Environmental anthropology

Environmental anthropology is a sub-specialty[1] 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.[1] The rudiments of the system theories can be seen in Marcel Mauss' Seasonal Variation of Eskimo,[2] echoed later in Julian Steward's work.[3] Although later, system theories were later harshly criticized for narrowly assuming the state of societies as static.[4]

The main focus of system theories in the sixties, as conveyed by Julian Steward,[5] was acknowledgment of recurrence, cultural patterns or "laws." Steward's ecological anthropology[5] was based on topography, climate, and resources and their accessibility to define culture. While Marvin Harris' cultural materialism[6] 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),[7] along with internal, independent logic and inter-connectivity's impact now were observed. Roy A. Rappaport[8] and Hawkes, Hill, and O'Connell's[9] use of Pyke's optimal foraging theory[10] 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.[11] Rappaport, often referred to as a reductionist in his cultural studies methods,[11] acknowledges, "The social unit is not always well defined[12]" exhibiting another flaw in this perspective, obfuscation of aspects of analyze and designated terms.[11]

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.[10] 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.[12]

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.[13] Often resulting in environmentalism by bureaucrats, PR firms, governments, and industry.[13] 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.[14]