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Cultural Ecology

Page history last edited by JoeZimmermann 9 years, 8 months ago

Table of Contents

 


 

 


 

Main Points

 

          The Cultural Ecology theory considers how environmental forces influence humans and how human activities affect the biosphere and the Earth itself.[1]  The study of the environment’s effects on humans was especially prevalent in the 1950s-1970s when Julian Steward founded the anthropological theory of Cultural Ecology.[2]  Steward defined Cultural Ecology in his 1955 book, The Theory of Cultural Change, as "a heuristic device for understanding the effect of environment upon culture."[3]  

     Cultural Ecology focuses on how cultural beliefs and practices helps human populations adapt to their environments and live within the means of their ecosystem.  It contributes to social organization and other human institutions.  Cultural Ecology also interprets cultural practices in terms of their long-term role in helping humans adapt to their environment.[4]  For example, about 10 million Yaks live on the Tibetan plateau and are therefore commonly used in Tibetan culture for transportation and subsistence needs.[5]

      The Cultural Ecology theory can be used to analyze the distribution of wealth and power in a society, and how that affects behaviors of exchange.[6]  For example, the potlatch tradition of the Pacific Coast native cultures encourages people to redistribute their belongings within the community.  This tradition increases prestige and social bonds while meeting the community’s subsistence needs.[7]

      Cultural Ecology views culture as evolutionary—the cultural adaptations have come as the result of a changing environment. However, Steward looks at the evolution as multi-linear, as opposed to the early anthropological theories that saw societies as uni-linear and working towards one main goal: civilization. It recognizes that each environment requires different adaptations and that not every culture is working towards the same “norm”.

     Also, on the conceptual as well as methodological level, cultural ecology has steadily made an effort to combine both the ideas and the approaches of  the natural and social sciences.[8] In this way, cultural ecology seeks to explain the social sciences by the means of the natural sciences. It uses the environmental pressures as explanations for cultural change. It therefore recognizes the ways in which different societies adapt differently not as a result of intelligence, but as a result of their climate. 

 

[9]

This image illustrates the balance between Conservation and Exploitative managements systems examined in Cultural Ecology.


 

Key Figures

 

Julian Steward (1902-1972), a Boasian by intellectual upbringing, is the "father" of modern cultural ecology. Born in Washington, D.C, he attended the University of California, Berkeley. [10]Long time professor at the University of Illinois, Steward influenced a host of distinguished political and economic anthropologists, including Morton Fried, Andrew Vayda, Eric Wolf, and Elman Service. Steward's studies grew out of the concept used by Boasians Alfred Louis Kroeber and Clark Wissler, "culture area," used to to demarcate American Native groups.[11]Steward's first research was in archeology, then he moved on to ethnography and worked with the Shoshoni, the Pueblo, and later the Carrier Indians in British Columbia. Steward also devoted a great deal of energy to the study of parallel developmental sequences in the evolution of civilizations in the New and Old Worlds. He termed the cultural features associated with subsistence practices the "cultural core." Steward viewed his specialist brand of cultural evolutionism as "multilineal."[12]

 

Leslie White (1900-1975) was trained in Boasian historical particularism as well. A student of Edward Sapir at the University of Chicago but found Boasian anthropology intellectually unsatisfying. Influenced by the writings of Herbert Spencer and Lewis Henry Morgan, White argued that evolutionary development was just as valid for cultures as it was for biology.He proposed the idea of culturology( his own term) which is defined as the field of science which studies and interprets the precise order of all things "culture".  With this idea,  he proposed a grand, universal law of cultural evolution: culture advances as the efficiency with which energy is utilized increases. White separates culture into three levels- technological, sociological, and ideological. [13]

 

Marvin Harris (1927-2001) received his Ph.D. from Columbia University, where he taught until 1981 when he retired as a graduate research professor in 2000. His research focsused on Brazil, which led him to study Angola and Mozambique. Harris was against historical particularism and Boasian theories. He created his own theory called cultural materialism, a sociocultural analogue of Darwinian selection. [14]

Gregory Bateson ( 1904-1980)  graduated from Cambridge in 1929.  He taught briefly at the University of Sydney before moving to the United States and becoming a citizen in 1956.  He is well known for his knowledge of many aspects of social sciences.  One aspect of his research related heavily to  ecological anthropology can be read in his book "Steps to an Ecology of Mind" which is a compilation of essays.  His research examines the idea that the individual , society, and ecosystem all  depend on one another to make the system as one unit, function properly.[15]

 

 


 

Key Texts

 

Theory of Culture Change: The Method of Multilinear Evolution

Written by Julian Steward; Published in 1955

 

Theory of Culture Changes (1955) looks at Julian Steward's theoretical analysis of the relationship between environment and culture. Steward hypothesizes that resource exploitation gives rise to the social systems that exist in a specific location. The resource exploitation of a society is determined by the technological adaptations that people make to their surrounding environment. Steward's book also looks at the concept of multilinear evolution, which states different societies progress at different paces, with the pace of development depending on the natural resources that surround a society The author also goes on to critique fellow anthropologists in his book. He feels that the majority of his contemporary anthropologists overlook the impact of environment on a society.

     Steward looks ar the North American Eskimos to validate the intimate relationship between a people and their environment. The Eskimos, he argues, live in small family groups rather than a large community because they live in a harsh environment that offers very few natural resources, such as food. Technology such as the bow, spears, and traps are readily available to the Eskimos, but their effectiveness is severely limited by the environment. A similar situation is also found in the Nevada-based Shoshoni Native Americans[16]. The lack of an abundant food source resulted in the fragmentation of the tribe into smaller family groups. Theory of Culture Change also contains Julian Steward's three fundamental procedures of cultural ecology, which are as follows:

 

  1. "The interrelationship of exploitative or productive technology and environment must be analyzed."[17]The first fundamental procedure states that the more complex a society is, the larger the presence of socially-derived needs  rather than necessities.  
  2. "The behavior patterns involved in the exploitation of a particular area by means of a particular technology must be analyzed."[18]
    • This looks at the interaction between people based on the environment. The abundance or scarcity of resources determines whether people will make a collective effort or work independently.  
  1. "Ascertain the extent to which the behavior patterns entailed in exploiting the environment affect other aspects of culture."[19] 
    • The final procedure as stated by Steward applies the other various aspects of a culture to its relationship with the environment. Without looking at all the various anthropological aspects of a culture, then it is impossible to fully grasp the effect of environment on a culture.

 

Julian Steward's book Theory of Culture Change is a holistic and comparative look at the field of cultural ecology. Written in 1955, it is still a relevant source on the subject. Julian Steward was a pioneer in the field of cultural ecology and his theories on the subject are chronicled in this book. 

                

 

The Cultural Ecology Of India’s Sacred Cattle

By Marvin Harris

Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Chicago: : The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 51-54+55-66.

 

Overview

 

The scholarly article The Cultural Ecology of India's Sacred Cattle by Marvin Harris February 1966,  is about the  “prevailing interpretations of the ecological role of bovine cattle in India.”[20] This article talks about how people in India think cows are sacred and should only be eaten as a taboo and how their culture should be changed. “The large animal population is more a liability than an asset in view on our land resources.”[21] The sacred cows roam freely and eat and kill 1/3 of the grains that the Indian population produces so its an economic waste. The scared cows also only produce “413 pounds of milk compared with 5,000 pound average in Europe and the US.”[22] One of the main objectives for the cows in every day life is the cows dung, is used for domestic cooking fuel because it is easily burned and available. “The relationship between the human and bovine population is symbiotic rather than competitive; more traction animals than presently available are needed for carry out essential agricultural tasks.”[23]

 

 

Criticism

 

Some of the criticisms of the scholarly article The Cultural Ecology of India's Sacred Cattle by Marvin Harris is that “beef eating was common in ancient India. It was only in later times that a firm tabu was established against this as food and cattle began to be regarded as extraordinarily sacred.”[24]  Said by Nirmal k. Bose. Bose says this because it was part of Gandhi's "constructive Programme" in which they put a economic wealth into the cows life so that it isn't slaughtered.  Another criticism is that Marvin Harris has never been to India or has never seen a sacred cow before. With Marvin Harris never experiencing it first hand it takes away from his credibility of talking about the subject. Said by Marvin Harris because he stats that " my argument is based upon intensive reading-I have never seen a sacred cow, nor been to India. As a non-specialist, no doubt i have committed blunders an Indianist would have avoided." [25]  

 

 

 


 

Critiques

Over Emphasis on Environment

     Although Ecological Anthropology is an important theory in anthropology, it doesn’t go with out critique.  One critique is that too much emphasis is placed on environment while other influences on a culture are ignored. Although ones environment heavily impacts their culture, the political systems of which they are a part of further alter their culture and environment.  Common threats to peoples and their environments are development, cultivation, industrial pollution and imposition of external management systems.

      The way in which cultures adapt to their environments can be restricted and heavily altered by political systems.  For example, Marvin Harris's study on the significance of cows with in Indian culture, does not place enough emphasis on the fact that cows have become legally protected and how harming a cow could result in major punishment.  He focuses on the cows uses and potential uses with in the culture, while ignoring the fact that it is a cultural aspect that is supported, protected and upheld by political powers.[26] Another example where cultural ecology overlooks political influences is seen in the Tohono O’odham tribe, native to the southwestern Arizona and Mexican area and lost important aspects of culture due to international politics.  In 1853 Gadsden purchase where the O’odham’s territory was split between the United States and Mexico, restricting accessibility to food and other materials with in their own community.[27]  Splitting the tribe completely altered their entire culture, religion and practices. Cultural ecology places too much emphasis on the environment, overlooking political influences that may impact similar environments in very different ways. 

 

Unfocused Direction

     An additional critique of Cultural Ecology is that it is too broad of a discipline.  Robert McNetting, author of Cultural Ecology, states "Cultural Ecology is a convenient title rather than an invitation to scholarly debate". [28]  McNetting conveys that cultural ecology is simply too broad of a discipline, which makes it difficult to debate its validity.  The idea that Cultural Ecology is somewhat vague and ambiguous is exemplified by a table created by Catherine Marquette of the University of Indiana.[29]  Marquette demonstrates that the definition of how culture is shaped by ecology varies from anthropologist to anthropologist, suggesting that the discipline of Cultural Ecology is unfocused. 

 

Testing the Validity

      One of the main components of Cultural Ecology is the idea of environmental determinism, or that culture is created by the surrounding ecology.  If the environment is the sole determining factor in culture, one would expect cultures of very similar clines to exhibit very similar cultures.  This idea was applied in Western Africa and anthropologists found that there were many examples of people who lived in the same cline and geographic area, with access to the same resources, and demonstrated varying cultures.  Their differences were so extreme that the even had alternative modes of food production.  After continuing their investigation anthropologists found that cultures further away, in different climates, and exhibiting the same modality of food production contained more similarities in culture than the geographically close and similar environment study group.[30]  This suggests that modality of food production may have a greater influence on the similarities of cultures than their geographic and environmental location. 

 

Possibilities for the Future 

      Professor Roy Rappaport of the University of Michigan stated “Culture imposes on nature as nature imposes on culture”.[31]  Within this statement he challenges the idea that the environment solely influences culture (environmental determinism).  Continuing with Rappaport’s destruction of culture solely influencing the environment, perhaps there are more elements that influence culture. 

            The idea of environmental possibilism is most likely the best trajectory for Cultural Ecology Anthropologists to follow.  Contrasted to environmental determinism, environmental possibilism states that the environment allows for various possibilities of cultures to occur and prohibits others.[32]  The Inuit of North America are not going to develop an agricultural food system in the Arctic, but they could respond to their environment in any number of ways, exhibited by other tribes like the Aleut, Alutiq and Yupik.  The environment shapes what is possible, but it does not constitute the only factor.  Other variables like cultural diffusion, history and modality of food production cannot be disregarded.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Footnotes

  1. Kottak, Conrad Phillip, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. 14th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009, p. 373.
  2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_ecology, accessed 14 October 2010.
  3. Steward, Julian. 1955. “The Concept and Method of Cultural Ecology,” in Theory of Culture Change, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, pp. 30-42.
  4. Kottak, Conrad Phillip, Cultural Anthropology: Appreciating Cultural Diversity. 14th edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009, p. 373.
  5. http://kekexili.typepad.com/life_on_the_tibetan_plate/2006/10/yaks.html, accessed 18 October 2010
  6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_ecology, accessed 14 October 2010.
  7. Lecture, Professor Carole McGranahan, ANTH 2010 Frontiers of Cultural Anthropology, 20 September 2010.
  8. Marquette, Catherine. "Cultural Ecology". May 1998.http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/eco.htm#themes
  9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_ecology, accessed 14 October 2010.
  10. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press. “Julian Steward” and “Marvin Harris”
  11. Erickson, Paul A. and Liam D. Murphy. 2008. A History of Anthropological Theory (Third Edition). Toronto: University of Toronto Press. “Julian Steward”
  12. McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms. 2004[1996]. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History (Third Edition). New York: McGraw Hill. “Cultural Ecology”
  13. McGee, R. Jon and Richard L. Warms. 2004[1996]. Anthropological Theory: An Introductory History (Third Edition). New York: McGraw Hill. “Cultural Ecology”
  14. Moore, Jerry. 2009. Visions of Culture: An Introduction to Anthropological Theories and Theorists (Third Edition). Lanham and New York: Alta Mira Press. “Julian Steward” and “Marvin Harris”
  15. Psychiatry, Vol. 34, No. 1, pp. 1-18, 1971.
  16. "Julian H. Steward / Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution." PP 39 The University of Illinois Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. .
  17. "Julian H. Steward / Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution." PP 40 The University of Illinois Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. p. 40
  18. "Julian H. Steward / Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution." The University of Illinois Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. p. 40
  19. "Julian H. Steward / Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution." PP 41 The University of Illinois Press. Web. 15 Oct. 2010. p. 40
  20. Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. PP 51. Chicago: : The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 51-54+55-66.
  21. Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Chicago. PP 51: : The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 51-54+55-66.
  22. Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Chicago. PP 52: : The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 51-54+55-66.
  23. Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Chicago. PP 56: : The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 51-54+55-66.
  24. Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India's Sacred Cattle. 7. Chicago. PP60: : The University of Chicago Press , 1966. 51-54+55-66.
  25. Harris , Marvin. The Cultural Ecology of India’s Sacred Cattle. Chicago PP 51: : The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 51-54+55-66.
  26. Harris, Marvin. "Sacred Cow." Google Docs - Online Documents, Spreadsheets, Presentations, Surveys, File Storage and More. Web. 18 Oct. 2010. .
  27. "History and Culture." Tohono O'odham Nation. Web. 16 Oct. 2010. .
  28. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/eco.htm
  29. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/eco.htm accessed October 16, 2010
  30. Lecture, Professor William Porter Bourie, ANTH 4020-5 Explorations in Anthropology: West Africa, 13, September 2010.
  31. http://www.indiana.edu/~wanthro/eco.htm accessed October 16, 2010
  32. http://www.native-languages.org/arctic-culture.htm accessed October 17, 2010

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