Human Ecology Research Paper

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Ecology is defined as “the science of the economy of animals and plants; that branch of biology which deals with the relations of living organisms to their surroundings, their habits and modes of life, etc.” (Oxford English Dictionary 2000). The first half of that definition implies an impulse toward efficient interdependence. Applied to humans, the second half of that definition implies much more than what is usually meant by the term human ecology, however. A consideration of the relations of individuals to their surroundings, their habits, and modes of life would include almost all aspects of what are now seen as “contextual effects.” It would include some aspects of developmental psychology (e.g., Barker and Wright 1954) and much of environmental psychology (Bechtel 1997). These are part of what is sometimes called autoecology (treating organisms individually as opposed to synecology, the study of collectivities), a field of inquiry that is perhaps part of ecology but not what is usually included under the term. That definition would also include studies, such as Gerth and Mills’s (1953) Social Structure and Character, among many others, that examine how a changing social structure affects the mode of life of a particular population. In contrast, sociological human ecology has been most concerned with investigating what are now termed aggregation effects, that is, how people, living together, create social organization. A reciprocal relationship between an individual or collectivity and its environment is posited. Human ecology is, therefore, concerned with the nature and process of community development (Hawley 1950).



A Brief Outline of the Early Development of Human Ecology

The term ecology was coined by the German botanist Ernst Haeckel in 1868, reviving much older concerns. The term human ecology may have been first used by J. Paul Goode, a University of Chicago geographer, at the 1907 meeting of the Association of American Geographers in describing an introductory university course. By 1920, Barrington Moore (1920), president of the Ecological Society of America, characterized geography as “human ecology” in his presidential address, and the journal Ecology reviewed Ellsworth Huntington and Sumner W. Cushing’s Principles of Human Geography under the title “Human Ecology” the following year. In 1922, Harlan Barrows, concerned about the continuing relevance of the field as the era of discovery neared its end, accepted the attribution as the new and future identity for geography in his presidential address to the Association of American Geographers. Anthropologists showed an interest in the relation of their field to ecology as early as 1903, but the term human ecology does not appear to have been used by them until the 1930s. Today, human ecological theory may be most intensively discussed by anthropologists.

Robert Park’s 1915 essay “The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the City Environment” is sometimes thought to be the origin of ecological thought in sociology, but neither does Park mentions the term nor are the outlines of ecological theory visible. (The 1925 republication of that essay includes a substantially rewritten introduction including the term.) Ecology does not play a large role in his 1921 essay on “Sociology and the Social Sciences” either. That three-part essay roots sociology firmly in history, links collective phenomena to interaction, and outlines a program for research. Park did discuss human ecology in his 1925 presidential address to the American Sociological Society, but it was not until 1936 that Park addressed ecological theory systematically. Nevertheless, Hawley (1950:8) attributed the origin of human ecology in sociology to pages 161 to 216 in Park and Burgess’s ([1921] 1969) Introduction to the Science of Sociology.

Park and Burgess’s ([1921] 1969) monumental 1,000page text is a comprehensive attempt at understanding social phenomena. Beginning with a discussion of the place of sociology among the social sciences (including the 1921 journal essay) and ending with a treatise on the nature of progress, the argument builds from human nature to society and the group. Connections are drawn between social contact and isolation, interaction and social forces, and four types of social relationships— competition, conflict, accommodation, and assimilation—to arrive at the forms of social control and collective action. Competition for ultimately limited resources and the connections engendered played a central role in the argument laid out in the text. These were classified as presocial because competition does not necessarily entail contact. Conflict implies a mutual awareness of the competing parties. Accommodation implies patterned adjustments of behavior, while assimilation implies a despecialization in behavioral patterns and a dissolution of social demarcation.

The range of issues and thought considered by Park and Burgess is impressive. A total of more than 180 collected edited contributions representing the work of more than 100 authors were introduced, reworked, and discussed by the authors. Park authored 14 of the included readings. Simmel was responsible for 10. Charles Darwin, Albion Small, and William Graham Sumner each had four readings included. Five authors, including John Dewey and W. I. Thomas, had three. Durkheim, Smith, Spencer, Le Bon, and 11 others each had two pieces, and 97 authors, including Comte, Cooley, Galton, Giddings, Gras, William James, Rousseau, Santayana, Schopenhauer, Sombart, Toennies, and Lester Ward, each made one contribution to the book. The large number of topics and breadth of authors suggests the diversity of intellectual sources that early American sociology drew on.

Despite the discussion of ecological concepts in one of the chapters of that work, a systematic discussion of human ecology was left to Roderick McKenzie in his 1924 essay “The Ecological Approach to the Study of the Human Community” and his 1927 article on “The Concept of Dominance and World-Organization.” The outlines of contemporary human ecological theory become visible in these two works. In the first work, McKenzie stated the basic claim that competition, selection, and accommodation determine the size and organization of human communities before identifying four types of communities, enumerating the basic factors behind community growth and decline, specifying the relationship between resources, population, and organization, and discussing the relationship between the basic ecological mechanisms and the internal structure of communities. In the second work, McKenzie provided a broad road map to the development of Asia over the seven or eight decades since the work appeared. He discussed the relationship between transportation technology and European colonial expansion, pointing out that the separation of communication from transportation has permitted the concentration of control as it allowed the decentralization of operations, and he outlined the changes in patterns of production and trade brought about by the expansion process. The application of ecological theory to the world system was refined and expanded in a subsequent book chapter (McKenzie 1933). The outlines of contemporary human ecological methodology become visible in his 1933 book, The Metropolitan Community, where social demography, geographic mapping, and summary analysis of spatial movements were used to support arguments about social organization (McKenzie [1933] 1997). The spatial implications of the process of ecological succession on intra-urban residential patterns, in the form of the concentric zone model, was laid out by Burgess in 1925. This work, so well known to students of urban development today, did not figure prominently in the then contemporary theoretical debates.

Each of the three main founders of sociological human ecology was a part-time theorist. Park, who came to Chicago as a part-time, practice-track lecturer in 1914 from the Tuskegee Institute and left in 1932 for Fisk University devoted much of his time to studying the role of newspapers in what is now sometimes called the “public sphere.” Burgess showed more sustained interest in the family than in the city. McKenzie, who apparently developed an interest in sociology after first becoming a classicist of some accomplishment, had his productive life cut short by illness. There was remarkably little systematic theoretical work advancing sociological human ecology before 1950. Human ecology was perhaps more extensively defined by its critics (e.g., Alihan [1938] 1964; Firey 1947) than by its proponents.

Ecological ideas were “in the air,” however. E. Warming’s Oecology of Plants appeared in 1909, Frederic Clements’s Plant Succession in 1916. Both extended the work of Charles Darwin. Frederic Le Play’s research on the relationship between family structure and the social environment in the mid-nineteenth century was known (Zimmerman and Frampton 1935). Galpin (1915) performed research on rural areas that had an impact on ecologically minded sociologists. J. Arthur Thomson, a biologist, and Patrick Geddes, one of the founders of modern city planning (Geddes 1915), collaborated on a booklength work of human ecology (1931) that extended earlier work. Herbert G. Wells, Julian Huxley, and George P. Wells published a three-volume comprehensive overview of ecology, with much of the last volume being devoted to human ecology, in 1934, which followed H. G. Wells’s major survey of history (1921). J. W. Bews (1935), a botanist, offered a statement of human ecology that was extensively reviewed. The work of N. S. B. Gras (1922) and Adna Weber (1899) had an impact on the theorizing in human ecology. This was an era of sweeping generalization and the “big work,” but there were many big ideas current at the time, and comparisons between humans and other species was only one of them.

Amos Hawley produced the first book-length statement of human ecology in 1950 and the first one that provided a systematic treatment of the theory, integrating social mechanisms and morphological outcomes. This has become the central statement of ecological theory. Hawley gave new prominence to the intricacies of human-commensal relations (discussed by Park and Burgess ([1921] 1969) but subsequently downplayed). That statement gave human ecology its contemporary form by codifying and extending the ecological thought of McKenzie and illustrating the resulting theory with the type of data and application in McKenzie’s Metropolitan Community. Shortly before the appearance of Hawley’s book, Donald Bogue published a study of metropolitan dominance (1949). Otis Dudley Duncan (1951) examined the question of optimal city size. Duncan (1959, 1964) later codified the thinking about the ecological complex and developed ecological theory and methods to study inter-urban dependences and patterns of development (Duncan et al. 1960; see also Vance and Smith 1954). Until about 1950, the illustrations used in ecological theorizing were not particularly urban in orientation even if all the protagonists had long-standing interests in cities as a social formation. Countering the urban preoccupation, Gibbs and Martin (1959) argued that the proper focus of human ecology was sustenance (subsistence) organization. Hawley’s (1986) refined statement of ecological theory de-emphasized spatially delimited communities. Much of the recent theoretical advance has been in applying the ecological approach to studies of formal organizations (Bidwell and Kasarda 1985), industry structure and entrepreneurship (Carroll and Hannan 2000), cultural institutions (Blau 1989; Wuthnow 1987), and voluntary organizations (McPherson 1983).

This review is too narrow, however. While human ecology is not always well integrated into the theory, since the 1920s and continuing into the present, it has provided theoretical guidance for researchers investigating many types of behaviors that are not coordinated by a centralized authority. Park’s contention that social distance would be reflected in spatial distance provides a holistic framework for understanding the patterned nature of noninstitutionalized behavior from crime and vice to voting and religious affiliation. Ecology’s population perspective on social phenomena guides much research on stratification processes, including residential sorting and labor markets, family formation, and marriage. Despite the relative paucity of theoretical work, Quinn (1940) was able to find 347 pieces of ecological literature in 1940, and, a decade later, Quinn (1950) had found enough human ecology to fill 23 chapters in a 500-page review. The contributions in Micklin and Poston (1998) provide an extensive survey of human ecological theory and research. Berry and Kasarda’s (1977) book includes a review of the history of sociological human ecology in addition to an application of the theory to urban issues. Given the placement and purpose of this research paper, the discussion will focus on territorially delimited communities.

Understanding the Development of Human Ecology

Some of the early theoretical works in human ecology (Hollingshead 1940; Wirth 1945) and other disciplines were part of a boundary-making activity as factions of academics competed for recognized expertise over particular areas, but they were also symptomatic of a search for direction. Much of the early work in ecological theory must be seen as tentative first approximations of a theory—and more recent thought perhaps only a second approximation. In sociology’s exploratory context, a theory with predictive power may be beyond reach. A theory capable of generating post hoc interpretations is useful, and one that is incorrect in informative ways can lead to successively more powerful formulations.

Our coordinated knowledge which in the general sense of the term is Science, is formed by the meeting of two orders of experience. One order is constituted by the direct, immediate discriminations of particular observations. The other order is constituted by our general way of conceiving the Universe. They will be called, the Observational Order, and the Conceptual Order. The first point to remember is that the observational order is invariably interpreted in terms of the concepts supplied by the conceptual order. . . . We inherit an observational order, namely types of things which we do in fact discriminate; and we inherit a conceptual order, namely a rough system of ideas in terms of which we do in fact, interpret. (Whitehead 1933:198)

The quote, repeated by different authors who developed biological and sociological ecological theory, apparently captures the situation of sociologists in the first half of the twentieth century. They were searching for a methodology that would allow sociologists to adequately characterize the ways people lived together, and at the same time they were searching for ways of conceptualizing and understanding how that was accomplished. They were also searching for ways of bringing the observational and conceptual orders together, adjusting each in the process.

The following quote exemplifies the observational order that sociologists felt they needed to understand a century ago. Because Chicago played such a central role in the development of American sociology, an observation of that city is cited.

Chicago is one of the most incredible cities. By the lake there are a few comfortable residential districts, mostly with stone houses, and right behind them there are little old wooden houses. Then come the ‘‘tenements” of the workingmen and absurdly dirty streets which are unpaved, or there is miserable macadamization. In the “city,” among the “skyscrapers,’’ the condition of the streets is utterly hair-raising. And they burn soft coal. In broad daylight one can see only three blocks ahead—everything is haze and smoke, the whole lake is covered by a huge pall of smoke in which the sails of the ships putting to sea quickly disappear.

It is an endless human desert. From the city one travels into the endless distance, past blocks with Greek inscriptions and then past others with Chinese taverns, Polish advertisements, German beer parlors, until one gets to the “stockyards.” For as far as one can see from the clock tower of the firm Armour & Co. there is nothing but herds of cattle, lowing, bleating, endless filth. But on the horizon all around—for the city continues for miles and miles, until it melts into the multitude of suburbs—there are churches and chapels, grain elevators, smoking chimneys, and houses of every size.

All hell had broken loose in the “stockyards”: an unsuccessful strike, masses of strikebreakers; daily shootings with dozens of dead; a streetcar was overturned and a dozen women were squashed because a “non-union man” had sat in it; dynamite threats against the “Elevated Railway,” and one of its cars was actually derailed and plunged into the river. Right near our hotel a cigar dealer was murdered in broad daylight—all in all, a strange flowering of culture.

There is a mad pell-mell of nationalities: Up and down the streets the Greeks shine the Yankees’ shoes for 5 cents. The Germans are their waiters, the Irish take care of their politics, and the Italians of their dirtiest ditch digging. With the exception of the better residential districts, the whole tremendous city is like a man whose skin has been peeled off and whose intestines are seen at work. One can see everything—in the evening the prostitutes are placed in a show window with electric light and the prices are displayed! A characteristic thing is the maintenance of a specific Jewish-German culture. Theaters present in Yiddish The Merchant of Venice (with Shylock prevailing, however) and their own Jewish plays.

Everywhere one is struck by the tremendous intensity of work—most of all in the “stockyards” with their “ocean of blood.” From the moment when the unsuspecting bovine enters the slaughtering area, is hit by a hammer and collapses, it is in constant motion but [is] always (in the rhythm of work) tied to the machine that pulls the animal. One sees an absolutely incredible output in this atmosphere of steam, muck, blood, and hides.

When they finish work, people often must travel for hours to get home. The streetcar company is bankrupt and hence does not purchase any new cars. The old ones break down every few moments. Around 400 people are killed or crippled in accidents every year. The company has calculated that those 400 indemnities cost it less than the required precautions, so it does not bother to introduce them. (Excerpted from Max Weber’s (1975:285–87) letters, written during his 1904 visit to the United States)

Weber is known for, among his other accomplishments, theoretical writings on cities. His main work on the topic (1958) was, appropriately enough, originally titled “Illegitimate Domination.” Yet his own work focused not on these observations but the power relationships and social contracts among the burghers of Medieval European cities in the absence of charisma or tradition as a legitimating force for social hierarchy.

With only minor revision, this was the situation a few years later, when McKenzie, Park, and later, Burgess arrived in Chicago. An American sociologist in Chicago observed what Weber saw, unfiltered by the interpretation of historians. If there was order here, it was not obviously one born out of social contract, much less of moral consensus. A social theory based on such agreement would be out of place. If the state had a role in creating order, its reach was seriously limited, and whatever the factors guiding behavior, they were not written into law. A theory stressing the importance of institutionalized authority would lack explanatory power. Individual and class interests probably motivated behavior but may not have determined the observed outcomes. An overly “organicist” conception of order would just as obviously have been out of place. In spite of the high level of apparent disorder, with individuals working at cross-purposes, somehow this social formation managed to survive. People continued arriving, and prosperity, at least most of the time, increased.

Searching for a way of conceptualizing what they were observing, Park (1936) and several others looked to the ecologist’s “web of life” and cited Darwin’s example of the cats and the clover to illustrate the binding factor in social arrangements.

[Darwin] found . . . that humblebees were almost indispensable to the fertilization of the heartsease, since other bees do not visit this flower. The same thing is true with some kinds of clover. Humblebees alone visit red clover, as other bees cannot reach the nectar. The inference is that if the humblebees became extinct or very rare in England, the heartsease and red clover would become very rare, or wholly disappear. However, the number of humblebees in any district depends in a great measure on the number of field mice, which destroy their combs and nests. It is estimated that more than twothirds of them are thus destroyed all over England. Near villages and small towns the nests of humblebees are more numerous than elsewhere and this is attributed to the number of cats that destroy the mice. Thus next year’s crop of purple clover in certain parts of England depends on the number of humblebees in the district; the number of humblebees depends upon the number of field mice, the number of field mice upon the number and the enterprise of the cats, and the number of cats as someone has added—depends on the number of old maids and others in neighboring villages who keep cats. (P. 2)

The image of cooperation without direct communication with its many indirect and surprising connections has captured the imagination of many sociologists. Competition was evident in cities a century ago but not a war of all against all. “Competitive cooperation,” a sociological idea that was pressed into biological service, seemed to capture the basis of human community. According to Park and Burgess ([1921] 1969:507), “competition invariably tends to create an impersonal social order in which each individual, being free to pursue his own profit, and, in a sense, is compelled to do so, makes every other individual a means to that end.” In other words, competition pushes people to cooperate. It has been difficult to keep both aspects of the concept simultaneously in focus, however, with some sociologists perhaps overemphasizing just one aspect of the concept. The ecological model allowed for a very populist image of human society wherein each person had an effect on others (even if unequal) and allowed for the possibility of a civil society and public sphere that did not exist in the shadow of the state—ideas that run throughout Park’s work (e.g., Park [1904] 1972).

The biology was, to some extent, used as a loose analogy or trope, and the early human ecologists made no attempt to press the point. Human ecologists’ efforts were frequently directed toward understanding exactly how the plant and animal analogy fell short, leading to much of the future development of the theory. Two points of divergence stand out. First, humans are better able to communicate and plan than are plants or animals. Relationships among them are thus more complex because coalitions can emerge from the competition, leading to conflict and possibly accommodation and assimilation in addition to specialization and segregation. Second, the different types of humans produced, to use Mills’s ([1959] 1967) phrase, are not species. They are capable of geographic and social movement, leading to a concern for patterns of social mobility. Despite the biological connotations of the term, human ecology is essentially interactionist sociology. Ecology, as Hawley (1944:399–400) pointed out, is a social science whether applied to plants, animals, or humans (with some then contemporary books carrying titles such as Plant Sociology). Human ecology, with its observation that patterns of behavior are more variable than biological structure across species and its stress on adaptation to the social and physical environment, has often served as an antidote to explanations for social and cultural differences based on population genetics.

Park’s 1921 essay on sociology and social science suggested that following periods of sociology as a philosophy of history and as schools attempting to define a point of view, a period of investigation and research was beginning, and some of the subsequent debate was over the correct way of observing social phenomena. Much of the effort at the University of Chicago during the first third of the twentieth century went to community studies. McKenzie’s dissertation on Columbus, Ohio, neighborhoods was a multimethod attempt to create an adequate “observational order” characterizing social organization. Early human ecologists referred quite positively to the work of the “social survey movement,” including Booth (1920) in his landmark study of London. Several of the community studies performed during that era, such as Lynd and Lynd’s (1929) Middletown, had selected relatively small, stable communities for study. Larger cities, having differentiated into multiple social worlds, were obviously too extensive for any one participant or observer to adequately observe directly, leading to a crisis in methodology. Homans (1949) and Coleman (1990), among others, rued the disappearance of community studies with an encompassing view of social organization. The use of quantitative analysis and secondary sources emerged in the 1930s and 1940s as a method of performing a naturalistic study while maintaining a holistic view. While some commentators have suggested that quantitative analysis was a strategy for gaining scientific legitimacy, by 1950 the claim to that legitimacy was more strongly made by sample surveys and small-group laboratory research, both of which sacrificed holism.

Human Ecology Distilled

The fundamental contention of human ecology is that community (social organization) arises through the interaction of a population and its physical and social environment. Ecology assumes a collective tendency to maximize life that is, however, limited by the repertoire of tools, techniques, and information (technology) available. That simple statement carries many implications. Because every living organism requires access to the biophysical environment for food and water, environmental dependence, however indirect, is an ever-present fact of life. The ultimate dependence of all humans on the biophysical environment implies that social organization is not purely a social construction emerging out of interaction. The social construction is thereby anchored. Because individuals are time bound, economizing on time is a significant factor in the maximization of life. Because interdependence is a means of maximizing life by allowing environmental access while economizing on time, it forms the basis for social relations. Because the intrinsic limitation on the behavioral variability of humans is indeterminate, interdependence can take many—sometimes simple, sometimes complex—forms.

Competition for resources among individuals plays a critical role in social organization. Competition can have at least three general types of effects on community (Schnore 1958), however, with the path of least resistance possibly prevailing. Demographic responses, a decline in births or increase in mortality, are one possible response to competition for resources (Hannan and Freeman 1977). Technological responses, the more efficient use of resources through conservation or the enlargement of the resources base, are a second collective response to competition (Boserup 1966; Hawley 1950:203; Schumpeter 1950). Organizational responses are a third type of response to competition. As Cooley (1930a:164) has suggested, “If ‘all the world’s a stage’ [competition] is a process that distributes the parts among the players” (quoted in Hawley [1950:201]). It even helps create those roles. Competition leads to specialization and, therefore, differentiation. Differentiation results in a hierarchy of activities when the most productive activity is in most direct contact with the environment, resulting in its becoming a dominant or key function defining the conditions under which others will operate, creating sometimes intricate patterns of cooperation in which the participants might not even experience competition per se.

Activities are performed by people, leading to a process of matching individuals and activities and creating social stratification. The competition for resources that creates differentiation encourages the formation of coalitions to gain and protect such resources. The possible bases for coalitions are nearly endless, including even eye color. The salience of particular characteristics for such purposes depends on the ease and effectiveness with which they can be mobilized as a basis for action (Nielson 1985; Olzak 1986). Competition creates the impetus to form coalitions, and the success of the various efforts creates social categories that become the basis for commensal relations. While in some cases the categoric basis for recruitment is easily measured, in other cases difficult-to-measure criteria apply, such as the nature of a personnel director’s university education (Useem 1989) or the neighborhood in which a person resides. The sometimes excessive credentialing requirements for particular occupations, selecting on parental income, could also be included among the commensal mechanisms of resource allocation. None of the bases are primordial.

The resulting social organization is composed of two interweaving, but distinct, types of interdependence relations: symbiotic and commensal. Symbiotic relations imply a degree of mutual interdependence among complementary and, therefore, functionally differentiated and specialized units, such as the different species in the “web of life” example above. Commensal relations, arising among those who engage in similar activities in a symbiotic web, imply common, parallel actions. Being built on the basis of similarity, they imply both a degree of competition for resources and cooperation to protect access to them. This mix of interests leads to restrictions on individual actions, providing a basis for understanding the structural bases of action. Despite focusing on the morphology of social organization, human agency in all its varied manifestations is essential to the ecological theoretical framework. The human “balance of nature” can be attained only when life expands to the maximum attainable under prevailing conditions. The disparate aims, attempts, and projects of many individuals imply that the collective response to an environment is not simply a result of an individual’s action writ large nor merely a cultural schema made real.

The “balance of nature” may be elusive, existing mainly in the minds of researchers, however (Park 1936:5, quoting Charles Enid). That equilibrium may be affected by any event that upsets the relationship between population (a set of individuals), organization (a set of direct and indirect social relations created by interrelated efforts at sustaining life), environment (a set of direct and indirect resources), and technology (a set of tools, techniques, and information), resulting in a population problem that becomes an impetus for social change that can be resolved in the three general ways outlined.

Changes in Social Organization

If the human “balance of nature” is essentially a matter of matching persons with activities, anything that disturbs that balance leads to social change. Changes in the productivity of sustenance technology have had a major impact on social organization, increasing the aggregate population that could be supported and the degree of hierarchical placement. Over the past century or so, communication and transportation technologies have clearly had substantial implications, increasing the scope of social integration. Each of these has directly or indirectly affected the size of the population compared with the set of activities. Technology, in all its various forms, is central to theories of large-scale social organization because it is a mechanism that stabilizes social relations despite changing actors, beliefs, and interests (Latour 1991). Human ecologists have explored some implications of the basic model more extensively compared with others, however.

Technological Change

Advances in subsistence technology are a necessary precondition for any significant increase in the size or complexity of any social formation (Nolan and Lenski 1999:65). Those technologies have evolved from hunting and gathering to horticultural to agricultural to industrial. Over the last century or so, that has resulted in a shift from farm to factory to office in the United States and other countries. The Industrial Revolution was due, in part, to the increasing efficiency of agricultural production, and the growth of service employment rests on increasing manufacturing efficiency (Baumol, Blackman, and Wolff 1989). The spatial distribution of population has changed as particular industries have expanded or contracted as new cities grew on the basis of specific products (Duncan and Lieberson 1970).

Subsistence technology influences social stratification by affecting the volume of surplus wealth and by influencing the bargaining power of all involved. Rewards (the product of labor) will be shared to the extent required to insure the survival and continued productivity of those others whose actions are necessary or beneficial to themselves (Lenski 1966). Recall that competition tends to create a social order wherein individuals are compelled to use others as means to their own ends (Park and Burgess 1921:507). But since each technology requires a different set of human resources for maximum output, the outcomes of the process of bargaining vary with the methods of production available. In the simplest societies, which generate small surpluses, such as hunter-gatherer bands, goods will be distributed largely on the basis of need. Across types of society, from those based on hunting and gathering to those based on agriculture, inequality grew as power differentials based on the degree of centrality in a network of interdependence increased. That historical trend reversed with the appearance of mature industrial societies because the greater complexity of functional interdependences gave those with specializations that supported the key function increased bargaining power. In agricultural societies, for example, 90 to 95 percent of the population was involved in the same basic function, leaving many individuals with little bargaining power and a few with central coordinating roles. The division of labor is substantially more complex in industrial societies, and individual functions are significantly more tightly integrated—with the automobile assembly line being the ideal typical example of each participant having veto power over production at any one moment. An increased ability to communicate, sometimes aided by proximity, gave those performing similar functions greater ability to solidify commensal relations, with those being often institutionalized in the form of labor unions, professional organizations, and industry groups.

Communication Technology and Ecological Expansion

A concern for communication and transportation technologies stems from human ecology’s roots in interactionist sociology (Park 1921:13, 17). The unity of social formations is built on interaction. Thus, any development that extends the reach of communication, whether writing and newspapers (Park 1923) or railroads and automobiles (Ogburn 1946; Ullman 1980), theoretically affects the size and structure of human communities. Over the past century or so, improvements in transportation and communication technologies have changed unusually rapidly, and their impact on social organization has been pervasive. Both material and nonmaterial aspects of these technologies have been important, and their development is closely intertwined. Large firms, for example, are communication technologies facilitating and channeling interaction. These technologies have allowed the size and geographic scope of organizational units to expand, giving rise to, at the largest scale, globalization.

Face-to-face exchange is the basic form of social interdependence. Urban planners sometimes use a radius of a fiveminute walk in defining and planning neighborhoods (Leccese and McCormick 1999). The maximum distance people are willing to commute daily over long periods is approximately one hour each way, and the reach of daily delivery trips appears to delimit regions (Hawley 1950). Temporal rhythms combined with existing transportation technology, by affecting the frequency of interaction, helps form the texture of social organization. The extent of interaction is limited by the costs of carrying out interactions and the anticipated benefits to completing the interaction. Therefore, social innovations enhancing the ability to interact expanded the maximum possible size, differentiation, and hierarchy of populations. Improvements in the technology of transportation have expanded the range of interaction.

Each mode of interaction has its own characteristics, having to do with the relative costs of movement and of loading and unloading and with the democracy of destination. Navigation is limited to water, and river transportation is constrained by the course of water flow, leading to a long, thin settlement pattern, such as that along the ancient Nile. Sea navigation is less constrained but is focused by the location of natural harbors. Singapore, for example, owes its status as a busy port (and its prosperity) to its favorable location, Chicago to a river link between the Great Lakes and the Mississippi Valley. The development of railroads allowed the growth of large inland cities, with the railroad yards often within sight of the central business district. Atlanta and Columbus rose at railroad intersections. Both ships and railroads have relatively high terminal costs but low transportation costs, privileging distant relative to moderately near locations for interaction while concentrating activities at particular points of transfer. These seemingly trivial factors have had large effects on large-scale social organization.

Three inventions, all emerging within a short period of history, the wireless radio (1895), the automobile (1986), and the airplane (1903), revolutionized communication and travel because of the greater distances that could be covered and because of the greater democracy in their movement. The telegraph had already begun divorcing communication from transportation by 1840. Before that time, all communication required travel by a person (Pred 1966). The radio freed the transmission of information from the constraints of wires. More recently, airports have developed as centers for interaction (Irwin and Kasarda 1991). These centers may have been based on earlier settlements, but air transport further opened internal sites for further population growth. In the United States, air transport helped Denver grow, and the emerging freight transfer belt reaching from Louisville through Memphis and beyond may follow.

There is a tendency for population and wealth to collect at breaks or interruptions in routes of transportation (Cooley [1894] 1930b). Mechanical breaks in movement resulting from a change in mode of transport have led to commercial breaks resulting from a change of ownership. Freight must be unloaded from one carrier and placed aboard another, and often it must be stored until a second carrier is ready or until an exchange is completed. Terminal facilities must, therefore, include warehousing and space for support functions such as repair and the administration of trade. That implies workers to handle the cargo and its administration, which, in turn, calls for their own support in the form of housing, food supply, and even entertainment. The accretion of personnel and physical structure at the point of interruption is cumulative; each new addition or elaboration entails others, and ultimately a large and complexly organized settlement unit takes form (Hawley 1950:243).

Some of the costs of interaction are purely social in nature, and as the frequency of various types of exchange increased, the attendant negotiations were regularized and the extent of interaction grew. The development of writing and, in stages, printing were milestones in the development of the technology of communication, each having a major social impact through preserving information over time and diffusing it through space. The gradual institutionalization of interaction in associational units, such as business firms and other bureaucracies, in the form of behavioral templates for negotiation also allowed the extent of interaction to increase. Large business firms are, in part, communication technologies (Beniger 1986) and, in part, templates or algorithms for social activity (Berlinski 2000). Internal economies of scale not being a sufficient condition, the growth of large firms was closely related to the need to coordinate activities over long distances, with the railroad companies themselves being among the earliest large firms and those that coordinated buying, production, and sales over long distances rapidly following (Chandler 1977). Appearing only in the second half of the nineteenth century in industry, by the 1920s, they were the most influential nongovernmental organizations. Such formal organizations emerged when the volume of exchange was sufficiently large and steady to routinize the transactions, lowering their costs, allowing them to schedule the flow of goods more closely than markets could.

Mismatches and Surplus Populations

The railroad, the automobile, the airplane, and the large organization have continued to radically, but not completely, shrink space. Near the end of the nineteenth century, streetcars and electric trains extended the reach of daily movement, particularly for those who could afford the transportation, allowing homes to be further separated from workplaces. Such separation allowed some workplaces to expand, facilitating the functional integration of a larger population. The combination of physically and socially expanding social systems created a physical and social path for new in-migrants: As the established population gained a more elevated position in the functional hierarchy and moved to more desirable residences more distant from the city center, a physical and social place was created for the new arrivals. Ecological expansion set in motion a process of physical and social succession that allowed for upward mobility. Put prosaically, as some people got better jobs and moved to the suburbs, occupational and residential space was created for others. Ecological expansion facilitated residential succession. Maintaining a balance between the number and type of people and the number and type of activities is an important ongoing social process, and the mechanisms of allocation are a central concern for human ecologists (Duncan 1965; Logan 1996; Stewman and Konda 1983). The processes of adjustment between population and activities is rarely smooth or efficient, leading to “surplus populations” that are themselves impetuses for social change.

The surprises induced by the many mismatches in social and geographic location, such as the slum just outside the “Gold Coast” (Zorbaugh 1929), the hobo’s “main stem” near the business district (Anderson 1923), or the artist colony in a city of commerce, add a sense of dynamism to community life. Artists and literary writers do not necessarily require an urban location, however. They have little need to interact directly with the city around them. Indeed, many artistic communities have emerged in out-of-the-way locations such as Black Mountain, North Carolina. Nevertheless, the process of ecological expansion, outlined above, has often created underutilized space in the older centers of many cities, and artists have sometimes gathered in such urban zonesin-transition. The abandonment of Greenwich Village by the well-to-do at the beginning of the twentieth century for more efficient, uptown residences created a convenient, low-cost location for literary people, who were not closely integrated with the financial, commercial, and manufacturing activities surrounding them (Coser 1965). Deviance has been interesting to sociologists both as a social problem and, because of its theoretical relationship to social change, as a sociological issue. Certain types of crime and “vice” once collected in urban zones-in-transition, not because of any direct relationship between population density and crime but because such locations were the sites of least resistance.

The ecological expansion that allowed many people to move to higher-quality suburban housing and artists to congregate in central cities also created spaces for those whose proximity was also not required by nearby productive activities but who did not have the social power to be elsewhere. Ecological expansion, combined perhaps with the operation of commensal relations in the allocation of resources, has led to the segregation of population by firm, occupation, and residential area. As an extreme case, the diffusion of automobile transportation plus a “declining significance of race” in determining residence (Wilson 1978) has ironically led to residential hypersegregation along racial, educational, and income lines in the United States (Massey and Denton 1993). Employment in occupations and firms remains racially and gender segregated to a degree that cannot be explained by the qualifications of the respective groups (Jacobsen 1997; Petersen and Morgan 1995; Reskin and Cassirer 1996). Such hypersegregation may have led to the creation of an underclass—a set of people who are not just poor but effectively cut off from economic opportunities for themselves and their children. This situation can be seen in the spatial employment mismatches that still plague many U.S. cities. These mismatches are not merely spatial phenomena. They are intensified by commensal relations in the form of local governments that, under some conditions, may effectively undermine the educational opportunities for central-city residents (Kasarda 1989).

Sometimes, whole cities and regions have been made redundant by the industrial restructuring brought about by ecological expansion. Even so, the expansion process was not purely a matter of technological advance. Surplus population in rural areas and the U.S. South helped attract employment as transportation improvements allowed dispersion. Similarly, the declining mortality rates in what used to be called the Third World created a shift in the global locus of population. In 1950, two-thirds of the nonagricultural labor force in the world was found in the then industrialized countries. By 2000, fully two-thirds of a much larger nonagricultural labor force was to be found in the previously less-industrialized countries. (It is difficult to remember that a few short decades ago, labor shortages were so acute in Europe and North America that migrants were actively recruited and full employment was seen as a realistic policy goal.) As the technical and organizational aspects of transportation and communication technologies developed to the extent that close integration was possible, a surplus population was waiting for opportunities (Frobel, Heinrichs, and Kreye 1980).

Human Ecology in Perspective

Human ecology could be classified along with a larger family of theories that seek the explanation for patterns of social organization in the attempts of people to solve everyday problems. Several of the ecological postulates are, therefore, shared by other theoretical approaches in sociology. The assumption that social relations are rooted in biological needs is fundamental to the theories developed by Mead (1934), for example. The view of social organization as a set of exchanges of resources can be found in Blau (1964), among many others. The idea that social organization can be characterized as a complex pattern of relationships is developed by Nadel (1957) and others. Similarly, a division of social relationships into those that are directly concerned with productive work and those that are in reaction to the conditions of productive work is maintained by Homans (1950) and others. Human ecology differs from other approaches to social organization perhaps in its focus on the holistic implications of these postulates, examining social organization as a population characteristic, rather than individual behavior or cultural meaning.

Human ecology’s holistic stance is justified on the basis of the equifinality of micromotives. Becker (1976), for example, provided a dramatic demonstration to show that three very different decision rules—utility maximization, tradition-bound behavior, and random decisions—all produce the same aggregate patterns of behavior. Accordingly, Coleman (1990), White (1992), and Collins (2004) have each recently published comprehensive theoretical works examining how individual motivations and behavior aggregate into large-scale social organization. Each of those authors relied on very different assumptions and mechanisms to explain similar outcomes. By providing a broad overview of social process, macrosociology has much to contribute to the understanding of contemporary social organization.

One important aspect of that overview would be human ecology’s perspective on power, disconnecting outcomes from actions and intentions. The ecological conception of dominance is somewhat broader than the concept of interpersonal power. Interpersonal power is usually defined in terms of person A compelling person B to act in accord with person A’s will against B’s own will for A’s benefit. An ecological sense of power includes all that affects daily rhythms, the course of lives, occupational and residential distribution, and so on—that is, dominance is defined in terms of effect—the influencing of behavior—rather than in terms of intention or benefit. Often political institutions lack the means to overcome diffuse forces (Mann 1986). Ecology does not make assumptions about the stability of a set of actors either. In any form of large-scale social organization, there is likely to be a changing set of people and a changing set of role relations, and the connections between actions and outcomes is tenuous (March and Olsen 1976; Suttles 1990). By sampling on cities that were in some way successful, some of the literature on growth coalitions misinterprets the presence of particular types of actors for the causes of outcomes, overestimating the power of a small elite to determine events (Logan and Crowder 2002).

Becausecommunityisdefined“not[by]like-mindedness, but [by] corporate action” (Park and Burgess 1921:42), the ecological approach to social organization informs the psychological, cultural, and moral aspects of human experience. The sociology of knowledge, for example, attempts to relate beliefs, attitudes, and values to social position (Mannheim 1936). Consequently, David Riesman (1950) based his division of tradition-directed, innerdirected, other-directed character types on the social positions and demographic rates linked to ecological organization. Important aspects of contemporary culture can be understood in the light of ecological expansion and the attendant population mismatches (Harvey 1989). More important, examining social relations from the perspective of functional integration allows for an understanding of moral ambiguity and cultural conflict in ways that theories based on a consensus normative order cannot (Alexander 1982:108). Such theories do not account for how values and norms are formed or for the reasons for conflict. A simple model positing that (1) in equilibrium “rule and action are one and the same” (Hawley 1986), (2) an occupational and demographic shift was induced by ecological expansion, and (3) a cultural lag exists (Ogburn 1964) appears to be quite useful in understanding many contemporary moral dilemmas (Hochschild 1989).

Today, we are increasingly tightly linked in a web of interdependences, yet many feel a loss of community. Browsing through the architecture and planning sections of a library or bookstore turns up many books suggesting that making our streets a little narrower, our settlements a bit more dense, our land uses somewhat more integrated, and our parking lots smaller would somehow rebuild community. Others suggest that living in central cities, perhaps in apartments instead of split-levels, traveling by foot or bus instead of automobile, and spending more time in coffee shops or bars instead of in living rooms would somehow heal our psyches. These books are full of drawings and photographs of buildings and streetscapes. They are largely empty of information on how the residents and users of the depicted spaces use their time and interact with others. Ecological theory suggests that such physical arrangements would produce, at best, simulacra of community. Human ecology shifts attention from the layout of buildings to the symbiotic and commensal relations that constitute community.

The Future of Human Ecology

Human ecology posits that individuals adapt to their environments by forming symbiotic and commensal relationships of varying degrees of strength and pattern. It further postulates a collective tendency for the emergent pattern to maximize life to environmental limits, given the available technologies for subsistence and interaction. The heart of human ecology lies in understanding the web of life created by those relationships and how it is affected by particular changes. The process of ecological expansion has intertwined with population-activity mismatches to produce social change. Drawn by public interest and driven by intellectual comparative advantage, sociologists have explored human ecology in some directions and ignored others. Today, sociological human ecology could be characterized as a set of loose congeries of researchers, some of whom have independently rediscovered the basic ecological insights with no common research agenda (Freese 2001). It may be time for a new systematic synthesis. This research paper will close with just three questions for urban research—each, so far, only partially explored—that ecological theory may help address.

What effect do multilocational firms have on urban development? The present level of spatial integration probably owes as much to the consequent efforts to standardize products and procedures (as exemplified by the diverse activities of the International Standards Organization, which now goes so far as to specify standards for management methods) as to the jet plane and Internet themselves. Such possibilities suggest that cross-cutting forms of social organization—functionally integrated formal organizations and spatially delimited regions—have substantially changed the nature of spatial development. Physical break-in-bulk points were once also change-in-ownership points, requiring inspection, administration, and storage. To the extent that the former no longer implies the latter, the number of personnel required at break-in-bulk points diminishes (relative to what it otherwise would have been). Administration and goods movement may become progressively further decoupled from each other. Moreover, to the extent that the movement of goods is closely coordinated, the need for warehousing and other support facilities may be diminished. It is, for example, possible for a truck to arrive at a container port or airport just in time to whisk away or deliver a cargo, diminishing the functional importance of agglomeration. Cities are a collective method of economizing on time—but only one of several.

What will be the role of the so-called world cities as the global economy continues to expand? A handful of cities appear to be powerful command and control centers, based on finance and innovation in an expanding global economy. Power in the global system has proved to be ambiguous, however. Structural equivalence in trade and financial networks reduces the benefits of centrality. Trade surpluses in manufacturing goods have given “peripheral” countries considerable financial power. New York City has long ceased to be the primary center of scientific and technical innovation envisioned by Vernon (1960, 1966). Technological innovation occurs within a broad and expanding zone of indifference within wealthy societies. Research and development activities and other higherorder services appear to be relatively free of locational constraints. Attracting such activities has become an area of much tension for localities, indicating that research and development are not necessarily bound to particular places and that the locational factors are not well understood. Major multinational corporations are now headquartered in relatively small, seemingly remote towns with no apparent attenuation in accessibility. Much as some U.S. cities have become empty cores surrounded by prospering suburbs, the world system may develop in much the same way, with no clear role for the “world cities.”

What is driving gentrification? Over the past several decades, there has been a small but perceptible flow of highly educated, mostly childless adults to a few select cities. Some have suggested that this is an expression of a “new class” or evidence of an exogenous culture change. Another possible explanation for this small migratory counterflow is based on the effects of the difficulties of matching people to jobs, which has led to progressively longer periods of education. In many countries, the surplus of educated labor has resulted in the externalization of employment (“boundaryless careers”), weak wages, and flat career trajectories, much as an oversupply of manufacturing capability in some sectors has led to the externalization of many activities (Piore and Sabel 1984). In some countries, a surplus of population has led to a pattern of inequality where the income variation within education, experience, and gender categories accounts for an increasing degree of total income equality. Some of those relatively underpaid service workers, unable to afford increasingly expensive suburban housing or to start families, may be congregating in a subset of American cities. From the point of view of the cities, this appears as gentrification, but from a larger point of view, it may be an expression of a “fear of falling” (Ehrenreich 1989).


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