culture into ‘core’ and
‘secondary features’. Another important aspect of the contribution of Julian
Steward lies in the field of Cultural Evolution. For him, human ecosystems are
dynamic and social evolution is not unilinear, it is multilinear, since each culture
adapts to its local environment and also changes in its unique way.
Leslie White (1900-1972) was contemporary to Steward and his contribution
should also be discussed in the field of Ecology since White also viewed culture
as a kind of adaptation to the natural environment and he made a novel attempt
to measure the complexity and evolutionary progress of human societies in terms
of the amount of energy harnessed per capita per year. In his famous article
written in 1943 on energy and evolution of culture, White proposed that the
advancement of human societies took place through an increase in the amount
of energy utilised by technology. For White, technology, amount of energy
harnessed and sociocultural complexity are interrelated variables which should
be taken into consideration to understand social evolution and he proposed a
grand scheme of ‘Universal Evolution’ applicable to all kinds of human societies.
Despite their differences, Steward and White provided a materialistic view of
culture, which lie at the heart of later day Ecosystem Approaches in Anthropology.
Both of them gave primary importance to the adaptive nature of culture in relation
to the natural environment and also to productive technology and resource
management strategies of human beings. All these ideas were important for the
future generation of ecological anthropologists, who studied culture from an
ecological perspective.
The ground prepared by Julian Steward and Leslie White in American
Anthropology was taken up by later anthropologists who developed the Ecosystem
Approach in Anthropology in a more sophisticated manner. In this connection,
we would discuss about the works of the following anthropologists, viz. Tarak
Chandra Das (1898-1964), Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), Fredrik Barth (1928- ),
Andrew P. Vayda (1931-), Roy A.Rappaport(1926-97) and Robert MCc Netting
(1934-95) and Madhav Gadgil(1942- ) and Kailash Malhotra(). We would begin
with Geertz.
2.5.1 The Relationship between Environment and Productive
Tarak Chandra Das (1898-1964) was a pioneering Indian anthropologist during
the formative period of the discipline who conducted an intensive study on the
dynamic relationship between productive technology and natural environment
as early as 1937.
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
The field study of Das was published in the prestigious international journal
Anthropos under the title ‘Some notes on the economic and agricultural life of a
little known tribe on the eastern frontier of India’ (Das, 1937:440-449).
In his paper Das dealt with the relationship between the variation in technology
of agricultural practices with the natural environment and the socioeconomic
consequences of this variation within the same tribe. The name of the tribe is
Chiru, who like the Purums belonged to the old Kuki group of tribes of the
north-east India. At the time of Das’ field work during 1931-34, the Chiru
population was 1272 and they lived in 11 villages, 9 of which were situated on
the top of the hills and 2 were on the plains of the Manipur valley. Here Das first
established the importance of agriculture particularly shifting hill cultivation
among the Chirus despite the presence of hunting, fishing and gathering which
were found to be subsidiary occupations among them. According to Das:
Agriculture forms the basis of Chiru economic life. All other activities,
whether social, religious, or economic are directly or indirectly connected
with this important food-producing work. Economic activities like hunting,
fishing, rearing of domestic animals and trading are all subservient to
agriculture’ (Das, 1937:441).
But how did he substantiate his claims made in the above statement? Without
going into quantification, Das adopted the Ethnographic Methodology to prove
his argument.
First, he described the methods and situations under which the Chirus engage
them in fishing, hunting-gathering, domestication of animals and trading.
Second, he then described in brief the different rites and rituals connected with
Jhum cultivation and the role of traditional village officials in those communal
festivals. The evidences put forward by Das revealed how the natural environment
and the socio-religious practices of the tribe have made shifting hill cultivation
as the main economic foundation of the tribe. Das then proceeded further to look
into the sociological implications of this cultural ecological scenario of the Chiru
society. In the words of Das:
Chiru society is composed of agriculturists only. As already shown,
hunting, fishing and trading have not grown into independent occupations,
but are practised along with agriculture and is subordinated to its interest.
Thus, these avocations have failed to produce special socio-economic
groups. The traces of stratifications found among them cannot be attributed
to economic pursuits. (Ibid 1937: 443).
A careful reading of the paper reveals that the economic life of the Chirus which
Das constructed is not a simple description of the methods of shifting hill
cultivation and the associated religious rituals and rites. Neither it is an
ethnographic report for the search of borrowed culture traits from the neighbouring
tribes and Hinduised populations nor was it an attempt to put the Chirus in the
classical scheme of social evolution. The ethnography of Das on the other hand
is a penetrating analysis of the various socio-cultural dimensions of shifting hill
cultivation in an environmental framework and the slow changes that had been
taking place at the time of observation. Take for example, Das’ method of dealing
with an apparently simple ethnographic observation. He recorded that majority
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
of the Chiru villages possess only 20-30 households and the biggest village did
not contain more than 40 households. But what are the reasons and consequences
of Chiru village size in terms of the households? It is better to quote Das:
The Chirus do not renew the fertility of an exhausted patch of land by
means of fertilisers. It is left to nature which by accumulating the mould
for years together makes it again fit for another period of cultivation. The
effects of discarding exhausted patches of land are many and far-reaching.
It has led to scattering of villages at considerable distance from one
another. It puts a limit to the growth of population in each village….
Increase of population leads to establishment of new villages in order to
relieve pressure on land. This type of cultivation does not help in the
accumulation of wealth in individual hands and consequent growth of
rank. On the other hand it has bred an extreme democratic spirit in their
social and political life (Ibid 1937: 445).
The most interesting aspect of Das’s work on the Chirus is about the changes
that took place in their socio-political life due to migration of some sections of
the tribe from the hills to the edge of the Imphal valley. Das’ observations can be
called pioneering in terms of its analytical strength. According to him a shift
from Jhum cultivation on the hills to wet rice cultivation on the edge of the
valley is not only a techno-economic affair but it also entailed a whole gamut of
socio-political changes in the life of the Chirus. That is why he began his
observation by contrasting the ownership pattern of Jhum land with that of the
plains land. While the Jhum land was not owned by any individual family but
under the control of the village authority, the plains land could be owned by an
individual family for which a rent had to be paid to a supra-local political authority.
Since wet rice cultivation with the plough could be carried out in the plains, the
crop output was higher and a section of the Chirus (though small in number
during the time of Das’ field work) was found to have been adopting the plainsland
cultivation. This shift has had immense socio-political consequences for
the community. The analysis forwarded by Das deserves to be quoted in his
inimitable words:
So long we had been dealing with Jhum-land only. Besides this there is
another kind of land which is gradually coming into prominence in Chiru
economic life. This is the land at the feet of the hills where ploughcultivation
is possible… The village community has no authority over the
disposal of this type of land and it does not hold itself in any way
responsible for its fortune. On the other hand it is a source of danger to
the authority of the village community. The bachelors’ house, marriage
by service, equal right of every individual over the village jhum-land, and
setting up of new houses soon after marriage, are institutions directed to
the same end, namely undermining the influence of the family and setting
up the village community as the only body to which one may look for help
and succour. But the new type of land will set up the family over the village
community and place the house-father above all (Das, 137:446).
Enumerate the reasons of considering the work of T.C.Das as a representative
of Ecological studies in Anthropology.
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
2.5.2 Generalised and Specialised Ecosystems
Clifford Geertz in his famous book Agricultural Involution(1963) for the first
time introduced the concept of “generalised” and “specialised” ecosystems
Anthropology by directly borrowing the concepts from the ecologist
E.P.Odum(Geertz, 1963:7). According to Geertz:
By a generalised ecosystem is meant one in which a great variety of species
exists, so that the energy produced by the system is distributed among a
relatively large number of different species, each of which is represented
by a relatively small number of individuals.(Ibid: 7)
The specialised ecosystem on the other hand is characterised by:
…a relatively small number of species, each of which is represented by a
relatively large number of individuals. (Ibid: 7).
In his book Agricultural Involution Geertz made a comparative analysis of the
above two types of ecosystems in Indonesia under the impact of colonialism and
increasing population pressure. He had specifically shown that these two
ecosystems in Indonesia, one represented by ‘swidden’ or slash-and-burn agriculture
(generalised) and the other represented by ‘wet-rice agriculture’(specialised) had
two different types of dynamics, which finally determined the differences in
population density, modes of land use, and agricultural productivity in outer and
inner parts of Indonesia. The generalised ecosystem in Indonesia supported a
smaller population with higher plant diversity and lesser productivity while the
specialised ecosystem could support a larger and denser population with lesser
plant diversity but higher agricultural productivity. The findings of Geertz had
immense implications for modernisation of food production system in postcolonial
Indonesia since any attempt towards technological improvement in
agriculture should take into consideration the dynamics and peculiarities of the
two types of ecosystems in the country.
2.5.3 Ethnic Groups and Ecological Niches
Fredrik Barth is our next author. Barth was a Norwegian Social Anthropologist
trained in Great Britain who applied the concept of “niche” in understanding the
relationship of different ethnic groups in a wide geographical area. Like Geertz,
Barth also borrowed the concepts of ecological niche, competition and symbiosis
from the biological sciences to analyze the adaptation of three ethnic groups
having distinct technological and social organisational features in the Swat valley
in Pakistan. In biology, the concept of ecological niche refers to the functional
role a species plays in a given ecosystem. ‘Ecological niche’ is different from the
‘habitat’ of a particular species. Biologists popularly designate niche as the
‘occupation’ while habitat the ‘address’ of the species. (Miller, 2004:98) Barth
looks at the relationship of three ethnic groups, viz. Pathan, Kohistani and Gujar
in terms of their distribution and long and short-term migrations and movements
in the Swat and Indus river valleys of Pakistan. He observed that the distribution
and the movement of these ethnic groups can be explained in an “ecologic
framework”. By using the ecologic framework Barth worked out four important
principles which are as follows:
1) The distribution of ethnic groups is controlled not by objective and fixed
“natural areas” but by the distribution of the specific ecologic niches which
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
the group, with its particular economic and political organisation, is able
to exploit (Barth 1956: 362-375). This is exemplified by the expansion of
the Pathans, who though had superior military strength did not move beyond
the double crop area since their economy and political organisation required
a considerable surplus.
2) Different ethnic groups will establish themselves in stable co-residence in
an area if they exploit different ecologic niches, and especially if they can
thus establish symbiotic economic relations (Ibid).The relationship between
the settled agriculturist Pathans and semi-nomadic Gujars revealed a
symbiotic relationship. Thus, Gujars were assimilated as a specialised
occupational group of herders within the stratified agricultural Pathan
economy, but at the same time they also practiced pastoralism in winter in
the higher altitudes an ecological niche not utilised by the Pathans. The
Gujars supply milk, dairy products and meat to the Pathans.
3) If different ethnic groups are able to exploit the same niches fully, the
militarily more powerful will normally replace the weaker… (Ibid). In Swat
this has happened when the Pathans invaded the Kohistani territory and the
latter were pushed to areas inhospitable to the Pathans. But the Kohistanis
maintained their autonomy through mono-crop agriculture and animal
4) If different ethnic groups exploit the same ecologic niches but the weaker of
them is better able to utilise marginal environments, the groups may coreside
in one area, as Gujars and Kohistanis in West Kohistan (Ibid).
The ‘ecologic’ method utilised by Fredrik Barth in the mid-fifties to explain
the symbiotic as well as competitive relations among the three ethnic groups
of Swat area of Pakistan was unique and should be regarded as an
independent line of research in the application of Ecosystem Approach in
2.5.4 Population Expansion through Warfare
We would now discuss the contribution of A.P. Vayda towards the application of
ecosystem approach in anthropology. Vayda pioneered a very interesting area of
ecological research in his famous paper ‘Expansion and warfare among swidden
agriculturalists’ published in American Anthropologist as early as 1961 (Vayda,
1961: 346-58). In that paper he began by questioning the standard anthropological
interpretation of warfare among simple societies as expression of ‘social solidarity’
or as a ‘safety-valve institution’ for the release of pent-up aggressions. By using
the ethnographic literature and other archival sources, Vayda presented two case
studies of warfare among the Maoris of New Zealand and Ibans of Sarawak in
which he explained the process of expansion of populations in a purely ecological
framework. According to Vayda, the need for expansion of these tribal
communities arose from the practice of slash-and-burn agriculture which involved
clearing of forests for agriculture and keeping large amount of land as fallow for
some years before they are again ready for cultivation. Warfare among the Maoris
took place for capturing land which has already been cleared by other groups.
Vayda argued:
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
…Maori groups needing more land may have preferred getting previously
used land from other groups, by force if necessary, rather than expanding
into the virgin rain forest. If the time and effort required for clearing
virgin land were considerably more than were necessary for the operations
of both conquest and the preparation of previously used land for
cultivation, it follows that territorial conquests, such as some of those
recorded in Maori traditional history, would have added more efficiently
to the prosperity of particular groups than would peaceful dispersion(Ibid).
Vayda extended the above line of argument to envisage Maori intra-tribal warfare
in the form of a ‘chain reaction’ model in which the expansion of one group into
the contiguous territory of the second group led the second to the territory of the
third and so on until the last group in the chain had to take the trouble to clear the
virgin forest for survival.
In the second model, Vayda analyzed the expansion of the Ibans of Sarawak in
Indonesia. In contrast to Maoris, the Ibans displayed remarkable mobility over
geographical space and lesser frequency of intra-tribal warfare; the Ibans however,
were found to be engaged in warfare with other tribes. According to Vayda, the
expansion of the Ibans took place through a variety of environmental and socioeconomic
factors. The Ibans expanded into the riverside lands of the other tribes
which facilitated intra-community movements among them. This kind of
expansion enabled the Ibans to cooperate more effectively in military undertakings
and also provided the tribe access to trading with Chinese and Malay businessmen
from whom they got a variety of goods including guns and European iron and
steel which further strengthened their economic and military power over a wider
2.5.5 Resource Management through Religious Ritual
In this subsection, we would discuss one of the most remarkable contributions
in Ecological Anthropology which employed the conceptual tools of ecosystem
to explain the role of rituals among the Tsembaga Marings of New Guinea Islands.
In this work Rappaport described the culture of the Tsembaga as a system in
which a particular religious ritual functioned to maintain equilibrium between
humans and their subsistence resources. Rappaport viewed the relations of the
Tsembaga with their environment as a complex system composed of two
subsystems, viz.(i) a local subsystem which is constituted by the Tsembaga cultural
practices and the immediate nonhuman components of the environment and (ii)
a larger regional subsystem of which Tsembaga is one of the constituent units. A
lot of quantitative data on calorie consumption, protein intake as well as number
of domestic animal over time were collected by Rappaport. The major finding of
the study is quite interesting. The Tsembaga mainly subsist on horticulture along
with domestication of pigs. Normally, the pig population served a number of
functions to the horticulture gardens and the household economy of the tribe and
they did not eat pork frequently. Rappaport through his meticulous collection
and analysis of field data observed that the increase in the pig population among
the Tesmbaga created a stress in the system and the pig began to compete with
the human population at the local level. When the stress crossed the threshold of
the system, the members of the village community performed a ritual addressed
to their ancestors in which large numbers of domestic pigs were slaughtered and
the pork was eaten as well as distributed among the kins and allies who helped a
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
particular group in warfare and various economic activities. This pig slaughter
ritual reduced the stress in the system and also supplied essential protein to the
community members, enhanced social solidarity among kins and allies brought
back equilibrium in the system by reducing the pig population to much below
the threshold of stress. We quote from Rappaport:
….. the operation of ritual among the Tsembaga and other Maring helps
to maintain an undegraded environment, limits fighting to frequencies
which do not endanger the existence of the regional population, adjusts
man-land ratio, facilitates trade, distributes local surpluses of pig
throughout the regional population in the form of pork, and assures people
of high quality protein when they are most in need of it. (Rappaport 1967:
The work of Rappaport on the ritual regulation of environmental relations is
regarded as one of the most important contributions in the field of Ecological
Studies in Anthropology in which we find the application of ecosystem approach
in a sophisticated manner and it became very popular in Anthropology and other
disciplines during the 1960s and 70s.
2.5.6 The Ecological Sustainability of Peasant Economy
Our penultimate author is Robert Mc Netting who made life-long contributions
in the field of Ecological Anthropology. Netting pursued and extended the
questions raised by Julian Steward in his construction of Cultural Ecology in an
intensive as well as cross-cultural framework. One of the most remarkable works
of Netting was done on the small farmers of the hilly region in northern Nigeria
in West Africa. He studied a group of sedentary farmers, the Kofyars, who carried
out intensive agriculture on small plots of land by terracing and irrigation. The
description and analysis carried out by Netting revealed that the various features
of the physical environment (rainfall, soil fertility, hill slope etc.) of the Kofyars
were intimately related with demographic (e.g. population size), economic
(socioeconomic and cultural variables as “social instrumentalities” which played
a crucial role for the maintenance of the peasant household within the wider
market economy (Netting, 1968).
In a later period Netting undertook research during the early 1970s on the Germanspeaking
Alpine community of Törbel in the Vispertal of the Valais canton of
southern Switzerland. The Törbel inhabitants practiced an intensive, largely selfsufficient,
mixed farming and herding economy. In this remarkable research,
Netting combined his anthropological fieldwork with available historical data
from the archives to understand the mechanisms which maintained stability of
the nuclear family over long period under changing socioeconomic conditions.
His most salient contribution was in the analysis of historical records on household
structure and migration in this largely endogamous community. Netting collected
and cross-checked census data from 1829—1880 with the help of Walter Elias
and Larry Manire and undertook computer analysis using software developed by
the Cambridge Center for the Study of Population and Social Structure (Linares,
Netting found that between 1829 and 1880 three-fourths of Törbel’s households
continued to encompass four to eight members, with the modal number being
four or five. There were minor increases in the age of marriage, frequency of
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
celibacy, and average life span of the parents. But the number of households
remained fairly stable. The formation of new households was seriously constrained
by the limit placed on resources—namely, meadows, gardens, grain fields, and
water to irrigate them. Households with extended family units that included
maiden aunts, or celibate uncles became more common through time; but when
emigration and wage labour opportunities presented themselves, households
contracted in size. The ideal continued to be the nuclear household, well adapted
to a relatively static agrarian economy. Within relatively narrow boundaries,
therefore, the household served as the main institution through which individuals
responded to short-term social and economic changes. This work of Robert MCc
Netting became a classic, referred by economic historians and students of rural
European life as well as by anthropologists and cultural ecologists (Netting, 1981).
2.5.7 An Ecosystem Approach to Caste System
Our last description is a brilliant study conducted jointly by an Indian biologist
and an anthropologist in the early eighties to explain the hereditary monopoly of
certain occupations from an ecosystem perspective. The work was done by
Madhav Gadgil and Kailash Malhotra through their intensive fieldwork in the
Maharashtra state in western India. The study revealed that seven hereditary
caste groups like Kunbi, Gavli, Hatkar, Tirumal Nandiwallas, Fulmali
Nandiwallas, Vaidus and Phasepardhis pursued their respective traditional
occupations in a wide area without conflict and competition by using specific
technologies and natural resource base. According to Gadgil and Malhotra, these
caste groups depended much on the natural resources in such a manner that each
one of them survived in their own ecological niche without encroaching the
niche of the other caste group, although some of them lived in the same
geographical area. The authors termed this specialised zone specific habitation
of the caste groups as “resource partitioning” which often led to the monopoly
of even a clan or lineage of a particular caste. But along with “resource
partitioning”, there also existed a kind of symbiotic relation between the different
castes living in adjacent regions. Thus the Kunbis lived in the lower valleys and
practiced cereal cultivation while the Gavlis were cattle herders who lived on
the upper hill terraces of the western ghat. The Kunbis supplied cereals to Gavlis
and in exchange received butter from the latter. More interestingly, the three
non-pastoral nomadic caste groups (Tirumal Nandiwallas, Vaidus and
Phasepardhis), though practised hunting differed markedly in terms of game
animals and implements, which minimised competition among them. Gadgil
and Malhotra finally observed that with the advent of colonialism the traditional
resource base of these castes collapsed and as a result conflict among the caste
groups began to take place and the caste system in the region became maladaptive
(Gadgil and Malhotra, 1983).
2.5.8 Criticisms of the Ecosystem Approach
The Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology which was developed to explain
variation within and between cultures has been criticized mainly on the following
i) the Ecological Approach paid more emphasis on the stability of socio-cultural
systems rather than the change and instability which often takes place in an
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
ii) Ecological anthropologists sometime give more importance to energy and
exchange of materials in analyzing ecosystems in which humans play their
roles rather than paying importance to the symbolic functions of culture.
iii) The Marxist anthropologists criticized Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology
on the ground that the latter viewed the different components of ecosystem
in circular relationship. The Marxists argue that some parts of the ecosystem
(e.g. productive technology and relations of production) are more important
than others (e.g. beliefs, values, morals etc.) and there is a hierarchy of
relations within each ecosystem. The proponents of the Ecosystem Approach
in Anthropology, according to the Marxists were wrong for not considering
the productive relations of an ecosystem as the most important.
iv) The Ecosystem theorists in Anthropology were also criticized for giving too
much emphasis on the synchronic aspects of the system and rarely look into
its diachronic dimensions. This means that the Ecosystem Approaches in
Anthropology always view human-environment relationships at a particular
point of time; they rarely studied those relations over long periods of time.
2.5.9 Ethnoecology
Ethnoecology is the scientific study of how people of a particular culture view
the natural environment around them. It is regarded as one of the most important
branches of Ecological Anthropology and it began with the early researches of
Harold Conklin( 1926- ) who did pioneering works on the a tribe named Hanunoo
in the Philippines. Conklin’s study on the colour categories of the Hanunoo has
become famous in Cognitive Anthropology, a subfield of Anthropology which
studies different systems of native classifications in a comparative framework.
One of the most interesting studies done by Conklin dealt with the native
categories of slash-and-burn cultivation practiced by the Hanunoo of the
southeastern Mindoro Island in the Philippines. In this classic study which was
first published in 1954, Harold Conklin contrasted the western view of slashand-burn
cultivation with the native ideas of this traditional method of growing
crops in the hill slopes. The field observations done by the author revealed that
the knowledge of the Hanunoo is more intensive than the outside observers
regarding the variety of crops grown in a plot, nature of forest cleared for
cultivation, time interval between two successive plantation and the like(Conklin,
1954:133-42). We quote from the author:
More than 450 animal types and over 1,600 plant types are distinguished.
The floral components are more significant, especially in regard to swidden
agriculture. Of some 1,500 “useful” plant types over 430 are cultigens
(most of which are swidden grown), existing only by virtue of the conscious
domestication of the Hanunoo. Partly as a result of this intensified interest
in plant domestication and detailed knowledge of minute differences in
vegetative structures, Hanunoo plant categories outnumber, by more than
400 types, the taxonomic species into which the same local flora is grouped
by systematic botanists( Ibid).
Try to collect a list of native terms of plants from any individual who do
not belong to your own community and note their uses to the community.
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
2.5.10 Cultural Materialism
The idea of Cultural Materialism in Anthropology was most prominently and
vigorously proposed by the American anthropologist Marvin Harris (1927-2001).
He strongly held the view that similar technologies applied to similar
environments tend to produce similar kinds of economic and sociocultural
arrangements. According to the theory of Cultural Materialism, cultural systems
are nothing but adaptive responses to solve practical problems of human survival
and resource management in specific environments which should be analyzed
from a historical perspective. One of the most famous works done by Harris
under the framework of cultural materialism was published under the title “The
Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle” published in Current Anthropology
in the year 1966. In this paper Harris argued that Hindu religious view about the
sacredness of cow and the related taboo on the killing of this animal has ecological
functions and should be analyzed from an ecosystem perspective. In order to
support his hypothesis Harris looked into the major components of India’s sacred
cattle complex some of which are: (i) milk production, (ii) use of cattle in
agriculture as traction animals, (iii) use of cow-dung as manure etc. With the
help of data collected from secondary sources Harris showed that cows are not
“useless” animals under existing technological, environmental and socioeconomic
conditions of India and this is reason from which the Hindu view about the
sacredness of cow originated. To quote from Harris:
….explanation of taboos, customs, and rituals associated with management
of Indian cattle be sought in “positive-functioned” and probably
“adaptive” processes of the ecological system of which they are a part,
rather than in the influence of Hindu theology (Harris 1966: 51-59).
In his later works Harris explained many different kinds of sociocultural
phenomena by placing them in their specific environmental, demographic,
technological and economic contexts.
Steward’s Cultural Ecology influenced the Ecological Anthropology of Roy
Rappaport and Andrew P. Vayda, but the analytic unit shifted from “culture” to
the ecological population, which was seen as using culture as a means (the primary
means) of adaptation to environments. In the 1960s and 1970s, the field became
influenced by new concepts developed by anthropologists who largely structured
their data based on ecological models. Roy A. Rappaport, and Andrew P. Vayda
(1968), developed an ecosystem approach that treated human populations as one
of a number of interacting species and physical components and transformed
Cultural Ecology into Ecological Anthropology. Vayda and Rappaport (1968)
suggested that instead of studying how cultures are adapted to the environment,
attention should be focused on the relationship of specific human population to
specific ecosystem. In their view, human beings constitute simply another
population among many populations of plants and animal species that interact
with each other with the non-living components (Climate, soil, water etc) of
their local ecosystem. Thus, the ecosystem, rather than culture, constitutes the
fundamental unit of analysis in their conceptual framework for human ecology.
Application of Concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology
The application of Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology dates back to works
done by the American anthropologist Julian Steward who first viewed culture
and natural environment within a holistic framework which he labeled as cultural
ecology. Inspired by Steward later generation of anthropologists particularly
A.P.Vyada and Roy Rappaport employed the concept of ecosystem in a much
more rigorous manner to understand the mechanisms of population expansion,
warfare and the ecological roles played by religious rituals in simple technology
using societies. A remarkable contribution was made by T.C.Das, an Indian
anthropologist in the field of Ecological Anthropology as early as 1937.
The Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology was criticized for its emphasis on the
stability of sociocultural systems rather than change and disequilibrium. There
are however ecological studies of long and short-term changes in the ecosystems
as exemplified by the studies done by Netting.
The enthnoecological studies on the other hand revealed the richness of the native
categories of the natural environment while the cultural materialism of Marvin
Harris directed our attention to the importance of viewing food taboos from an
ecological perspective.
All in all, the application of the Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology provided
a materialistic, objective and empirical ground to view culture and society as
human adaptation to the natural environment.
Barth, F. 1956. ‘Ecologic relationships of ethnic groups in Swat, North Pakistan.’
American Anthropologist. vol (58) 1079-89.
Conklin, H.C. 1954. ‘An ethnoecological approach to shifting agriculture:
Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2nd ser., vol.17, pp. 133-42.
Das, T.C. 1937. ‘Some notes on the economic and agricultural life of a littleknown
tribe on the eastern frontier of India’. Anthropos, 32(3&4): 440-49.
Ellen, R. 1982. Environment, subsistence and system: the ecology of small-scale
social formations, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.
Forde, D. 1934. Habitat, economy and society, London: Methuen.
Gadgil, M. and Malhotra, K.C. 1983. ‘Adaptive significance of the Indian caste
system: an ecological perspective’. Annals of Human Biology. vol (10), No.5.
Geertz, C. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The Processes of Ecological Change
in Indonesia, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harris, M. 1966. ‘The cultural ecology of India’s sacred cattle’. Current
Anthropology, vol(7), no.1, pp.51-59.
Harris, M. 1979. Cultural materialism: the struggle for a science of culture,
New York: Random House.
Hatch, E. 1973. Theories of man and culture, Columbia University Press: New
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
Linares, O.F., ‘Robert MCC. Netting’, 1995. Biographical Memoirs. National
Academy of Sciences, USA. (Available in the website of NAS through Google).
Miller, G.T. Jr. 2004. Environmental Science (Tenth international student edition),
Singapore: Thomson Brooks/Cole.
Moran, E.F. 1990. The Ecosystem Approach in Anthropology: From Concept to
Practice. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
Moran, E.F. 1996. ‘Environmental Anthropology’. in Encyclopedia of Cultural
Anthropology, edited by D.Levinson and M.Ember, vol.2, pp.383-389.
Netting, R.M. 1968. Hill Farmers of Nigeria; Cultural Ecology of the Kofyar of
the Jos Plateau. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Netting, R.M. 1981. Balancing on an Alp: Ecological Change and Continuity in
a Swiss Mountain Community. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rappaport, R.A. 1967. ‘Ritual regulation of environmental relations among a
New Guinea people’, Ethnology, vol.6, pp.17-30.
Steward, J.H. 1937. Ecological aspects of southwestern society. Anthropos, 32:
Steward, J.H. 1955. Theory of culture change: the methodology of multilinear
evolution, Urbana, University of Illinois Press.
Vayda, A.P. 1961. ‘Expansion and warfare among swidden agriculturalists’.
American Anthropologist, vol.63, pp. 346-58.
White, L.A. 1943. ‘Energy and evolution of culture’. American Anthropologist,
43: 335-356.
Suggested Reading
Vayda, A.P. (edited). 1969. Environment and cultural behavior. The Natural
History Press: New York.
R.Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms, 2004. Anthropological Theory: An
Introductory History (Third edition) edited by McGraw Hill.
Sample Questions
1) Define ecosystem and discuss its importance in Anthropology.
2) Discuss briefly about the concept of Cultural Ecology as propounded by
Julian Steward.
3) Discuss about the contributions of Clifford Geertz in his study of agricultural
systems in Indonesia.
4) Discuss how A.P.Vayda and Roy Rappaport employed the concept of
Ecosystem in Anthropology.
Application of Concept of UNIT 3 CURRENT APPROACHES IN Ecosystem in Anthropology
3.1 Introduction
3.2 Theoretical Approaches and Perspectives in Environmental Anthropology
3.2.1 Theoretical Orientations in Environmental Anthropology
3.2.2 Earlier Approaches in Environmental Anthropology
3.2.3 Current Trends in Environmental Anthropology
3.3 Approaching and Understanding a Situation Around you through a Suitable
3.4 Accomplishment and Criticism
3.5 Summary
3.6 References
Suggested Reading
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
At the end of this unit, you will be able to:
• know about various key concepts, theories, and current approaches in
environmental anthropology;
• be familiar with the approaches that helped anthropologists in understanding
the interrelationship between human beings and environment from an
anthropological perspective;
• understand how environmental anthropological research is aiding in
bringing a deeper understanding about different dimensions of human
endeavor in environmental context; and
• adopt an appropriate methodology to study/understand a situation
Environmental Anthropology, one of the sub-fields of Anthropology, has emerged
only in the 1980s, and has been flourishing since the 1990s. Since Human Ecology,
System Ecology, Political Ecology, Environmental Economics etc all fall under
the category of Environmental Anthropology it may also be regarded as,
“Ecological Anthropology” or, “Cultural Ecology”. Currently, Environmental
Anthropology is viewed as the study which centers upon the dynamic interaction
between human beings and their eco-systems or, natural environment that will
cater the students with more understanding, and the nature of applicability in
this emerging field. Consequently, Environmental Anthropology has cater an
integrated analysis to understand environmental problems and knowledge in a
“scientific” and “anthropological” standpoint, especially as a relatively new area
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
of Applied Anthropology. This requires familiarity with its approaches. Thus,
this course topic is to explore theories and methodological approaches of
ecological anthropology, human adaptability, subsistence strategies, human
alteration of the environment, indigenous knowledge of flora and fauna, ethnobiological
classification, natural resource sustainability, political ecology, gender
and environment, intellectual property rights, biodiversity conservation,
development policies, environmental movements, environmental justice and the
current issues in Environmental Anthropology. This critical thinking course is
designed to help learner to understand the methodological approaches of
Environmental Anthropology, and as a result learner will be proficient to adopting
a suitable research strategy-approach in due situations.
Environmental Anthropology makes an effort to understand not only “how the
environment shapes human culture and society”, but also “how human beings
shape up the environment” with an appropriate theoretical framework, an interdisciplinary
one, which indebted subjects like science of Health, Geography,
Ecology, History, Archaeology, Politics, Economy, Sociology, Law, Resource
Management, Policy Analysis etc. So, it offers an opportunity to study the
“multiple dimensions of environment”, its prospects and challenges, and to lead
for better resolutions, and solutions. For a few decades, anthropological research
on environment and environmental issues has been increased notably as part of
a demand, both subjective and public, creating a more sensibility in environmental
issues and “environmental activism”, ‘across the globe. That has brought hefty
changes in human-environment relation due to the development in the sphere of
communication and technology.
Environment is often used to refer both “Nature” in its usual meaning, as well as
“the environment of a human group” including its “cultural” and “biophysical
elements” (Rappaport, 1979). Further, the “socio-natural” unit of analysis has
been wide open through the concept of environment as “a research tool” (Smith
and Reeves 1989). Environmental Anthropology saw how the social-cultural,
and environment interaction has been shaping each other through a process of
mutual influence, and covers a wide range of aspects that our minds have
developed. In this context, environmental studies crosses academic disciplinary
borders, and have necessarily become a combination of natural and social-science
approach in unique ways to “trans-disciplinary research”. Anthropology is in the
forefront of environmental research by its specific contributions with a wider
enthusiasm on human-environment interaction in the context of ‘society’ and
‘culture’ through a number of substantial holistic and empirical studies.
3.2.1 Theoretical Orientations in Environmental Anthropology
Environmental Anthropology has been established through a number of
intellectual inputs from the cultural evolutionism of Tylor, Morgan, and others
in the nineteenth century by assuming that all cultures could be moved through
stages in a relatively fixed sequence. Thus, Environmental Anthropology has
been approached with its subject severally during the course of its development
Current Approaches in
with theoretical background of Cultural Ecology and Multilinear evolution,
Cultural materialism, Eco-systems approach, Population ecology, Ethno ecology,
Social ecology, Ecofeminism, Political ecology, Symbolic ecology, Human
ecology, Evolutionary ecology, Ecological economics, Traditional ecological
knowledge, Liberation ecology, Paleo ecology, Nutrition ecology, Socio-biology,
Materialism and Environmental determinism and possibilism, Historical
particularism and Age-area by the influence of German diffusionism,
Environmental particularism, Sustainable development, Developmentalism and
environmentalism, Environmental justice, Environmental conservation,
Environmental risk, Environmental history and Historical ecology, Resource
management, Human rights and Property rights, Functionalism, Structuralism,
Marxism, Post-modernism etc. Currently, the environmental research in
Anthropology is moving on two major approaches with distinct methodologies,
and objectives. The first approach, “Ecological Anthropology” is using ecological
methodologies to study the human-environment interrelations. The “Human
Systems Ecology” initially developed by Bennett (1976), has been considered as
one of the influential approaches in this notion. It treated the “Human Ecology
as human behavior,” whereby cultural elements are translated into active
behavioral tendencies involving “responses and adaptations made by real people
in real-life contexts” (Bennett, 1993). The second approach, “Anthropology of
Environmentalism”, has been making attempt to study Environmentalism as a
type of human action through “Ethnographic Methodologies”. This dealt with
the analysis of political awareness, and policy concerns. Therefore, new subfields
have emerged, such as applied Ecological Anthropology and Political Ecology
(Greenberg and Park, 1994).
3.2.2 Earlier Approaches in Environmental Anthropology
Cultural ecology was popular in the 1950s and early 1960s. This approach of
study had dealt with “Environment” (ecology), “Culture” and “Adaptation”
emphasised on quality, quantity, and distribution of resource. This approach was
much owed to Steward (1955) and his diachronic approach. He has attempted to
examine the effect of environment on culture by proposing “Culture Core” to
demonstrate the relation between certain features of the environment and certain
cultural traits of the sets of people living in that environment. He has viewed in
Boasian Approach the other elements of culture as autonomous, and subject to
the culture history. He said about “limiting factor”, which shows how resources
could be 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. He
has argued about “regularities” or, “similarities” between cultures that recur in
historically separate or distinct areas or, traditions in a line of multilinear evolution.
With many similarities, White (1959) inspired by Marxism, also approached the
relation between environment and culture in a unilinear way, and he was much
less interested in “adaptation” of groups to specific environments than Steward.
They used diachronic approach in their studies.
The neoevolutionism, distinguished from the earlier evolutionism of Tylor,
Morgan, and others, likely to be put in inspiration from both Steward and White.
Harris’ cultural materialism incorporates the ecological explanation and move
on a more explicit, and systematic scientific research strategy (Barfield, 1997).
He had used “the concept of adaptation” as his main explanatory mechanism
(Milton, 1997). This approach shows a desire to move Anthropology in a
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
Darwinian direction. In his study on the Indian cattle beliefs, Harris (1966) pointed
out how current conditions result in ecological utility, and argued that such utility
explains the origin of the custom.
The other line of resolution of Steward and White, neofunctionalism, has been
much associated with Harris (1975, 1979)-who has greater concern with causality,
and the early work of Vayda (1968, 1976) and Rappaport (1967, 1971) who were
concerned with system functioning. This approach sees the social organisation,
and culture of specific populations as “functional adaptations” which permit
them to take advantage of their environments successfully, without exceeding
their carrying capacity. They considered “local populations” rather than cultures
as their “units of analysis”. This approach aims at examining the “interaction
between environment and population” than viewing the environment as passive
in shaping culture. The methodology is more explicit, rigorous, and quantitative,
and even adopts concepts from Biological Ecology, terms like adaptation, niche,
and carrying capacity.
An approach that Orlove (1980) terms the Processual Approach lay in contrast
to the work of Steward, White, the neoevolutionary, and neofunctionalist views.
It shows the importance of diachronic studies on environment to examine
mechanisms of change through “the relation of demographic variables and
production systems” partially stimulated by Boserup (1965), “the response of
populations to environmental stress” (Salisbury 1975; Vayda and MacKay 1975,
1977), “the formation and consolidation of adaptive strategies” (Bennett 1969,
1976; Bettinger 1978; Cancian 1972; Canfield 1973) by following Barth’s (1956)
early work on the use of the concept of the niche, and new work in Marxism-
“Political Economy” and “Structural Marxism”.
Ecosystem approach or, model is used by ecological/environmental
anthropologists. Moran (1990:3) claims that this view examines the physical
(abiotic) environment as the basis around which evolve species, and adaptive
responses. Rappaport and Vayda in the 1960s focus upon the “ecosystems”
approach, systems functioning, and the flow of energy with the use of
measurements as caloric expenditure and protein consumption. The ecosystems
research had claimed that symbolic or, ritual behavior could be explained if it
functioned to improve energetic efficiencies (Rappaport, 1968). Moran (1979)
argued that carrying capacity was the number of individuals that a habitat could
support, and which was related to population pressure and to the demands of a
population over resources of its ecosystem. Moran (2000) argued that successfully
developed life-styles could be reproduced over time in a given surrounding.
Rappaport (1967) used this approach in his study on the Tsembaga society. The
earlier approaches remained popular among ecological anthropologists during
the 1960s and the 1970s (Milton, 1997), and the Systems Ecology further
redefined, and transformed it with the study of complex systems, and its radical
critique of science (Odum 1983, Prigogine and Stengers 1984; Salthe 1985;
Holling 1986; Wicken 1987), and which resulted in a “new ecology” which could
answer most of the criticisms of Ecosystems (Scoones, 1999).
The structural point of view has been trying to reveal the environmental
influences on social structure in many ways. The book, “Social Stratification in
Polynesia” (Sahlins, 1958) has argued that environmental and technological
features provide vividness in the Polynesian political organisation and
Current Approaches in
hierarchically arranged descent groups, and in “Poor man, rich man, big man,
chief: Political types in Malanesia and Polynesia” also shown the association of
environment and social structure in the larger political units in eastern Melanesia
(Sahlins, 1965).
3.2.3 Current Trends in Environmental Anthropology
The new ecology viewed the dynamics of ecosystems as complex adaptive
systems. Lepofsky et al. (2003) and Pereira and da Fonseca (2003) are two
examples whose careful and detailed studies offer both cautions and roadmaps
for judging human impacts on complex human–ecological systems. The new
ecology helps to study the context of our human experience as tremendously
complex and endlessly evolving with self-organisation, hierarchy, scale,
dissipative structures, co-evolution, history, nonlinear dynamics, these and other
features of complex systems.
Paine (1969) introduced the keystone concept describing the effects of predation
by the sea star Pisaster ochraceus on the structure of intertidal ecosystems. The
absence of the sea star made its prey species a less competitive, resulting in the
loss of diversity in the ecosystem. The sea star thus played a vital ecological
function in maintaining the system in a more complex way (Paine 1966, 1969).
Recently the concepts of ecosystem structure, and dynamics suggest a more
broader concept of keystones that can play a significant role in controlling
ecosystems (Holling, 1992).
Anthropology is, by its very nature and tradition, a kind of multidisciplinary
science. Within Anthropology, ecological approaches have been employed in a
variety of ways. There are a number of approaches to a Human Ecology that
have been applied since the early 1980s. These represent the increasing
specialisation in anthropology, not only by the subfields that were described
earlier on, but also by different theoretical approaches. The ecological or
environmental approach in Anthropology includes topics as diverse as Primate
Ecology, Cultural Ecology, Paleoecology, Human Adaptability Studies,
Ethnoecology, Agararian Ecology, Pastoral Ecology, Geographic Information
Systems and Remote Sensing, Landscape Ecology, Historical Ecology,
Environmental History, Political Ecology, Ecofeminism, Environmentalism,
Environmental justice, Symbolic ecology, Human ecology, Evolutionary Ecology,
Ecological Economics, Sustainable Development, Traditional Ecological
Knowledge (TEK), Conservation, Environmental Risk, and Liberation Ecology,
and a number of other areas, many of them interdisciplinary in scope and
methodology (Moran, 1996).
Significant progress came from the development of what came to be known as
Cultural Ecology,” an approach proposed by Julian H. Steward, whose emphasis
on behavioral considerations and on the comparative method make this approach
among the most robust in the study of Environmental Anthropology. Other
approaches followed Cultural Ecology that expanded the scope of environmental
research in Anthropology. Whereas cultural ecology seemed to be concerned
with cultural areas as a unit of analysis, the approach proposed by A. P. Vayda
and R. Rappaport (1976) emphasise that humans are but a compartment in much
larger ecological systems.The ecosystem concept accords the physical
environment a more prominent place than any other biological concept or theory.
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
In the latter part of the’1970s and a good part of the 1980s, anthropologists with
environmental interests took a number of directions. One of the most notable
ones was to focus on biocultural processes using concepts from evolutionary
ecology. Evolutionary ecology refers to the study of evolution and adaptive design
in Ecological context (Smith and Winterhalder, 1992).
Another direction taken by researchers was to focus on ethno-ecology or ethnoscience,
the study of how people categorise their environment. This approach
focuses on “the words that go with things,” trying to understand how a population
segments by name certain environment domains and examines the criteria that
are used to arrive at that particular structure. This permits assessment of whether
morphology or action are more important or whether colour, age, height, or some
other characteristic is used by a population. Data collection in the ethno-ecological
tradition aims at eliciting native terms for plants, animals, insects, soil types,
and so on. It is a linguistics-derived tradition concerned with the ‘labels’ that go
with things and the distinguishing characteristics between them. It provides an
excellent starting point for environmental research by providing a locally relevant
set of terms and the meaningful differences between items. This approach is
important for testing theories of cognition and perception (Berlin, 1992).
The approach of Ethnobiology with applied Anthropology in the advent of
participatory approaches to development, and the “indigenous knowledge
inquiries” is closely related to, or combined with, Ethnoscience and Ethnoecology.
Ethno-ecology approach and study native thought about environmental
phenomena (Barfield, 1997), and often focus on indigenous classification referring
to specific aspects of the environment such as, soil types, plants, and animals. It
can be seen in combination with political–economic forces under labels as,
“Biology of Poverty” (Thomas, 1998), “Critical and Humanistic Biology” (Blakey,
1998), “Critical Biocultural Medical Anthropology” (Singer, 1998; Leatherman
1996; Leatherman et al. 1993), and “Political-Ecology of Human Biology”
(Leatherman and Thomas, 2001).
Political Ecology, a term first coined in 1972 (Wolf, 1972), deals with the
fundamental political issues of structural relations of power and domination over
environmental resources to understand the relationships of social, political, and
environmental processes (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987; Bryant 1992; Bryant and
Bailey 1997; Greenberg and Park 1994). It has been earlier concerned with market
integration, commercialisation, and the dislocation of customary forms of resource
management than adaptation and homeostasis (Peet and Watts, 1996) explain,
by the late 1970s, and has been further influenced by Blaikie and Brookfield
(1987), “debate on soil conservation” (Blaikie, 1985), “agriculturalist-pastoralist
interactions” (Bassett, 1988), “deforestation” (Durham, 1995), “land use in
Amazonia” (Hecht and Cockbum, 1990), and ecology and political processes.
This political economy approach was followed by Political Ecology which takes
a more critical approach and focuses on issues of rights and powers and access
to resources. Political ecology tries to understand the power relations among
resource users and among the resource users and those who hold power. Political
Ecology unites aspects of Geography and Political Economy. The union of these
critical and empirical approaches is occurring within Ecological Anthropology
to reflect the real complexity of human environment interactions. In response to
Political Ecology, Human Ecology during the 1990s and early twenty first century,
Current Approaches in
turned its focus to historical awareness and a concern about national and
international policy effects on local populations (Bates, Daniel. and Susan Lees,
The field of Political Ecology rose rapidly in the late 1980s and the 1990s, heavily
influenced by contemporary economic and political theories (Bennett 1976, 1992;
Robbins 2004). Perhaps most important of these influences was environmental
politics. Worldwide battles between exploiters and conservationists have always
had a serious impact on indigenous communities (see Bodley, 1999). For example,
by the 1990s, even remote native groups in rainforests found themselves used as
pawns in power struggles between national governments, multinational
companies, and international conservation organisations. Such struggles are not
limited to native groups, as African American communities in the southern United
States suddenly find themselves targeted as sites for toxic waste disposal (Bullard,
1990). As a result, gender, ethnicity, and identity—all concepts that are notorious
political battlegrounds as well as traditional subjects for anthropologists to
examine—emerged as important topics of ecological-anthropological research
(Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson, 2010).
The Ecological Economics or, Environmental Economics emerged as a coevolutionary
system approach looking into both the economic and ecological
systems (Norgaard, 1994). It discusses about natural resource issues in terms of
the market failure problems arising from externalities, and the rational allocation
of scarce resources (Markandya and Richardson, 1992). It has been also focusing
the “limits and carrying capacity” (Arrow et al, 1995), “economics of the coming
spaceship earth” (Boulding, 1992), “economics as a life science” (Daly, 1992),
and “through natural succession ecosystems develop complex feedback
mechanisms to ensure their stability” (Barbier, 1989).
Environmental Symbology refers to the study of symbolic meaning within the
human environment including personal, social, cultural, and mythic contexts of
understanding. In the ‘‘broadest possible view’’ (Martin and Guerin, 2005)
environmental symbology has attempted to give a holistic definition of both the
built and natural environment as human space, “symbology of the built
environment” (Clark 2008, 2009) and “architectonic analysis” (Preziosi, 1979).
Since, the human beings spend more than 90% of their time inside buildings
(Day, 2002) the interior environment has a great impact on them. Environmental
symbology shares with Environmental Psychology to understand how space
becomes a vessel of personal symbolic meaning. For example, the framework
for studying the personal meaning of childhood spaces (Day 1990, 2002; Israel
2003; Marcus 1995; Troutman; 1997). Language synthesis also can be done
through this approach to examine how humans shape their environment with
symbolic language (Fromm 1951; Hall 1959, 1966; Preziosi 1979; Turner 1967).
Emic and etic approaches also used as a helpful approach. A manifest function
is explicitly adopted to examine participation in a relevant action. It sees through
“emic” with cognized models, ‘a rain dance as the manifest function’ to produce
rain intended and desired by people participating and performing ritual. The
latent function of a behavior is not explicitly viewed, recognized or, intended by
the people who involved in it. It can be done by an outsider, observer with an
“etic approach” and operational models. It has been demonstrated in the “Pigs
for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People” ( Rapapport,
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
1967), the sacrifice of too many pigs as the latent function while the pig sacrifice
to ancestors as manifest function (Balee 1996).
Evolutionary Ecology arose from Mac Arthur’s (MacArthur, 1960; MacArthur
and Pianka, 1966) work in the 1960s that combined ideas from Darwinian
evolution, Ethology, Population Biology, and Mathematical Modeling. Much of
the work deals with mathematical models of behavior within an adaptation
framework. Anthropologists have been interested in this area of combined
economic and ecological modeling of human behavior since the 1970s (DysonHudson
and Smith, 1978; Smith, 1979; Thomas et al., 1979). Sometimes the
research is identified as Behavioral Ecology (Borgerhoff Mulder and Sellen,
1994). Four areas of research that are germane to Anthropology were identified:
(1) foraging strategies; (2) mating systems and life history strategies; (3) spatial
organisation and group formation; and (4) niche theory, population dynamics,
and community structure (Smith, 1983). Much of the research to date has focused
among hunter-gatherers and pastoralists societies. Anthropologists are particularly
well suited to this kind of detailed observational research, because of lengthy
time requirements for field observation within the tradition of extended field
work in anthropology.
An even more recent development is the variety of forms of what is coming to
be known as ‘Historical Ecology” (Crumley, 1994). Historical Ecology or,
Environmental History studies how culture and environment influence each other
over time (Barfield, 1997) with the concerns of both spatial and temporal
dynamics in new ecology. This approach has been moved with ecological thinking,
particularly with “equilibrium, balance-of-nature” (Worster, 1979). This view
has become an important tool for the re-conceptualisation of the dynamics of
human-environmental change. Influenced on the landscape studies of Carl Sauer
and colleagues (Price and Lewis 1993; Rowntree; 1996), and landscape and
history (Glacken 1967, Schama, 1995), the environmental historians (eg: Worster
1979, 1985; Cronon 1983, 1990; Silver 1990; White 1990; Hurley 1995) have
done notable analyses of the interaction of environmental, social, political, and
economic change by taking nature as a significant historical actor (Merchant,
1989). Most practitioners of this approach are from Ethnohistory and Archaeology,
and they build their theory on ideas from landscape Ecology, Geography,
Archaeology, History, and Ethnohistory. In practice, it has been something of a
blend of these fields. Anthropology with more historical detail than usual, or
History with more holistic cultural and environmental data than usual (e.g.,
Ehrlich, 2000).This is an important application of Ecology to Anthropology, since
losses in biodiversity during the present century can be placed in the context of
earlier times through studies of prehistory.
Historical ecologists, like other human ecologists in recent years, have paid much
attention to the influence of small-scale societies on their environments. Such
people were once dismissed as “primitives” and “savages”who had minimal effect
on their surroundings—who were, according to earlier formulations, part of
“nature” rather than “culture.” In North America, we still find Native American
exhibits in museums of natural history rather than in museums of history or art.
From such unthinking prejudice, contemporary ecological anthropology—
including historical ecology—can deliver us (Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson,
Current Approaches in
Landscape e Ecology, with its background in Geography and Geomorphology,
has a particular appeal to sociocultural anthropologists because of their current
interests in land use in the Third World (Coppolillo, 2000). Archaeologists, as
noted, are also drawn to this framework (in the context of historical ecology) for
research because of the anthropogenic transformations of the landscape that are
a part of human prehistory and history (Balée, 1998). Studies of the ecology of
health and adaptability of non-Western populations provide a breadth of
environmental and health conditions not usually experienced by Western peoples.
It is therefore important to study traditional as well as industrial peoples to gain
insights into the full spectrum of environmental influences on health.
The Marxian approach to environmental studies has its appropriate relevance. It
sees adaptive strategies as outcome of decision making, allocation of resources
to a hierarchy of goals under conditions, and examines the class conflicts in the
light of resource distribution and the source of the goals and constraints. This
approach is recently going much on “structural Marxism” (Bloch 1978; Friedman
and Rowlands 1977; Godelier 1977), and the “new political economy”, both
questioning the rigid sequence of succession of modes and the determination of
the superstructure by the base (Heinen 1975; Legros 1977; Orlove 1978).
Environmental Determinism, a deterministic approach used to explain race,
human demography, material culture, cultural variation and cultural change. It
viewed human activities as governed by the environment, primarily the physical
environment, and such environmental factors determining human, social and
cultural behaviors (Milton, 1997). It has been counter argued with possibilism, a
view that the environment as a range of opportunities from which the individual
may choose. This choice is possibly individual’s needs and norms rather than in
deterministic ways.
Recently, the Environmental Anthropology studies have concern for the
environment–technology-social-organisation nexus with the emphasis on
development programs, and the analysis of environmental degradation (Netting
1996). Many environmental anthropologists believe in Environmentalism, and
think of Ethnography is appropriate, equitable, and effective to suit to deal with
“environmental policy” (Blount and Pitchon 2007; Checker 2007; Haenn and
Casagrande 2007; McCay 2000; West 2005). The sustainability approach most
probably seems to be a new field to understand “the fundamental character of
interactions between nature and society’’ (Kates et al., 2001).Environmental
Anthropology, thus marching a head with a multitude of approaches in a multidimensional
It has been seen now that the Environmental Anthropology as being far-ranging
in its nature. Thus, Satellite imagery can be used to locate ecological spots such
as, the areas of ecological imbalance, and pollution. Geographical Information
Systems (GIS) and other related techniques may be used to map various kinds of
data on human and environmental features (Sponsel et al. 1994). Macroscope
software is also employable in mapping activities. Survey can be done across
space and time, and can be compared. Ethnographic research helps to gather
first hand information of people and their lives, and helps to discover relevant
issues and their fit solutions. The linkages methodology elaborated by Kottak
and Colson (1994), a line of inquiry entailed a census approach, a network
approach (to trace relationships associated with geographical mobility and external
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
interventions), survey and ethnographic techniques can be used. Risk analysis,
content analysis, statistical, and computational packages, and many field-oriented
methods and techniques are employable in suitable contexts. The proper
methodological approach and strategies for accessing values or, areas of cultural
consensus, identifying and interpreting social mechanisms help us to understand
human-environment interaction, and interrelation in a more appropriate, and
comprehensive way.
Environmental Anthropology builds on the past experience of anthropologists
working on human use of environment but it must perforce go beyond those
approaches. An Environmental Anthropology for the twenty-first century must
build on the comparative approaches proposed by Steward if analysis of global
environmental changes is to be informed by local and regional divergences in
causes and effects. This poses a major challenge to research methods, in that
generally agreed-upon ways of selecting sample communities or sites and what
data is to be collected across highly variable sites must be undertaken despite
differences in e Environment, Culture, Economy, and History. Efforts are currently
under way at a number of international centers to arrive at these shared standards
(Tuner and Turner 1994; Moran 1992, 1994).
Having a thorough understanding of the diversified approaches in Environmental
Anthropology, you should turn, and look into a situation around you by adopting
an appropriate approach. The approach will help you to explore, and analyze it
to get a scientific anthropological insight in an environmental perspective.
Activity 1
Find out an issue related to environmental degradation in your
neighborhood. Explore this situation with a suitable approach of
Environmental Anthropology.
Activity 2
Find out the cause and effect of climate change/air pollution in your
neighborhood. Explore this situation with a suitable Environmental
Anthropology approach.
The environmental or, ecological approach has taken anthropological knowledge
far and wide. Its knowledge-application adds Anthropology a new scientific
perspective. Environmental Anthropology contributes much to the development
of extended models of sustainability for humankind. In an environmental or,
ecological framework, its research, and study explore, and help to learn more
about intimate interactions between humans and their environments. The
Environmental Anthropology through its interdisciplinary undertaking, and
current approaches gives Anthropology a new dimension.
Current Approaches in
Environmental or, ecological anthropologists, only on a few occasions actually
subscribe to the earlier notions today. Studies conducted within a cultural ecology
perspective are limited, and have been criticized only as an attempt to explain
how things stay the same, as opposed to how things can change (Balee, 1996).
Currently, it has not much worried about either adaptation or, reproduction but,
giving attention to both the biological factors, and the full range of human factors
in the world environmental crisis, and looking how to solve the crisis, and save
our humanity. Environmental Anthropology has to think more about sustainability,
and equally the fact that holistic vision is challenging, and is not easily
Anthropology is, by its very nature and tradition, a kind of multidisciplinary
science. Within anthropology, ecological approaches have been employed in a
variety of ways. There are a number of approaches to a human Ecology that have
been applied since the early 1980s. These represent the increasing specialisation
in Anthropology, not only by the subfields that were described earlier on, but
also by different theoretical approaches. The ecological or environmental approach
in anthropology includes topics as diverse as Primate Ecology, Cultural Ecology,
Paleoecology, Human Adaptabiity Studies, Ethnoecology, agararian Ecology,
Pastoral Ecology, Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing,
Landscape Ecology, Historical Ecology, Environmental History, Political Ecology,
Ecofeminism, Environmentalism, Environmental Justice, Symbolic Ecology,
Human Ecology, Evolutionary Ecology, Ecological Economics, Sustainable
Development, Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), Conservation,
Environmental Risk, and Liberation Ecology, and a number of other areas, many
of them interdisciplinary in scope and methodology.
Significant progress came from the development of what came to be known as
Cultural Ecology,” an approach proposed by Julian H. Steward, whose emphasis
on behavioural considerations and on the comparative method make this approach
among the most robust in the study of Environmental a Anthropology. Other
approaches followed cultural ecology that expanded the scope of environmental
research in anthropology. Whereas Cultural Ecology seemed to be concerned
with cultural areas as a unit of analysis, the approach proposed by A. P. Vayda
and R. Rappaport (1976) emphasise that humans are but a compartment in much
larger ecological systems.The ecosystem concept accords the physical
environment a more prominent place than any other biological concept or theory.
In the latter part of the’1970s and a good part of the 1980s, anthropologists with
environmental interests took a number of directions. One of the most notable
ones was to focus on biocultural processes using concepts from evolutionary
ecology. Evolutionary ecology refers to the study of evolution and adaptive design
in ecological context (Smith and Winterhalder, 1992). Another direction taken
by researchers was to focus on Ethnoecology or Ethnoscience, the study of how
people categorise their environment.
It appears that the work in Ecological Anthropology will emphasise cultureareas
across continents well as the comparisons of evolutionary stages, and
production types characterised by the neofunctionalist, and neoevolutionary
approaches. It has been questioned about how far
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
adaptation adjustments will be adequate, if there are vigorous changes in the
most effected plane of social-ecological system. Then the materialistic, and the
idealistic approaches in Anthropology are likely to find a base in interpretation
of culture, and ideology as systems that mediate between actors, and environment
by the construction of behavioral alternatives. The Environmental Anthropology
tries to understand its subject through processual approaches in the time frame,
and the role of actors by focusing on the mechanisms of change, and the role of
social organisation, culture, and biology. It has incorporated the models, and
research approaches from other areas of Anthropology, and even from other
disciplines to match with demands. This approach takes Environmental
Anthropology closer to Biology, and History, and becomes enriched and enriches
other fields. The current trend in Environmental Anthropology shows a growth
of new lines of fruitful research. The diversified range of methodological
approaches resulted in a number of remarkable innovative works, and pushing
further environmental anthropology. Thus, it could start contributing in the policy
making, and its practice. So, the wide range of its new areas is opening up for
more productive interaction between environment, ecology, and the human social
and cultural spheres, and thus Environmental Anthropology will be central in
future scientific explorations.
Anderson, James N. 1973. Ecological Anthropology and Anthropological Ecology
in John Joseph Honigmann and Alexander Alland edited Handbook of Social
and Cultural Anthropology. Chicago: Rand MeNally and Company. Pp. 179-
Balée, W. 1998. Introduction. In: Advances in Historical Ecology. (Ed.). Columbia
University Press, New York.
Bates, Daniel. and Susan Lees. (eds.). 1996. Case Studies in Human Ecology.
New York: Plenum Press.
Bennett, John W. 1976. The Ecological Transition: Cultural Anthropology and
Human Adaptation. New York: Academic Press.
Bennett, John W. 1992. Human Ecology as Human Behavior. New Brunswick,
NJ: Transaction.
Berlin, Brent. 1992. Etbnobiological Classification. Princeton: Princeton
University Press.
Biersack, Aletta and James B. Greenberg (Edt.). 2006. Reimagining Political
Ecology. Durham: Duke University Press.
Bodley, John H. 1999. Victims of Progress. 4th edition.Mountain View, CA:
Borgerhoff Mulder, M. and Sellen, D.W. 1994. Pastoralist decisionmaking: A
behavior ecological perspective, pp. 205-229. In: African Pastoralist Systems:
An Integrated Approach, E.
Fratkin, K.A. Galvin, and E.A. Roth (Eds.). Lynne Rienner, Boulder.
Bullard, Robert. 1990. Dumping in Dixie. Boulder, CO:Westview Press.
Current Approaches in
Coppolillo, P.B. 2000. The landscape ecology of pastoral herding: Spatial
analysis of land use and livestock production in East Africa. Hum. Ecol. 28:
Crumley, (ed). 1994. Historical Ecology. Sana Fe,N.Mex.: School of American
Research Press.
Dyson-Hudson, R. and Smith, E.A. 1978. Human territoriality: an ecological
reassessment. Amer. Anthrop, 80: 21-41.
Ehrlich, Paul R. 2000. Human Natures: Genes, Cultures and the Human Prospect.
Washington, DC: Island Press.
Harris, M. 1979. Cultural Materialism: The Struggle for a Science of Culture.
New York: Random House.
Kottak, C. P. 1999. The new ecological anthropology in American Anthropologist,
Vol. 101, pp. 23–35.
Levin, S. 1998. Ecosystems and the biosphere as complex adaptive systems in
Ecosystems, Vol (1), pp. 431–436.
Little, Paul E. 1999. Environments and Environmentalisms in Anthropological
Research: Facing a New Millennium in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol.
(28), pp. 253-284.
MacArthur, R.H.1960. On the relation between reproductive value and optimal
predation. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 46: 143-145.
MacArthur, R.H. and Pianka, E.R.1966. On optimal use of a patchy environment.
Amer. Naturalist, 100: 603- 609.
Mark Q. Sutton and E. N. Anderson. 2010. Introduction to cultural ecology. A
division of Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Moran, Emilio F. 1992. “Minimum Data for Comparative Human Ecological
Studies: Examples From Studies in Amazonia.” Advances in Human Ecology,
Moran, Emilio F. et al. 1994. “Integrating Amazonian Vegetation, Land Use,
and Satellite Data.” BioScience 44: 329-338.
Moran, E. F. 1996. Environmental Anthropology. In Encyclopedia of Cultural
Anthropology Vol. 2. D. Levinsion, M. Ember (eds.). Henry Holt and company,
New York.
Moran, E. F. 1990. The ecosystem concept in anthropology. Boulder, Colorado,
USA: Westview Press.
Odum, E. P. 1953. Fundamentals of ecology. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA:
W. B. Saunders.
Orlove, Benjamin S. 1980. Ecological Anthropology In Annual Review of
Anthropology, Vol. 9 (1980), pp. 235-273.
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
Rappaport, R. A. 1968. Pigs for the ancestors: ritual in the ecology of a New
Guinea people. New Haven, Connecticut, USA: Yale University Press.
Robbins, Paul. 2004. Political Ecology. Oxford: Blackwell.
Scoones, I. 1999. New Ecology and the Social Sciences: What Prospects for a
Fruitful Engagement? in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 28 (1999), pp.
Smith, E.A. 1979. Human adaptation and energetic efficiency. Hum.Ecol., 7:
Smith, E.A.1983. Evolutionary ecology and the analysis of human social
behavior, pp. 23-40. In: Rethinking Human Adaptation: Biological and Cultural
Models, R. Dyson-Hudson and M.A. Little (Eds.). Westview Press, Boulder.
Smith, E., and B. Winter Halder (Eds). 1992. Evolutionary Ecology and Human
Bebavim. New York Aldine de Gmyter.
Steward, Julian. 1955. Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear
Evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Thomas, R.B., Winterhalder, B., and McRae, S.D. 1979. An anthropological
approach to human ecology and adaptive dynamics. Yrbk. Phys. Anthrop. 22: 1-
Turner, B. L., and Meyer Turner 1994. “Global Land- Use/land-Cover Change:
Towards an Integrated Study.” Ambio: A Journal of the Human environment,
23: 91-95.
Vayda, A. P., and B. McCay. 1975. New directions in ecology and ecological
anthropology in Annual Review of Anthropology, Vol. 4, pp. 293–306.
Vayda, A P., and Rappaport, R. 1976. Ecology, Cultural-Noncultural.” In Human
Ecology, edited by P. Richerson and J. McEvoy. North Scituate, Mass.: Duxbury.
Vayda, Andrew P. (Edt.). 1969. Environment and Cultural Behavior. Garden
City, New York: The Natural History Press.
Winterhalder, B., and E. A. Smith. 2000. Analyzing adaptive strategies: human
behavioral ecology at twenty-five in Evolutionary Anthropology, Vol. 9, pp. 51–
Suggested Reading
Little, P.E. 1999. Environments and Environmentalisms in Anthropological
Research: Facing a New Millennium. Annual Review of Anthropology. 28:253-
Biersack, A. 1999. Introduction: from the “new ecology” to the new ecologies
in American Anthropologist, Vol. 101, pp. 5–18.
Haenn, N. 1999. The Power of Environmental Knowledge: Ethnoecology and
Environmental Conflicts in Mexican Conservation in Human Ecology, Vol. 27(3),
pp. 477-491.
Current Approaches in
Kottak, C.P. 1999. The New Ecological Anthropology. American Anthropologist
101: 23-35.
Michael A. Little 2007. Human Ecology in Anthropology: Past, Present, and
Prospects Kamla-Raj Enterprises, Anthropologist Special Volume No. 3: 25-38
Milton, K. 1996. Environmentalism and Cultural Theory: Exploring the Role of
Anthropology in Environmental Discourse. London: Routledge.
Sillitoe, P. 1998. The Development of Indigenous Knowledge: A New Applied
Anthropology in Current Anthropology, Vol. 39(2), pp. 223-252.
Vayda, A.P and B. J. McCay 1975. “New Directions in Ecology and Ecological
Anthropology.” Annual Review of Anthropology. 4: 293-306.
Sample Questions
1) Discuss about the current approaches in Environmental Anthropology.
2) What do you understand about the approach of cultural ecology?
3) Explain how Political Ecology Approach views its subject with a suitable
4) What is environmental economics?
5) Describe ethnoecology?
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
4.1 Introduction
4.2 Theoretical Paradigms and Methods in Ecological Anthropology
4.2.1 American Cultural Tradition
4.2.2 Neo-Evolution and Cultural Ecology
4.2.3 Ecosystems Approach
4.2.4 Cultural Materialism
4.2.5 Cognitive and Phenomenology Approach
4.2.6 Indigenous Knowledge
4.3 Summary
4.4 References
Suggested Readings
Sample Questions
Learning Objectives
At the end of this unit, you will be able to:
• be familiar with key concepts, theories, approaches and strategies in
environmental anthropology.
• learn about the various methods and techniques by which the relationship
between human society and its environment has been studied by
anthropologists; and
• gain knowledge of each of the methods and consequent techniques that has
been guided by some basic theoretical assumptions about the nature of this
The relationship between environment and human society and culture was
reflected upon by European philosophers such as Voltaire and Montesquieu even
in the 17th and 18th century but theoretically approached in a systematic way by
the American Cultural tradition in Anthropology only in the early twentieth
century. The British Social Anthropology during the period of its structural –
functional approach ignored environment as an influencing variable as they
worked with the Durkheimian assumption that all social facts should be explained
by other social facts. Franz Boas, guided by the influence of the German
Diffusionist School put forward his theory of Historical Particularism reviving
the notion of history and physical contextualisation of cultures from the early
ideational view taken by the classical evolutionists like E.B. Tyler, and the
sociological view taken by Radcliffe-Brown and others. Since history must assume
a physical context, the notion of an environment of physical area and geographical
Research Methodology in
location of culture was introduced in the cultural historical approach of the
4.2.1 American Cultural Tradition
Culture area and Climax Culture
Alfred Kroeber, a direct student of Boas, along with Clark Wissler developed
what came to be known as the cultural area hypothesis. They presumed that a
contiguous spatial location would show similar cultural traits and Kroeber
attempted to systematize his theory by putting forward the notion of a centre and
a periphery in cultural development. Every culture develops in favourable
environmental conditions that can provide resources and climate conducive to
cultural growth. Such an environment can foster the growth of a culture to its
full potential, what Kroeber had called as Climax Culture. From this centre the
culture spreads to outer areas and Kroeber believed that one could trace the
spread of culture through the study of similarities and differences of cultural
traits and also their dilution which would indicate that one was coming away
from the centre. Along with his colleague Otis T Mason he mapped several cultural
areas in Northern America. However the entire process appeared too cumbersome
and speculative to other scholars and did not take off as a major methodological
device although his hypothesis on the link between culture and geography has
led to the establishment globally of what we today call regional studies.
Environmental Possibilism
The inclusion of environment as a variable for analysis also led to a
conceptualisation of culture in materialist rather than in idealist terms. To scholars
like Edward B Tylor, culture was purely ideational and the product of mind.
Cultural development took place by the development of the process of thought,
in other words ideas built ideas. But within the American tradition, the concept
of culture was conceived in much more practical and material terms, as a historical
development. According to Herskovits, culture is a solution to the problems
faced by humans thrown up by their habitat. Thus the direct link of habitat on
human culture was first explored by the school of environmental possibilism as
developed by Darryl Ford (1934). He countered the earlier theory of environmental
determinism, giving humans a greater degree of agency. The method comprised
of examining cultures in their relation to the environment to determine first of
all what aspects of culture are at all determined or affected by the environment
and secondly how nature puts a limit the creative process of culture. Thus in any
given habitat there are a vast number of substances that have potential use value,
but which human society chooses which one depends on its own creative abilities
and choice. Thus in the same environment of the North Arctic, the Eskimoes
make igloos out of snow and the Chukchee Indians make tents out of animal
skins, yet none can use wood or cement for house building as these resources are
absent from the environment all together. Also some aspects of culture were
seen to be more dependent upon the habitat than the others, like art, religion and
storytelling drew inspiration from habitat but was not directly dependent. Neither
was kinship seen to have any particular relation to where one lived. The method
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
of environmental possibilism was comparative and could involve both direct
observation and comparison of data collected by others. However, with more
and more data available for comparison, the model weakened as similar traits
were often found in diverse environments and diverse traits in similar environments.
The processes of diffusion and acculturation made any kind of co-relation tenuous.
The method of environmental possibilism was also synchronic and changes in
both environment and culture were not incorporated into it.
4.2.2 Neo-Evolution and Cultural Ecology
By the mid fifties the field of Ecological Anthropology developed with renewed
interest in cultural evolution. The new generation of evolutionists who tried to
reconstruct evolution without the shortcomings of classical evolutionism were
Leslie White, Marshall Sahlins and Elman Service and most notably Julian
Steward. All attempted to develop diachronic models but only Steward developed
what may be called a dialectical method that would take into account both changes
in culture and changes in environment. The major criticism directed against
classical evolutionism was the methodological one of not having any rational
criteria for measuring development. Thus while White agreed with Tyler on almost
all counts, he was not convinced about Tyler’s criteria of literacy as an index for
measuring civilisation. According to White, it is the Industrial revolution that
marks the major transition in human environment relationship when the threshold
from use of organic energy is crossed, towards the use of mechanical energy or
machines. The major criteria for measuring development according to White
were the amount of energy harnessed per capita, per person in any culture.
Although White gave elaborate mathematical equations for measuring the level
of technological development and cultural evolution, at the practical level it was
never possible to apply these equations and as a result this method remained as
a theory but was not applied actually to any sequence. Although conceptually
White made an evolutionary schema from the use of less sophisticated technology
to more efficient technology; the factor of demography was also present in his
evolutionary sequence and technological evolution could be seen as supporting
more dense populations. Later Sahlins had criticized White for being too
mechanistic and materialistic in his approach; whereas humans have a wider
range of wants and goals in life than the mere technological.
The real breakthrough came with Julian Steward’s theory of Cultural Ecology
that he himself terms as both a theory and a method. Steward first developed a
model of culture that combined both the historical and the functional method; he
then used this model to prepare a schema of what he termed as Multilinear
Evolution. He broke up the functional model of culture with equally
interdependent parts to one in which the central or core consisted of those elements
that interacted with the environment in a dialectical manner to push the culture
forward in an evolutionary sequence. The parts of culture that did not interact
directly with the environment could follow a historical and imaginative course
where the culture developed according to its own distinct character. The core
and periphery remind one about the infrastructure and super structure of Marxist
theory as the real transformation or cultural change occurs in the core that he
also terms as techno-economic. Yet the major difference from a Marxist method
lies in that the culture change does not occur due to forces interior to the core
(contradictions in Marxist theory) but as a result of the culture core’s interaction
with the environment that takes a dialectical path.
Research Methodology in
The aspects of culture that interact with the environment are not given, although
they may be labeled as techno-economic, and need to be ascertained for each
culture independently and by the empirical method. Thus empiricism was a central
methodological concern in Steward’s theory not only of cultural ecology but
also its application for establishing multi-linear evolution.
By examining a culture first hand, that is by fieldwork, a researcher has to find
out what are the aspects of culture that interact with the environment and makes
the population adapt. The interactive core of cultural traits that include technology
and associated social institutions through which the technology is made effective
forms the culture core. The elements of culture that do not form the core are
historically developed and referred to as peripheral culture.
The concept of culture core allowed a typology of societies to be formed based
on their modes of adaptation to the environment. Thus for example a society that
adapted to the environment through foraging as a technique has certain essential
characters that allow it to be classified as a hunting and food gathering society.
These essential characters that are typical of most hunting food gathering societies
will be associated with other traits that make the people distinct from others.
Thus Eskimos of the Arctic and! Kung Bushmen of Kalahari are both hunters
and food gatherers. Both have a foraging or acquisitive economy and other salient
characters like small size, band organisation, mobility and flexibility; yet they
are very different from each other in aspects of their material and aesthetic culture.
The similarity in the core is derived from their technology and mode of subsistence
and the differences because of their different geographical locations, climatic
conditions and history. On the basis of the cultural ecology model, many societies
across the globe have been classified into broad categories of adaptive strategies;
hunting –food gathering, pastoralism, shifting cultivation, settled agriculture and
The techniques used for applying the cultural ecological approach is both
qualitative and quantitative gathered by field work and associated methods. The
approach is to look for those essential characters of culture that interact with the
environment and parts of the environment being used. It is the latter that is directly
related to technology, for example the hunters-gatherers would use the forest as
a base and the agriculturalists would use land while the pastoralists will look for
water and pastures for their animals.
The cultural ecological approach open the use of the historical method as it
assumes that as culture interacts with the environment, it modifies the latter and
then at the next stage, cultural modifications are needed to cope with the changed
environment, The stronger the impact of culture or the techno-economic system,
the more intense the environmental modification and need for change. The
foraging technology produces the least effect upon the environment and is
therefore least likely to transform. This may be the reason that for about 99% of
their lives as Homo Sapiens; humans have lived as hunters/food gatherers and
within a few hundred years of industrial technology, the world has been drastically
transformed and the environment is sending out danger signals.
A key anthropological work based on Julian Steward’s concept of culture core,
is Clifford Geertz’s (1963) work on Indonesia, where he has studied the impact
of Dutch colonial rule on the local subsistence economy. The introduction of
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Dutch capital into the wet rice cultivation of Indonesia did not lead to any linear
progression of the system but to it becoming more complex in itself, a process
Geertz has called “Involution”. The intensification of rice cultivation established
a dialectic relationship with the variable of population. As population rose, the
requirements of this growing population was met by intensifying labour use to
make the same system more productive. Thus requirements of increasing
population was met by making that very population work more and thus creating
a kind of cycle of labour use and labour production. However under different
conditions in the coastal region, the introduction of more capital led to cash
cropping and linear growth or evolution. Thus Geertz used the method of intensive
field work along with that of tracing cultural history as well as comparison
between two adaptive zones within the same culture. Thus the communities
practicing wet cultivation showed up very different kinds of transformation than
the swidden or shifting cultivators. The latter allowed the entry of cash crops and
finally changed over to a market mentality, changing, as Geertz puts it the culture
core itself. Rising population cannot be possibly supported by the intensification
of cultivation on the swidden plots, like they could be on the wet cultivation
plots. Thus in case of swidden pressures to produce more gave rise to more and
more dependence on cash crops and land earlier devoted to swidden was gradually
transferred to cash crops and the entire system transformed. In case of wet
cultivation the very intensification of cultivation made the introduction of new
technology impossible, as the more over cultivated the terraces were the less use
could be made of mechanical implements. The dependence on human labour
also went well with rising populations except that this population could only be
maintained at the most basic level of survival.
The cultural ecological model assumes a functional interdependence between
the elements of the core and the environment and is thus unable to accept negative
impacts. Also the notion of biology as a variable had been totally ignored in
Steward’s analysis that depended totally on nature as a variable.
4.2.3 Ecosystems Approach
According to Vaydya and Rappaport (1968) culture and environment show covariation
and not causation by one variable over the other. According to Vaydya
and Rappaport, the total environment is composed of three aspects; the biological,
the natural and the social.
The ecosystems approach was devised by Andrew Vayda and Roy Rappaport, to
include the entire social and cultural variables and the environment into one
interactive system. Like all systems , the boundaries of this system was closed
around what Rappaport called the ‘ecological community’; a society and that
part of its environment that is intensively exploited by it over a long period of
time. As a test case, Rapport made an ethnographic study of the Tsembaga; a
Maring speaking group of New Guinea. The model of the ecosystem is based on
that of a thermostat and the regulatory effects of a negative feedback process. It
is assumed that all parts of the system consisting of the biological, natural and
cultural variables are in a state of homeostatic equilibrium. Any disturbance in
the system triggers off the negative feedback mechanisms that tend to bring the
system back to normal.
The boundaries of the system in this case are defined by the ties of kinship, what
Rappaport has called the, “cognatic cluster”; the environmental variables consist
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of the flora, fauna and the spirit world, the parameters of the natural system
include the terrain, altitude, rainfall and temperature that in turn set the limits for
whatever flora and fauna is available in this region. Rappaport extends the concept
of ecosystem to include not only human and non-human species but also other
social groups in the neighbourhood. He uses the term “regional population” for
all those groups who interact with and influence each other. In fact it is difficult
to use the notion of system for a natural system as they exist in continuity and it
is difficult to locate a break; hence Rappaport treats the regional population as a
system and the territorial population as a sub-system.
The role of the supernatural is central to the analysis and Rappaport shows how
rituals play the key role of a regulatory mechanism to keep the system in balance.
Through the method of detailed ethnography and rich fieldwork data, Rappaport
is able to demonstrate how the population of pigs, the population of humans, the
local flora and fauna are all kept in a state of equilibrium with respect to each
other through the ritual of Kaiko, periodic warfare and pigs sacrifice for the
ancestors. Although he presents a very convincing analysis , his model was
criticized on two major grounds, firstly the problem of closure of the boundary
of the ecosystem, that is possible only analytically and conceptually but not in
terms of real ground level reality and secondly, the problems of adaptation or
cybernation of the system.
Roy Ellen (1979) in his work on the Moluccans had shown that it was very
difficult to isolate populations as closed reproductive units. Even Paula Brown,
who had worked among the same people, raised doubts as to whether they had
ever been a closed system since they had from
ancient time engaged in border trade and were given to constant efforts at
expanding their territory through warfare. In fact much of later ethnographic
works have indicated that the existence of bounded endogamous communities is
a rarity and with increasing communication and at present globalisation the
application of the ecosystem model to the study of ecological anthropology is
becoming non-practical and theoretically anomalous.
Moreover Freedman in 1979 had also raised a major issue regarding the thermostat
effect suggested by Rappaport saying that this mechanism does not have a mind
of its own; it cannot function out of its own volition. If we theorize that the
Maring rituals act as a thermostat then it has to be assumed that there is some
consciousness that triggers off the critical point at which the ritual is to be held.
According to Freedman it would be more rational to suppose that the ritual has
an outcome that is conducive to equilibrium rather than the ritual exists for that
purpose. Moreover the Maring conflicts can also be seen to have the same effect
as the rituals to maintain balance between the various variables both cultural and
natural. Thus the assumption of cybernetics in systems that are neither set from
the outside like a machine or are self-conscious like animate beings is at best
4.2.4 Cultural Materialism
Another methodological view point in the study of ecological anthropology was
put forward by Marvin Harris, who like Steward attempted to use the basic Marxist
model with modifications that advocated a relationship of interaction between
behaviour and environment, mediated by culture bearing organisms. The two
Theoretical and
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elements of cultural materialism are techno-environment and techno-economic.
Methodologically cultural-materialism seeks to establish a relationship between
these two variables and culture. At the core of Harris’s argument is the hypothesis
that all aspects of culture have a materialist reason for its existence, an axiom for
which he has often been branded as a vulgar Marxist. Harris agrees with Steward’s
model in most respects except that he thinks that Steward does not clarify what
exactly goes into the culture core leaving it to the expertise of individual
researchers. He put in a third layer in his conceptualisation of culture, breaking it
up into superstructure, structure and infrastructure. Thus while in Steward’s model,
the culture core contained within it social organisational elements like kinship
and rituals, in Marvin Harris’s model they are all put into what he calls ‘Structure’
leaving only the purely techno-economic variables in the base of infrastructure.
Harris made some persuasive arguments in his application of the model of cultural
materialism in which he tries to explain what he considers some of the most
apparently irrational cultural practices that can be shown to have very material
and practical reasons for existence. As test cases he takes the pig love of the
Tsembaga, the pig hate of the Moslems and the cow worship of the Hindus among
others. However, although he gained a lot of popularity because of the exotic
value of the topics chosen by him; the method in itself was never followed by
anyone else except him. The extreme materialism was shunned by both Marxist
and non-Marxist scholars.
4.2.5 The Cognitive and Phenomenological Approach
Many anthropologists preferred to use the less positivist approach of trying to
look into the community’s perception of their environments rather than imposing
external models upon them. Positivism assumes that there is an external reality
that can be accessed by the researcher and which has the character of indelible
truth. The real analysis in positivism can only be done from the outside of the
society by the scholar; the members of the society cannot understand the real
implications of their actions. All the approaches mentioned so far are of this
type. Scholars like Philippe Descola and Gisli Palsson (1997) and Elisabeth Croll
and David Parkin (1992) have tried looking into indigenous categories of thought
and cosmologies rather than fitting all observations into the models provided by
the analysts. The attempt was to study and understand the cultural models of
various societies with respect to environment, in which some of the moot
questions to be asked were regarding the very understanding of nature and culture,
of animate and inanimate, time and personhood and so on. The researchers tried
to understand each culture’s mode of classification and coding of the entities
that constitute their environment. It was posited that by imposing external
categories ( here Western) one could not understand the ecological relationships
as the very nature of relations were dependent upon how one understood the
categories of nature and culture, wild and domestic etc. In fact as suggested by
Roy Ellen it was better to dispense with these terms and regard Nature as anything
that lay beyond the immediate living area of humans. According to Descola and
Palsson (1997:18), “etymologically, the concept of the ‘environment’ refers to
that which surrounds and, therefore, strictly speaking, an environment
incorporates just about everything, except that which is surrounded”.
Thus with the cognitive and phenomenological approaches the very paradigm of
western scientific classifications were overruled. More significantly the dualist
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paradigm of western mode of thinking was seen as only one kind of mode of
thinking and not part of any universal mode of thought. Thus, it was found that
not all people everywhere understand the world in dialectical terms as well as in
time and space along with other categories that may exist as continuities or
processes. Thus the modernist way of understanding the world in terms of neat
classifications; like this or that, black or white, was seen as inapplicable to
situations in which things were not classified in terms of their intrinsic properties
but according to their spatial and temporal location, use, or situational
interpretation. Thus, instead of identifying definitive properties like states and
substance, the intellectual inquiry has now turned towards process and praxis.
Some scholars attempted to study indigenous categories of classification as
“ethno-botany” and “ethno-zoology” where the idea was not to collect native
terms but to understand the basis for classification of all animate and inanimate
objects and aspects of the environment. The cognitive approach attempted detailed
reconstruction of categories that were being used in that particular culture. For
example if one took something like say ‘wood’ ; then the various ways in which
wood was classified in that culture, would be according to the cultural usage;
like fire wood, building wood, wood for making ritual objects, for gifting and so
on. The cognitive approach however, differs from the phenomenological in that
in it the world is seen as already existing with a set of defined meanings and then
the humans live in it accordingly. Thus the meanings are pre-existing and external
to human practice.
Try to document the manner in which natural objects are classified in
your native language
However, it is also recognized that since things are constructed in specific
historical and temporal contexts, the categories may change with changes in the
context. Thus with industrialisation and impact of monetary economy many of
the earlier existing categories may change. However, deconstruction as a
methodology had its own drawbacks as the very purpose of understanding, that
is, classification and categorisation becomes a difficult task. As Palsson (1997:16)
has demonstrated that it is possible to have a broad based typology of the different
ways in which a culture relates to its environment; namely orientalism, paternalism
and communalism. Orientalism is the cosmology where nature is viewed as
something to be dominated and used by society such as found in early industrial
capitalism, paternalism is an attitude of conservation where nature is sought to
be preserved and taken care of for human consumption such as the notion of
management as applied to the environment .Communalism is the cosmology
where no difference is perceived between nature and society and also science
remains an outcome of practical knowledge rather than abstract reasoning. People
who learn about environment by engaging directly with it and treating all objects
as equally animate also live in an equal and interactional relationship with the
environment. Such a world-view has also been referred to as ‘cosmogenic’.
Ask your parents and other older relatives about what they think about
natural objects like trees, rivers etc. Do you find that they have a reverence
for natural objects?
Theoretical and
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The phenomenological view of culture is that people create culture through
practices that enables them to live and make sense out of the world in relation
with others situated in similar situation and sharing these practices and life ways.
People do not live according to a given set of meanings but create these meanings
through the process of living itself. Thus a landscape becomes imbued with the
meanings that people’s actions bestow upon it; like it can become an agricultural
field, a city or wasteland, anything that human action can make it into and then
these very actions endow it with meaning and convert it into an object of relevant
concern. Thus as Ingold (1994:330) puts it is more realistic to say that, “people
live culturally rather than they live in cultures”.
Scholars who follow the phenomenological approach tend to rely on qualitative
data that focuses on the body in relation to its environment rather than on the
constructions of the mind. Unlike in the cognitive approach where the categories
as collected in the ethno-botany or ethno-zoology are seen as passed down from
generation to generation ; in the phenomenological approach it is the conditions
of life such as hunting or pastoralism that are passed down and each generation
lives and recreates its own dispositions through embodies experience. It is because
they live under the same conditions that they reproduce much of the way of life
and bodily experiences of the previous generations. But such might change if the
bodily experiences change; so that if hunters become agriculturalists their view
of the world will change. In this form of analysis the researcher begins not from
given conceptual categories but by the performances of the body, that is what
people do, where they do it, why they do and what meaning they then derive
from it.
Identify all the rituals that involve natural objects and phenomenon in
your culture?
4.2.6 Indigenous Knowledge
It is now believed that there can be many epistemologies than just one that different
people can have different ways of gaining knowledge than what in the West is
viewed as formal learning. Such modes of learning and knowledge were earlier
dismissed as non-knowledge or superstition, but the contemporary world, faced
the reality that the western world view of orientalism and paternalism that are
not working towards a sustainable relationship of humans and the environment
as demonstrated by a world faced with global warming and climate change.
Scholars are turning towards the communal pattern of life and understanding
what is now labeled as indigenous knowledge and wisdom. To consider
indigenous ways of doing things as serious science is one of the recent
developments in Ecological Anthropology. The specific forms of knowledge
pertaining to the environment are also called Indigenous Ecological Knowledge
or IEK.
Take a list of all the things that any elder in your family can tell you about
the medicinal properties of various botanical specimens that you see around
Research Methodology in
In this unit we have learnt the ways in which anthropologists have approached
the study of human environment relationships or in other words, what are the
methodologies of Ecological Anthropology. To some of you it may have appeared
that we are talking more about theory than about techniques of collecting data or
doing research. It must be remembered that every methodology has three
components, the first and the most important is the theoretical approach or the
basic premises on which the research is based. Moreover all research is limited
to the subject matter of its discipline. Since as anthropologists we are concerned
primarily with the study of culture and society; any methodology would have as
its first premise the manner in which one is conceptualizing these two terms.
Since Ecological Anthropology arose out of the American Cultural tradition,
and as we have already discussed it is rooted in the notion of culture; we have
seen that each of our approaches had dealt with one specific way of looking at
culture. The basic premises tell us about the questions that we need to ask and
the objectives that we may have. For example in the approach of Environmental
Possibilism our questions pertained mainly to asking what resources from the
environment were being used by people by using which technology. Once we
have a set of questions then we need to approach our study by some methods like
it could be a synchronic method or a diachronic or historical method or a
comparative one; or one focusing on a single case. In environmental possibilism;
the studies were synchronic and comparative. There was no time frame involved
but data from more than one society was compared, as we find in the classic
work by Daryl Forde presented in his book entitled Habitat, economy and Society.
Once we have the approach, we come down to the techniques that depend upon
the basic information that we are seeking and kind of explanation we aim at,
namely the theory and the approach. In the example, that we are discussing it
would involve comparing field data collected by several people including the
analyst although it is not a necessary condition.
Thus whether it is Ecological Anthropology or any other field of investigation
we work within the outer limits of the discipline; in other words we are always
talking about the construction of culture and society. And as we know as students
of anthropology, there is nothing on ground that exists objectively as society and
culture, these are constructs and like all constructs they vary over historical time
and the context in which the researcher is situated. Thus the subjective
construction of the analyst is also part of the theory for it is as important to know
who is saying rather than only what is being said.
The variation in Ecological Anthropology from other branches is that here the
environment or the natural and biological world enter into analysis as definite
variables to be incorporated. However, what constitutes environment and how it
is conceptualised in relation to culture and society is what has been changing as
methodologies of study change. From the positivist or scientific method of
comparison and empirical data collection and also construction of overt
generalisations, like the neo-evolutionary schemas proposed by scholars like
Leslie White and Julian Steward and the concept of ecosystems as given by
Rappaport; we have come to far more reflexive and inter-subjective methods
used by the scholars whose works have been compiled by Descola and Pallson
Theoretical and
Methodological Issues of
and Croll and Parkin; where the focus is on cosmologies and world views and
people’s own perceptions.
The techniques used by anthropologists are solidly based in fieldwork and
qualitative data collection. However cognitive anthropology may focus more on
quantitative data as they try to reconstruct the categories that people use.
Phenomenologist’s on the other hand are concerned only with purely subjective
and qualitative data and may depend more on narratives than on quantified or
otherwise objective mode of data collections.
Burnham and Ellen. (eds) 1979. Social and Ecological Systems: A.S.A
Monograph. London: Academic Press.
Croll, E., and David P. (eds) 1992. Bush Base Forest Farm: Culture, Environment
and Development, London: Routledge
Descola, P., and Gisli P. (eds) 1997. Nature and Society: Anthropological
Perspectives. London: Routledge.
Ellen, Roy 1979. “Omniscience and ignorance; variations in Nuaulu knowledge,
identification and classification of animals” In Language and Society, vol8: 337-
Friedman, J. 1979. “Hegelian Ecology: between Rousseau and the World Spirit”
In P.C. Burnham and R.F. Ellen (eds) Social and Ecological Systems, London:
Academic Press.
Forde, D. 1934. Habitat, Economy and Society, London: Meuthen.
Geertz, C. 1963. Agricultural Involution: The processes of Change in Indonesia,
Berkeley: University of California Press.
Harris, M. 1971. Culture, Man and Nature, New York: Thomas Y Cormbell.
Ingold, T. 1994. “Introduction to Culture” In The Companion Encyclopedia of
Anthropology Ed Tim Ingold, London: Routledge, pp 329-349.
Palsson, G. 1996. “Human-Environment relations: oreintalism, paternalism and
communalism” In Descola, Philippe and Gisli Palsson (eds) 1997 Nature and
Society: Anthropological Perspectives, London: Routledge.pp63-82.
Rappaport, Roy A. 1967. Pigs for the Ancestors: Rituals in the Ecology of a New
Guinea People. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Suggested Reading
Herskovits, M. 1948. Man and his Works, New York: Knopf.
Steward, J. 1955. Theory of Culture Change, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Dove, M. R., and Carol C. (eds) 2008. Environmental Anthropology: A historical
reader, Blackwell Pub.
Research Methodology in
Tilouine, Marie-Lecomte (ed) 2010. Nature, Culture and Religion at the Cross
Roads of Asia, New Delhi: Social Science Press.
Kopnina, H. and Eleanor Shoreman-Ouimet. 2011. Environmental Anthropology
Today, London: Routledge.
Heatherington, T. 2010. Wild Sardinia: Indigeneity and the Global Dreamtime
of Environmentalism, Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Sample Questions
1) How did the theory of Cultural Ecology help in creating a typology of human
2) What is cognitive approach to study of Ecology? What is the classification
given by Gisli Palsson?
3) What is the phenomenological approach? What techniques are used for it?
4) What is Indigenous knowledge? Why should we study it?
5) Who gave the theory of cultural materialism? How is it different from cultural
6) What is the ecosystem theory? Is it possible to use it in contemporary world?