Cultural Ecology as a Reunion

In the wake of New Guinea, anthropologists and geographers began to rediscover common ground in what was then called cultural ecology. This approach concentrated on processes rather than material culture – subsistence, work, reproduction, and resource use – and their interrelations – as embedded in the rules and values of a particular society. The configurations could be functional, behavioral, or structural.

The functionalist method emphasizes a multiplicity of social, economic, and environmental variables for understanding decision making and problem solving, and views cultural adaptation as a reflection of human creativity. This emphasis is exemplified in the work of geographers Bill Denevan and Gregory Knapp, or the anthropologists Donald Hardesty and Andrew Vayda.

The premise of the behavioral approach is that decision making and the selection of alternative strategies or solutions are based on community choice, anchored in traditional values as much as they are in economic rationalization. This requires more intensive person to person field research and a degree of 'insider' understanding of perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, and mental processes. Here we mention the anthropologist Robert Netting, or the geographers Phil Porter and Karl Butzer, both of whom have worked closely with anthropologists, the latter also collaborating with archivist Elisabeth Butzer.

The structuralist perspective shifts the emphasis from the community to the socioeconomic or sociopolitical constraints in which individuals or communities can make decisions. Here, traditional values are subordinated to a political ecology, marked by different dialectics between technology and development, or between productive sector and multinationals, access to markets and services, and limited choices for marginalized communities.

These three forms of cultural ecology are complementary but embrace different questions, subjects, and methodologies, to the point where epistemologies may differ. The functional is to varying degrees systemic and normative; the behavioral is non normative and sometimes postprocessual; while the structural is critical, more deductive, and increasingly focused on development studies. Each perspective yields different insights, that reflect several scales of analysis, and diachronic versus future concerns. All are pertinent to understanding environmental behavior, with the behavioral approach of particular importance for global environmental change, since it can provide historical monitoring of processes and trends.

Cultural ecology draws heavily from both anthropology and geography, but it is not a logical extension of the Berkeley tradition, and is only nominally linked to the cultural ecology of anthropologist Julian Steward, a student of Kroeber. Instead, anthropology and geography have come to recognize common interests, sharing methods and objectives, and applying new levels of sophistication to the problems of change and transformation that defied adequate comprehension a century ago. This is apparent in a renewed exploration of the methods of ethnography on the part of human geography.