Cultural ecology: what is it, what does it study, and research methods?
Let's see what cultural ecology is, a scientific field associated with anthropology.
Cultural ecology is a current that studies the relationships between a human group and its environment, focusing on the interaction between the ways of life of that culture and the ecosystems that support it.
Cultural ecology involves the study of people's behavior, which is its anthropological and social science aspect, and also understands how the characteristics of the environment influence the way people live. understands how the characteristics of the environment influence human behavior, this being the Biological science aspect..
Next we will see more in depth this current coming from the cultural materialism, related to the historical particularism and that has been considered revealing for the anthropology of the XX century.
What is cultural ecology?
Concern about the role and position of humans in nature has been growing over the last century, especially within the natural and social sciences. For this reason, it has it has become indispensable to find out to what extent humans are an integral part of nature, how they differ from other species, and how they differ from other species.How he differs from other species and how he varies according to his culture, being very important his development of culture in the environment.
Before talking more in depth about cultural ecology, we must understand what is meant by ecology. This is the biological science that attempts to study and understand the function of systems in which living beings interact with each other and have a direct relationship with the physical environment. The set of living beings make up an ecosystem, and the planet's ecosystems, such as forests, rivers, lakes and reefs, constitute what we call the biosphere.
From an ecological perspective, the human species is considered very important because of the degree of self-awareness it has about its natural impact, however, within the links that make up the links that make up the biosphere, within the links that make up an ecosystem, it remains just another species in nature.. Throughout our history we humans have impacted more or less strongly on the environment, both as tribal cultures and as large industrialized societies. Even so, the human species can be considered as "natural" as any other.
The human being can be considered a cultural animal for the simple fact that he has the capacity to generate culture, something fundamental for his development and survival. Through it we have been able to design tools, strategies and actions that have allowed us to take advantage of the given natural resources, modifying the natural environment according to our needs, no matter how apparently immutable it may seem. For example, the exploitation of mountains as mines is a direct result of our capacity to generate culture and technology.
Having understood all this, we can move on to explain what cultural ecology is, which deals with the study of the relationship between a culture and its environment. the study of the relationship between a culture and its natural and historical environment.. A specific culture is studied, taking into account its adaptations to the ecosystem in which it has settled and seeing how, throughout its history, it has molded itself to the obstacles of the environment, knowing how to use the resources it offered profitably. The cultural response varies according to the environment, trying to overcome its limitations.
These cultural adaptations can be represented in many forms: tools, use and utilization of resources, class priority in the exploitation of the environment, expressions in language, belief systems, religion... All these elements are known as the mechanisms of adaptation to ecosystems from the cultural point of view.. For example, in a culture that lives in the desert, it is likely that special care is taken with water, seen as a very precious and scarce good that should not be wasted.
At the theoretical level, cultural ecology is a current coming from the non-Marxist materialist school of the 1960s and 1970s.. It is also related to economic anthropology as a discipline and is considered the first school that began to study the relationships between societies and their material bases of subsistence.
Cultural ecology can be understood in two ways. On the one hand, diachronically, by examining the entities that existed in the same ecosystem at different times, and on the other hand, synchronically, by examining the present system and its cultural components.
The central argument of this current is that the environment, both on a small scale and in large societies, is a major contributing factor in shaping the social hierarchy and human institutions, especially those that are responsible for the management of the environment.especially those in charge of the distribution of wealth.
Origin of this field of research
The father of this current is Julian StewardThe father of this field of research is Julian Steward, who, taking historical particularism as a strong base, was interested in finding general principles or laws that would explain how cultures develop in relation to their environment. He laid not only the foundations for cultural ecology, but also for multilinear evolution in his book "Theory of Culture Change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution" (1955).
Steward argued that, in the first place, each culture must be understood as an adaptive strategy to the natural and historical environment in which it develops.. That is, culture is a response to the characteristics of the natural environment, trying to survive it. Secondly, it must be understood that the environmental base conditions cultural development. This introduces the environment as a creative factor and culture as a super organic fact.
The environment is limiting, and culture must devise the best tools, ideas or options to overcome the obstacles. That is, adaptations are conditioned to what the environment offers, causing them to vary or be enhanced. For example, in a culture where water is scarce, it is quite likely that technologies will be proposed and designed to try to transport water to distant points, such as aqueducts or irrigation systems, something very common in North African cultures.
For this reason, cultural ecology the study of the creative processes of adaptation to the cultureThe aim is to formulate universal principles that allow us to predict and understand how a culture will develop in a given environment. The two premises mentioned above can be interpreted on the basis of three variables: environment, culture and technological development.
Cultural ecology uses as its method of study the approach of the cultural nucleus.This is understood as the features or characteristics related to subsistence, the economic part and the needs of a population to subsist, in addition to the appropriation of technology which, naturally, varies according to each society. Within this method, it is proposed to follow three basic procedures:
- Analyze the interrelations between productive and extractive technology, where material culture is included in a technology-environment relationship.
- Analyze the patterns involved in the exploitation of an area by means of a particular technology.
- Analyze how patterns of behavior in the environment affect culture, going much deeper into the components of culture.
Techniques used in cultural ecology
To carry out its studies and demonstrate its theories, cultural ecology makes use of all kinds of tools such as soil analysis, archaeometry, carbon isotopes, the development of maps with geographic and geological elements, geographic information systems, georadars to identify settlements and to reduce the risks of excavation.
Among the most important tools used in cultural ecology are radiocarbon dating, used to date archaeological sites.used to date archaeological sites. With this technique, archaeologists and anthropologists can relate the occurrence of a past environmental event (e.g., flood, climate change, drought...) to how the people of the region behaved at that time.
Also It is also possible to establish relationships between present-day traditions and past phenomena with these techniques.. An example of this is the ban on pork consumption in the Middle East. Based on archaeological records, it is known that this animal, when first raised in the region, posed a very serious environmental threat. As the pig could destroy the few green environments in the Middle East, it was said to be a contaminated animal, with the intention of avoiding its livestock raising.
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- Prieto, M. (2011). Settlement patterns: a methodological tool for the reconstruction of the past, pp. 1-16. Lecture course on anthropological theories I, University of Costa Rica, School of Anthropology.
- Smith, T. & Smith, R. (2007). Ecology. Sixth edition, Pearson education, Madrid. Chapter 1, p.5.
- Steward, J. (1955). Theory of culture change: The Methodology of Multilinear Evolution. Spanish version of the course Anthropological Theories I, University of Costa Rica, School of Anthropology.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)