Environmental anthropology

Environmental anthropology is a sub-specialty within the field of anthropology that takes an active role in examining the relationships between humans and their environment across space and time.


Adaptation: environment over culture
The sixties was a breakthrough decade for environmental anthropology, with functionalism and system theories prevalent throughout. The rudiments of the system theories can be seen in Marcel Mauss’ Seasonal Variation of Eskimo, echoed later in Julian Steward’s work. Although later, system theories were later harshly criticized for narrowly assuming the state of societies as static.

The main focus of system theories in the sixties, as conveyed by Julian Steward, was acknowledgment of recurrence, cultural patterns or “laws.” Steward’s ecological anthropology was based on topography, climate, and resources and their accessibility to define culture. While Marvin Harris’ cultural materialism observed and gauged social units by means of material production. Both focused on culture as a malleable contingent to the environment; a social unit’s characteristics (technology, politics, modes of subsistence, to name a few) have adaptive limitations. Importantly, those limitations are not considered determinants.

Diversity, history and associations
The new focus of environmental anthropology was cultural variation and diversity. Such factors like environmental disasters (floods, earthquakes, frost), migrations, cost & benefit ratio, contact/ associations, external ideas (trade/ latent capitalism boom), along with internal, independent logic and inter-connectivity’s impact now were observed. Roy A. Rappaport and Hawkes, Hill, and O’Connell’s use of Pyke’s optimal foraging theory for the latter’s work are some examples of this new focus.

This perspective was based on general equilibriums and criticized for not addressing the variety of responses an organisms can have, such as “loyalty, solidarity, friendliness, and sanctity” and possible “incentives or inhibitors” in relations to behavior. Rappaport, often referred to as a reductionist in his cultural studies methods, acknowledges, “The social unit is not always well defined” exhibiting another flaw in this perspective, obfuscation of aspects of analyze and designated terms.

Policy and activism: politics versus environmentalism
The contemporary perspective of environmental anthropology, and arguably at least the backdrop, if not the focus of most of the ethnographies and cultural fieldworks of today, is political ecology. Many characterize this new perspective as more informed with culture, politics and power, globalization, localized issues, and more. The focus and data interpretation is often used for arguments for/against or creation of policy, and to prevent corporate exploitation and damage of land. Often, the observer has become an active part of the struggle either directly (organizing, participation) or indirectly (articles, documentaries, books, ethnographies). Such is the case with environmental justice advocate Melissa Checker and her relationship with the people of Hyde Park.

Critiques on this modern perspective and non-governmental organizations’ (NGOs) influences and effects on social groups is usually that they “generalize” and “obscure” local discourse and message. Often resulting in environmentalism by bureaucrats, PR firms, governments, and industry. An example of negative effects can be ascertained in the Malaysian Rainforest, in which NGOs and other outsider activist deflected the issue, ignoring the locality of the problem.


Origins and pioneers
Environmental anthropology enters the field as an applied dimension built on the primary approaches within contemporary ecological anthropology. It focuses on how culture promotes connections between humans and their occupied ecosystems. American anthropologist Julian Steward (1902–1972), is the anthropological originator of cultural ecology. A troubled childhood led to Steward’s fascination of the natural world. In 1918 Steward attended a California College, found inspiration from the natural environment and gained insight which promoted a future passion toward ecological studies. Steward contributions to theories of cultural ecology and cultural evolution are renowned.

Steward officially formulated the basic theoretical and methodological framework for cultural ecology in the 1950s–60s. The transformation of cultural ecology into ecological anthropology took place in the 1960s through the 1980s by anthropologists John Bennett, Roy A. Rappaport, Andrew P. Vayda, and others. Two additional theoretical and methodological frameworks surfaced in the 1980s and 90s which attempted to cast ecological anthropology in a more scientific light. The first of which, was when Marvin Harris actively and systematically worked to develop “cultural materialism” as an approach to research. Harris’s intention was to expose and analyze the ecological logic underlying multiple facets of culture. The cultural system was split into three parts by Harris; infrastructure, structure and superstructure. Eric Alden Smith and Bruce Winterhalder laid the blueprints for the second groundbreaking structure of evolutionary ecology. This would shift attention to the individual as the origin of adaptation, stressing choice when utilizing natural resources. A further expansion of ecological anthropology occurred in the 1990s when historical, political, and spiritual focused areas of research were incorporated into facets of human ecology and adaptation.

Anthropology is a field concerned specifically with the human condition and its relation to the natural world (i.e. the capacity of a human to manipulate the world around them). This can be seen through human interactions between each other as well as the flora and fauna present in a person’s particular region and how they can be utilized. Humans everywhere have changed their environment and for better or for worse, taking a step back to the previous state of things would be a long arduous process. So how can people erase the mistakes of the past? How can they bring old, outdated things new life through innovation? These questions can provide insight into the development of a subfield of anthropology called environmental anthropology.

Environmental anthropology is a subfield of anthropology with roots in activism. The main focus of this particular perspective focuses on a discourse of activism. Agents operating within this sphere of thought have noticed aversive effects from human related manipulation, and are driven to try and force changes in the system which can eventually lead to replenishment of the region in question. The discipline itself if ever-changing because it must evolve to satiate the needs and appropriately address issues from the state and region level all the way down to complex communities, hence must uses a multitude of different approaches when considering a problem. According to the Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA),

“Environmental anthropology is particularly effective in relating to and gaining understanding of cultural diversity in community settings, and intercultural/intersect oral conflict, thus lending itself to applied endeavors that involve collaboration among diverse interest groups for the common good.”

This means that a problem up stream of two separate cultural groups that affects them both can be resolved through a discourse of environmental anthropology, and although the two groups may not speak the same language, they can both activate to prompt change. Necessity can potentially quell conflict between two cultural groups if they must work together to combat an even bigger enemy (environmental injustice). Applied anthropology utilizes these understandings to work with people on a local basis as well as trying to satisfy share holders working to gain a resolution for problems related to health, education, social welfare, development and environmental protection.

Environmental anthropologists use a multitude of tools and orientations to best address the variance in different problems. According to SfAA,

“Important among them are observation techniques, qualitative and survey interviews, systematic data collection techniques for accessing core values or areas of cultural consensus, ways of identifying and interpreting social networks and a variety of participatory cultural, social and environmental assessment techniques designed to improve intersect oral understanding of demographic composition, social/political dynamics, cultural and other forms of diversity, and capacity for planning and development.”

Environmental anthropologists aim to utilize their understanding of the culture at hand in order to gain as emic (an insider’s understanding of the culture in question) a perspective as possible when dealing with these situations. These type of situations are ideal within the field and sheds positive light on a field that is criticized for refusing to accept this perspective.