Following up on a thread still circulating on the EANTH List, the question arose of how essential is the concept of culture for defining ecological anthropology. In an earlier post, I had objected to the idea that culture lies at the center of ecological anthropology. For instance, most scholars coming out of an ethological tradition (e.g., primatologists, human behavioral ecologists) see behavior as the focus of their analysis. Especially important for primatologists are relationships, which scale to yield social structure, an idea quite distinct from culture. In the continuing debate on EANTH-L, a suggestion was made that while culture may not be important for primatologists, primatologists are an abject minority of ecological anthropologists and therefore are not really relevant for defining the field. Without “culture” in the definition, ecological anthropology loses its heart. No mention was made of human behavioral ecology (HBE). Here, I post an edited version of my latest contribution to this debate in which I specifically address the role of HBE in ecological anthropology.
It is not just the primatologists among us anthropologists for whom culture is secondary. Surely, most anthropologists (at least in the United States) are primarily interested in culture. But defining a field based on the majority practice is rather hegemonic, no? Human behavioral ecologists, a group of scholars mentioned in the big-tent description of ecological anthropology also focus their analysis on behavior, and specifically decision-making. Culture may play a role in such decision-making processes, but it need not. Some HBE contributers to major questions of interest to ecological anthropologists, broadly construed, include: Mike Alvard on hunting and indigenous resource conservation, Smith and Wishnie on the relationships between conservation and subsistence, Rebecca Bliege Bird and Doug Bird on Aboriginal burning, successional dynamics and subsistence, Bram Tucker on subjective discounting, etc. I list some references following this text of work by human behavioral ecologists who are certainly not on the margins of what I would call ecological anthropology. None of these works rely on the analytic concept of culture as a primary explanation.
Those of us trained in the British Social Anthropology tradition may also be able to relate to a certain ambivalence toward the concept of culture. Though a primatologist by training, I find myself as much influenced by the Manchester School of Social Anthropology (e.g., Max Gluckman, John Barnes, Elizabeth Bott) as I am by Robert Hinde. Both primatologists (with their ethological background) and social anthropologists of the British School focus their analysis on social structure that arises through relationships and other social interactions. It was, after all, the Manchester school that gave rise to the field that came to be known as social network analysis, despite the fact that this field is generally associated with sociology today.
So, yes, by all means let’s pitch a big tent for what we call ecological anthropology, but let’s also cast our definitions of what counts as ecological anthropology in such as way as to be truly inclusive of the various historical traditions within anthropology. Recasting the suggested definition of ecological anthropology somewhat to account for this broader definition, I propose something like:
Ecological anthropology takes as its field of study the role of culture, social structure, and human agency in explaining the dynamic interactions between human populations and the ecosystems in which they are embedded.
This is a rough first approximation. I would like to work in Andrewartha and Birch’s definition of ecology as being the distribution and abundance of species in there as well, but that’s for another day…
Alvard, M. S. 1998. Evolutionary ecology and resource conservation. Evolutionary Anthropology 7 (2):62-74.
Bird, D.W., R. Bliege Bird, and C.H. Parker. 2005. Aboriginal burning regimes and hunting strategies in Australia’s Western Desert. Human Ecology 33: 443-464.
Bliege Bird, R. (2007) Fishing and the sexual division of labor among the Meriam. American Anthropologist 109:442-451.
Borgerhoff Mulder, M., Caro, T and A. O. Msago. 2007. Integrating anthropological, archeological, biological and historical research in a long term conservation study in the Katavi ecosytem. Conservation Biology 21(3): 647-658.
Gurven, M.D., K. Hill, H. Kaplan, A. Hurtado, R. Lyles. 2000. Food transfers among Hiwi foragers of Venezuela: tests of reciprocity. Human Ecology 28(2):171-218.
Hinde, R. A. 1991. A Biologist Looks at Anthropology. Man (n.s.) 26 (4):583-608.
Ruttan, L. M. and M. Borgerhoff Mulder. 1999. Are East African pastoralists truly conservationists? Current Anthropology 40(5):621-652.
Smith, E. A., and M. Wishnie. 2000. Conservation and subsistence in small-scale societies. Annual Review of Anthropology 29:493-524.
Tucker, B. 2006. A future discounting explanation for the persistence of a mixed foraging-horticulture strategy among the Mikea of Madagascar. In Behavioral Ecology and the Transition to Agriculture, edited by D. J. Kennett and B. Winterhalder. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Tucker, B. and L. Rende Taylor 2007. The human behavioral ecology of contemporary world issues: Applications to Public Policy and International Development. Human Nature 18(3): 181-189.
Winterhalder, B., and F. Lu. 1997. A forager-resource population ecology model and implications for indigenous conservation. Conservation Biology 11(6): 1354-1364.