Theoretical approaches and perspectives in environmental anthropology

Environmental Anthropology makes an effort to understand not only “how the environment shapes human culture and society”, but also “how human beings shape up the environment” with an appropriate theoretical framework, an interdisciplinary one, which indebted subjects like science of Health, Geography, Ecology, History, Archaeology, Politics, Economy, Sociology, Law, Resource Management, Policy Analysis etc. So, it offers an opportunity to study the “multiple dimensions of environment”, its prospects and challenges, and to lead for better resolutions, and solutions. For a few decades, anthropological research on environment and environmental issues has been increased notably as part of a demand, both subjective and public, creating a more sensibility in environmental issues and “environmental activism”, ‘across the globe. That has brought hefty changes in human-environment relation due to the development in the sphere of communication and technology.

Environment is often used to refer both “Nature” in its usual meaning, as well as “the environment of a human group” including its “cultural” and “biophysical elements” (Rappaport, 1979). Further, the “socio-natural” unit of analysis has been wide open through the concept of environment as “a research tool” (Smith and Reeves 1989). Environmental Anthropology saw how the social-cultural, and environment interaction has been shaping each other through a process of mutual influence, and covers a wide range of aspects that our minds have developed. In this context, environmental studies crosses academic disciplinary borders, and have necessarily become a combination of natural and social-science approach in unique ways to “trans-disciplinary research”. Anthropology is in the forefront of environmental research by its specific contributions with a wider enthusiasm on human-environment interaction in the context of ‘society’ and ‘culture’ through a number of substantial holistic and empirical studies.

Theoretical Orientations in Environmental Anthropology

Environmental Anthropology has been established through a number of intellectual inputs from the cultural evolutionism of Tylor, Morgan, and others in the nineteenth century by assuming that all cultures could be moved through stages in a relatively fixed sequence. Thus, Environmental Anthropology has been approached with its subject severally during the course of its development Cultural materialism, Eco-systems approach, Population ecology, Ethno ecology, Social ecology, Ecofeminism, Political ecology, Symbolic ecology, Human ecology, Evolutionary ecology, Ecological economics, Traditional ecological knowledge, Liberation ecology, Paleo ecology, Nutrition ecology, Socio-biology, Materialism and Environmental determinism and possibilism, Historical particularism and Age-area by the influence of German diffusionism, Environmental particularism, Sustainable development, Developmentalism and environmentalism, Environmental justice, Environmental conservation, Environmental risk, Environmental history and Historical ecology, Resource management, Human rights and Property rights, Functionalism, Structuralism, Marxism, Post-modernism etc. Currently, the environmental research in Anthropology is moving on two major approaches with distinct methodologies, and objectives. The first approach, “Ecological Anthropology” is using ecological methodologies to study the human-environment interrelations. The “Human Systems Ecology” initially developed by Bennett (1976), has been considered as one of the influential approaches in this notion. It treated the “Human Ecology as human behavior,” whereby cultural elements are translated into active behavioral tendencies involving “responses and adaptations made by real people in real-life contexts” (Bennett, 1993). The second approach, “Anthropology of Environmentalism”, has been making attempt to study Environmentalism as a type of human action through “Ethnographic Methodologies”. This dealt with the analysis of political awareness, and policy concerns. Therefore, new subfields have emerged, such as applied Ecological Anthropology and Political Ecology

Earlier Approaches in Environmental Anthropology

Cultural ecology was popular in the 1950s and early 1960s. This approach of study had dealt with “Environment” (ecology), “Culture” and “Adaptation” emphasised on quality, quantity, and distribution of resource. This approach was much owed to Steward (1955) and his diachronic approach. He has attempted to examine the effect of environment on culture by proposing “Culture Core” to demonstrate the relation between certain features of the environment and certain cultural traits of the sets of people living in that environment. He has viewed in Boasian Approach the other elements of culture as autonomous, and subject to the culture history. He said about “limiting factor”, which shows how resources could be a variable in a region that despite the limits or, settings of any other variable, will limit the carrying capacity of that region to a certain number. He has argued about “regularities” or, “similarities” between cultures that recur in historically separate or distinct areas or, traditions in a line of multilinear evolution.

With many similarities, White (1959) inspired by Marxism, also approached the relation between environment and culture in a unilinear way, and he was much less interested in “adaptation” of groups to specific environments than Steward. They used diachronic approach in their studies.

The neoevolutionism, distinguished from the earlier evolutionism of Tylor, Morgan, and others, likely to be put in inspiration from both Steward and White.Harris’ cultural materialism incorporates the ecological explanation and move on a more explicit, and systematic scientific research strategy (Barfield, 1997).

He had used “the concept of adaptation” as his main explanatory mechanism (Milton, 1997). This approach shows a desire to move Anthropology in a Darwinian direction. In his study on the Indian cattle beliefs, Harris (1966) pointed out how current conditions result in ecological utility, and argued that such utility explains the origin of the custom.

The other line of resolution of Steward and White, neofunctionalism, has been much associated with Harris (1975, 1979)-who has greater concern with causality,and the early work of Vayda (1968, 1976) and Rappaport (1967, 1971) who were concerned with system functioning. This approach sees the social organisation, and culture of specific populations as “functional adaptations” which permit them to take advantage of their environments successfully, without exceeding their carrying capacity. They considered “local populations” rather than cultures as their “units of analysis”. This approach aims at examining the “interaction between environment and population” than viewing the environment as passive in shaping culture. The methodology is more explicit, rigorous, and quantitative, and even adopts concepts from Biological Ecology, terms like adaptation, niche, and carrying capacity.

An approach that Orlove (1980) terms the Processual Approach lay in contrast to the work of Steward, White, the neoevolutionary, and neofunctionalist views. It shows the importance of diachronic studies on environment to examine mechanisms of change through “the relation of demographic variables and production systems” partially stimulated by Boserup (1965), “the response of populations to environmental stress” (Salisbury 1975; Vayda and MacKay 1975, 1977), “the formation and consolidation of adaptive strategies” (Bennett 1969, 1976; Bettinger 1978; Cancian 1972; Canfield 1973) by following Barth’s (1956) early work on the use of the concept of the niche, and new work in Marxism- “Political Economy” and “Structural Marxism”.

Ecosystem approach or, model is used by ecological/environmental anthropologists. Moran (1990:3) claims that this view examines the physical (abiotic) environment as the basis around which evolve species, and adaptive responses. Rappaport and Vayda in the 1960s focus upon the “ecosystems” approach, systems functioning, and the flow of energy with the use of measurements as caloric expenditure and protein consumption. The ecosystems
research had claimed that symbolic or, ritual behavior could be explained if it functioned to improve energetic efficiencies (Rappaport, 1968). Moran (1979) argued that carrying capacity was the number of individuals that a habitat could support, and which was related to population pressure and to the demands of a population over resources of its ecosystem. Moran (2000) argued that successfully developed life-styles could be reproduced over time in a given surrounding.

Rappaport (1967) used this approach in his study on the Tsembaga society. The earlier approaches remained popular among ecological anthropologists during the 1960s and the 1970s (Milton, 1997), and the Systems Ecology further redefined, and transformed it with the study of complex systems, and its radical critique of science (Odum 1983, Prigogine and Stengers 1984; Salthe 1985; Holling 1986; Wicken 1987), and which resulted in a “new ecology” which could answer most of the criticisms of Ecosystems (Scoones, 1999).

The structural point of view has been trying to reveal the environmental influences on social structure in many ways. The book, “Social Stratification in Polynesia” (Sahlins, 1958) has argued that environmental and technological features provide vividness in the Polynesian political organisation and hierarchically arranged descent groups, and in “Poor man, rich man, big man, chief: Political types in Malanesia and Polynesia” also shown the association of environment and social structure in the larger political units in eastern Melanesia.