Environment And Anthropology Research Paper

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Anthropologists have been concerned with interaction between human populations and their environments since the middle of the nineteenth century. Early treatments were largely in terms of environmental determinism, replaced increasingly from around 1900 by ‘possibilist’ approaches which specified only a constraining role on society for environmental factors. A major paradigm throughout the twentieth century has been that of ecological anthropology, informed by conceptions of ecology which have been to varying degrees Darwinian, emphasizing the inter-relationship of social, cultural, biotic, and physical variables within a system, and centrally concerned with the concept of adaptation. This essentially positivist program has been augmented, and in part superseded, since the 1980s by one which uses interpretative, cognitive, and sociological approaches to understand peoples’ perceptions of nature, environmental problems, and collective responses to them. These methodologies are not easily brought within the framework of ecological anthropology, and in recent years the term Environmental anthropology has appeared as a more inclusive description. Approaches to human ecology which are concerned only with the biological characteristics of populations are not dealt with in this research paper.

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1. From Sociological Possibilism To Cultural Ecology

During the first four decades of the twentieth century, anthropological theory was dominated by the ideas of Emile Durkheim (1858–1917) and Franz Boas (1858– 1942), for whom environmental factors were for the most part secondary, and who accorded them a permissive rather than a determinant role. Nevertheless, the period saw the appearance of a number of classic studies, including Boas’s own study and that of Mauss and Beuchat on Eskimo patterns of settlement.

The first explicit use of the concept of ecology in anthropology is found in the work of Julian Steward (1902–72) during the 1930s. For Steward, the concept of cultural adaptation is paramount, and the key adaptive strategies of a particular culture are located in a core of social institutions and technical arrangements directly focused on food-getting. The recognition of distinctive subsistence strategies provided the basis for the delineation of cultural types, which Steward maintained evolved multilineally, rather than in the unilinear fashion advocated by many nineteenth-century thinkers. In a modified form, Steward’s ideas have continued to be influential, through the work of scholars such as Robert Netting. However, his theory of cultural ecology depends on a definition of adaptation, and a division between organic and superorganic levels of explanation, and between a core of key adaptive traits and a neutral periphery, which recent writers have rejected.

2. The Influence Of Bioenergetics And Systems Ecology

Advances within biology linked to the notion of ecosystem, the empirical measurement of energy flow, and the employment of the language of cybernetics and systems theory, led during the 1960s to a new formulation of ecological problems in anthropology. The special character assigned by Steward to the superorganic was passed over in favor of a view of human behavior in many respects functionally equivalent to that of other animals. Descriptions of ecological interactions began to involve computations of carrying capacity, and estimates of energy transfer and efficiency (Ellen 1982). Adaptation became a matter of webs of mutual causality. In particular, there developed an interest in the way in which cultural institutions might serve to regulate certain systems of which human populations are part. All of these trends are demonstrated in the seminal work of Rappaport (1968), undertaken among the New Guinea Maring.

The technical and conceptual shortcomings of such approaches have been criticized in retrospect: inadequate samples and indices of what constituted success and adaptation and a theoretical naivete wedded to a prevailing sociological cybernetics which underestimated the difficulties of defining system boundaries (and thus of demonstrating feedback loops), and which neglected the role of historical contingency. This contributed to a skepticism concerning the more extreme proposition that certain kinds of small-scale society have built-in mechanisms for maintaining environmental balance through homeostasis. Although, other things being equal, it does seem that small populations with limited equipment and resources have benign effects on the environment (temptingly but erroneously interpreted as ‘harmony’), for some in the environmental movement the inspiration offered by such cultures has led to a degree of idealization of the extent to which the values of particular nonindustrial and animistic peoples equate with environmental practices.

This debate has been particularly apparent with respect to the native peoples of North America. However, debunking the existence of ‘ecological Edens’ is not to downplay either the extent of the interconnections between apparently esoteric aspects of culture and the pragmatic well-being of subsistence systems, or the manifestly sophisticated knowledgeability of many nonindustrial peoples. Two studies which capture the former in a powerful way are Lansing’s (1991) analysis of the linkage between the Balinese temple hierarchy and irrigation decision-making, and Richards’ (1985) demonstration of the long-term rational behavior of Mende rice farmers in Sierra Leone. Both vindicate traditional local knowledge as against that of successive external bureaucracies, and thereby provide an antidote to top-down development programs. This general trend is evident in the growing literature on indigenous environmental knowledge (e.g., Warren et al. 1995).

Some human systems do maintain a degree of integrity and are relatively well defined, while it is both practically and intuitively a relatively simple matter to isolate ‘systems’ which make sense of the data and which may be used in the investigation of a wide range of problems. Recognizing the openness of human systems is not inconsistent with employing some notion of closure to determine what universe of variables to examine. The arbitrary and analytic character of most boundaries, together with the reality of exogenous intrusions of varying types, magnitudes, and/or igins, does not inevitably mean accepting a notion of receding causation or infinite regress whereby the critical determinants always seem to lie outside the local system being examined—a view which comes dangerously close to providing no explanation at all. Vayda (1983) has sought to circumvent the problem by advocating a ‘progressive contextualization’ focusing on particular locally-significant ‘people– environment interactions’ and placing them in increasingly wider and denser contexts without making prior assumptions as to what the context might be. However, all explanations presume some kind of context and boundary (Moran 1990).

3. Neo-Darwinist Approaches

One response to the perceived deficiencies of systems approaches has been inspired by economic formalism and neo-Darwinism, both characterized by methodological individualism. This trend is evident in studies emphasizing how people actually cope with environmental hazards (Vayda and McCay 1975), and in optimal foraging theory (Winterhalder and Smith 1981) and evolutionary ecology (Borgerhoff 1991). In this latter, adaptation and change are seen as providing an indefinite number of alternative strategies for enhancing reproductive fitness and survival depending on particular environmental circumstances. Such approaches have been criticized for their simplemindedness at the level of ethnographic analysis, for using ‘social’ to mean no more than observable interactions between conspecifics, and for their failure to understand the cultural significance of subsistence, or to consider that the organization of consciousness might be relevant. However, more recently it has been acknowledged that the role of genes is more complex: enabling the generation and sustenance of diverse kinds of social relationship and permitting (but not determining) the effective factors which contribute to their formation. At the same time, the properties of human social interaction themselves are seen to condition the adaptive value of strategies adopted; individuals thus adapting to the constraints of the social environment in which they develop, and the outcome of consumption influencing the value of alternative patterns of production.

4. The Ecological And The Social As Mutually Constitutive But Separate Systems

A second response to the difficulties of ‘ecological functionalism’ has been to explicitly disaggregate post-Stewardian general ecology, to speak instead of humans being simultaneously involved in nonconflateable ecological and social relations, and to play down possible causal connections between the two. In this model—most clearly stated in the work of Ingold (1986b)—ecological relations are those represented by material flows between individual organisms, and abstract and culture-bearing social relations are those established between persons through consciousness. Here the social and the ecological are co-extensive; both intra and interspecific interactions simultaneously have social and ecological aspects. For example, predation is an ecological relationship of extraction with consequences for the flow of energy and materials; hunting—which may refer to exactly the same activities—on the other hand is constituted through social relations of appropriation and exchange. Natural selection operates at the level of ecological rather than social relations, within an effective environment of conscious internal representations and plans for action. In this model, consciousness lies beyond (rather than within) the field of ecological relations, social institutions and relationships never being incorporated within adaptationist or other Darwinist explanations.

One difficulty with this approach is a metaphysic which prevents the effective engagement of the social and ecological and which sidesteps the issue of adaptation. How one might influence the other, and how we might measure and compare different entities or sets of relations remains the major problematic of ecological anthropology, and one rarely, and then inadequately, addressed. There is plenty of empirical evidence to suggest that the social and ecological have measurable effects one upon the other. By emphasizing the continuity of the social landscape, such an approach fails to acknowledge the need in any one analysis to draw boundaries around datasets and thus create ‘systems’ of interacting parts which provide insights into existential reality. Such a view places renewed emphasis on the essentially social determination of modes of subsistence, acting, at most, as a filter for the expression of an underlying ecological dynamic.

5. Historical Ecology

A third recent approach, both in biology and anthropology, has been to reject synchronic ecology in favor of analyses which are historical in orientation, emphasizing contingency and process at the expense of the systemic and functional. At the highest level of abstraction, there has been expanded emphasis on the evolution of social and ecological systems (Ingold 1980), and on the co-evolution of genes, species, and culture (Durham 1991), focusing on positive feedback. Work in historical ecology has been concerned with, for example, historical demography (Netting 1981), the environmental causes and consequences of systemic collapses such as that of the classic Maya (e.g. Atran 1993), and the way particular human groups first make and then manage their environment (Crumley 1994). Some of the most dramatic studies have been with respect to tropical forests (Sponsel et al. 1996), long thought of as a byword for the most pristine of global ecosystems, and consequently the most vulnerable to human impact. Yet other studies have focused on how particular well-known functionalist theories of environment–social organization linkage might better be explained through particular histories (e.g. Kelly 1985). Such developments in anthropology have proceeded very much in parallel with the new emerging environmental history.

6. Perceiving And Conceptualizing The Environment

Another major area of growth since the late 1970s has concerned how people conceptualize the natural world, what they know of its objective properties, how this relates to the decisions they make about environmental information, and which of this might be used in pragmatic development contexts. Research in this area has grown exponentially over the last decade, and the shape of the problematic altered so much that it is impossible to do justice to the subject here. There has been a spectacular growth in ethno-botany in particular, in studies of indigenous knowledge with a view to countering top-down development models (e.g., Richards 1985) and making development policy more effective, and studies in the cognitive organization and cultural representation of natural kinds, and the concept of nature more generally (Descola and Palsson 1996). Research on the environmental knowledge of local peoples has shown how in looking at, say, the relations between humans and domesticates, cultural selection is important, strengthening the case for reconceptualizing human evolution as the systemic co-evolution of both interdependent species, and of objects and their cultural images.

The emphasis on cognition, on how different cultures represent and ‘construct’ their worlds, the questioning of the objective notion of system, and developments in modern biology, have led to the emergence of a critical questioning of what is meant by the terms ‘nature’ and ‘environment’ (e.g., Ellen and Fukui 1996). Increasing knowledge of the extent to which even hunter-gatherer populations can modify their surroundings and the growing literature in historical ecology has led to further erosion of the nature–culture divide. A persuasive anthropological critique of the organism–environment distinction is to be found in Ingold’s borrowings (e.g. 1986a) from the ecological psychology of Gibson (1979): the concept of environmental niche as a set of affordances, and the idea that organisms fit the world to themselves rather than being ‘constructed’ by them.

7. The Environment As A Political Agenda

The development of anthropological and social science theories of human ecology over the last 30 years has taken place against the backdrop of an emerging political agenda, one which has intruded into ecological theorizing, as in discussions on ‘indigenous environmental knowledge’ (Milton 1996). Under the guidance of figures such as Garrett Hardin and Kenneth Boulding, economic thinking has been placed in a more biospheric context, and the ‘growth model’ rejected both in relation to advanced industrial and developing societies. Practical concern for environmental degradation, the profligate use of finite resources, the calculated advantages of ‘alternative’ technologies, and anxieties about biodiversity conservation have spawned theories of sustainable development (Oldfield and Alcorn 1991, Redclift 1987). It has led to the interrogation of definitions of ‘sustainability,’ asking at what level systems are sustainable (local, regional, say); whether economic, ecological, cultural, and social sustainability are compatible; whether long-term ecological sustainability is to be preferred to shorter term economic sustainability; whether we want to sustain some aspects of a system at the expense of others (say, biodiversity over sustainable food production); whether we wish to sustain systems which derive their dynamic from human interventions rather than change an environment through conservation, and so on. Some writing in this vein is distinctively Utopian; some is concerned with practical matters of implementing specific controls; some seeks to modify the existing world-system though retaining capitalist relations of production; other writing seeks a rapprochement between Marxism and environmentalism; and some seeks to interrogate the very notion of ‘environmentalism’ (e.g. Milton 1996). A specific but well-articulated debate in this subfield concerns what Hardin had called ‘the tragedy of the commons,’ the ecological consequences of economic development on the management of collectively owned resources (McCay and Acheson 1987). Specific substantive issues which have contributed to our understanding here include that relating to pastoralism and overgrazing (Homewood and Rodgers 1987) and the extent to which foraging is a sufficient lifestyle to survive in tropical rainforests (Headland 1987).

8. Merging Paradigms

Understanding the way in which human ecological relations interact with social consciousness is increasingly seen to require the simultaneous application of two apparently antithetical approaches: one which emphasizes the systemic character of interactions looked at spatially and in the short-term, and one which emphasizes linear change in the long-term. The first is about ecological and social context, the second concerns biological and cultural history (including, but not exclusively, the working out of the key mechanisms of natural selection and cultural adaptation). Human action in the environment is, therefore, inevitably the product of a subtle combining of genetic and cultural process. While these are historically the product of previous action, they go on to contribute to the context in which further action takes place, and neither culture nor environment, neither genes nor social relations, are independent variables. It should be noted that approaches which confine the environment to relativistic internal conceptions, methodologically undermine the notion of environment as an objective backdrop or set of relations, the basis of ecological analysis hitherto. It is necessary, therefore, to recognize that ecological and social relations have both an existence externally as part of the context, and internally as part of a system of ideas and meaning. There is, if you like, a kind of ‘triple duality’ (pace Giddens): a theoretical notion of context and process, an empirical recognition of genes and social consciousness, and a methodological distinction between objective environment and its various cultural conceptions. All of these interact recursively to reproduce and to change the systems of which they are part.

Moreover, material relationships between humans (those we describe as economic) are predicated by a notion of value, and value which is not reducible to matter is based on a cultural division of tasks, on exchange between persons rather than individual biological organisms, and which can affect material transactions, including the flows of energy, nutrients, objects, and information between individuals of the same species. Through the increasing dependence on value, culture, and consciousness in human production and consumption, the economic becomes differentiated from the ecological, and as—through exchange—economic relations become more separated from other status relations in local social formations, so the economy as a separate phenomenal form emerges.

The relationship between Homo sapiens and the environment cannot be reduced to essences or imperatives—not environmentalism, biologism, sociologism, nor ecologism. Ecology, as human ecology, cannot ever be an autonomous discipline, except in the limited sense of an understanding of the dynamics of human populations in their ecological context. Ecology is rather a problematic—a discursive practice— which brings into focus the articulation and integration of several fields of knowledge, skills, and disciplines.


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