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Ecological Anthropology

Cultural Ecology

Catherine Marquette * Posted May 1998


Table 1. – Some Traditional and Current Lines of Research in Cultural Ecology

Table 2. – Definitions of Adaptation and Adaptive Strategies used in Cultural Ecology

Table 3. Niche and Related Concepts in Cultural Ecology

“Cultural ecology is a convenient, conventional title rather than an invitation to scholarly debate” (Robert McNetting, Cultural Ecology, 1977 edition, p.vi)

A premature and reflexive field

Robert McNetting’s observation stands as a provocative and, one must think, ironic challenge to all cultural ecologists following in his footsteps. In its brief existence, cultural ecology has proved neither convenient nor conventional for those who have sought to practice it. The emergence of cultural ecology as an area within anthropology is formally associated with the publication of Julian Steward’s book, “Theory of Culture Change” in 1955. In contrast to other subfields within anthropology which took shape during the same period (e.g linguistics), cultural ecology did not emerge with a formally-stated set of principles, theory, or methodology. Rather, during the 1950s a “persistent dissatisfaction” with existing theories of cultural change which were either too vague to be testable or too rigid to account for variation, stimulated a “tendency to adopt an ecological perspective.” This ecological ‘tendency’ was to more closely consider the role played by the physical environment in cultural change, in opposing the prevailing explanation provided by cultural determinism (culture determines culture) (McNetting 1986: 6).

Culture and ecology are extremely broad topics by themselves and the nature of their linkage is even broader. Not suprisingly, cultural ecology has come to mean different things to different people. McNetting saw this pluralism as related to the ‘pre-maturity’ of the field, noting, “There is only one way to explain what cultural ecology is: to show what it is doing” (ibid). In the late 1960s the first generation of anthropologists influenced by Steward came of age, with the first three major empirical works in cultural ecology emerging in the space of two years: Netting’s own The Hill Farmers of Nigeria (1968), Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors (1968), and John Bennett’s Northern Plainsmen (1969). These early seminal works generally set the boundaries for cultural ecology as it has ‘matured’ over the last three decades.

Because of its immature or open nature, cultural ecology has traditionally been a self-reflexive field. The methods, theories, and applications of the cultural ecology have been continually reviewed ( see for example, Sahlins 1964; Damas 1966; McNetting 1968; Vayda and Rappaport 1968; Rappaport 1971; Anderson 1973; McCay and Vadya 1975, Bennett 1976; Fricke 1986; McCay 1996).

Select history: culture areas to culture cores

It has been observed that “cultural ecology is largely an American specialty in anthropology” (Eriksen 1995). In its early days, this was certainly the case. Many of the critical early studies which paved the way for cultural ecology were focused on the indigenous peoples of North America, works which explicitly considered links between culture and environment in terms of ‘culture areas.’ The anthropologists trained at Columbia who carried out many of these early studies of North American Indians were in any case versed in both American and European philosophical traditions. In the wake of the shift from the19th century paradigm of evolutionary thought, functionalism and environmental determinism (Carneiro 1973) became important concepts which influenced anthropological thinking. The development of the field was undoubtedly also affected by the introduction of counterbalancing intellectual trends, which argued for the “superorganic” characteristic of culture and the idea of cultural diffusion associated with the kulturkreis school (Voget 1973, p.35-36).

Under the influence of these varied intellectual currents, the most important early anthropologists who addressed culture-environment linkages (and who went on to be the major influences on subsequent generations), namely Franz Boaz (1896; 1911) and Alfred Kroeber (1939), both adopted an environmental possibilism position (Hardesty 1977: 4; Moran 1982: 34; Bennett 1976: 162). From this perspective, the natural environment sets certain possibilities or options from which cultures, conditioned by their history and particular customs, may choose. This ‘possibilistic’ view of culture-environment relationships has on occasion been categorized as a compromise between cultural (only culture determines culture), and environmental, determinism (environment determines culture) (Bennett 1976). This classification, however, underestimates and obscures the influence of interactionism: the dialectic between culture or human choice and environmental opportunities inherent within the possibilist stance. Environmental possibilism in many ways marks an important paradigm shift towards an interactive and dialectical rather than deterministic view of the relationships between cultures and their environment which has remained at the center of cultural ecological approaches.

Julian Steward, a student of Kroeber working among indigenous groups in the American Southwest, first advanced the ideas which are generally viewed as the foundations of cultural ecology. Steward proposed focusing on that part of culture or a “culture core” (Figure 1) which he saw as most immediately connected to the physical world, meaning the subsistence or productive strategies within a culture. Over time and history the culture core (subsistence patterns) was seen as having evolved largely in response to the relevant parts of the particular or “effective environment” exploited (soil, climate etc.). Furthermore the cultural core, as a cultural trait, might in turn shape other culture features (social organization). The idea of the culture core therefore stipulates an interactive role for both environment and culture in shaping culture change.

It has not been sufficiently recognized that Stewart’s so-called defining work in cultural ecology is called “The Theory of Culture Change: the Methodology of Multilinear Evolution” not “The Theory of Cultural Ecology.” Steward’s overriding interest was not to define cultural ecology but rather to understand the processes or causes of the ‘evolution’ of culture. From a possibilist perspective he sought to explain the choices made by cultures in the face of the options presented to them by their history as well as by their environment. He emphasized ecological factors as an important but not exclusive factor in determining culture change. Criticism of the ‘functional’ nature of Steward’s brand of cultural ecology seem misplaced when the full scope of his theoretical ideas are accounted for. Stewart’s notion of the “cultural core’ has tended to eclipse his other important concepts such as “culture type”, “sociocultural integration, ” and “multilinear evolution” which actually figure much larger in his overall “theory of culture change”. These less recognized concepts, however, stress the interaction of environmental and cultural factors over time (rather than more functional linkages) and the way in which these interactions may produce different and unpredictable paths of development.

Persistent and overriding themes

The broader strokes of Steward’s overall project and emphasis on evolutionary change, however, have directly and continually shaped cultural ecology in at least two major ways. (1) Part of Steward’s legacy, Orlove suggests, is the emphasis in cultural ecology on processes. In this context, metaphors from evolutionary biology, such as ‘adaptation,’ have frequently been drawn on by cultural ecologists to describe the processes linking cultures and their environments. The concept of adaptation has triggered the borrowing of additional biological concepts such as “niche” (see Barth for early elaboration and Wilk for more recent). (2) Therefore, on the conceptual as well as methodological level, cultural ecology has consistently reflected an effort to fuse both the ideas and the approaches of natural and social sciences.

By retaining the notion of the selectivity of culture-nature linkages (the need to consider specific linkages, between specific social groups, in specific environments), Steward also moved cultural ecology into ‘middle range’ (Merton) research and theory where it has tended to remain. Cultural ecological studies tend to focus on specific cultures and frequently on specific facets of culture (e.g. production systems) in specific environments. Although this ‘ethnographic’ focus has led, particularly in previous decades, to an emphasis on considering what McCay and Vayda (1975) call ‘homeostatic’ settings (where human-environment interactions are more or less balanced), more recent studies have begun to pay greater attention to communities and settings where environmental degradation and negative environmental outcomes occur, particularly in developing countries. A final general characteristics of cultural ecology approaches is that they tend to focus on rural settings. Despite the urban themes introduced by related approaches such as human ecology (see Park et al) the urban environment has yet to receive significant attention by cultural ecologists.

Important Journals

Human Ecology

Human Organization

Relevant Websites

For a rich bibliography of cultural ecology see: Roy Ellen’s Environmental Anthropology Course Site


Phil Porter and Connie Weil’s cultural ecology proseminar website:


For good general site with numerous links: Anthropology and Environment internet resources site


Table 1

Some Traditional and Current Lines of Research in Cultural Ecology

Theoretical touchstones
Methodological touchstones
Classic and recent
Historical-Material Approaches

-Steward’s concepts of culture core and effective environment

-cultural materialism al la Harris

-emphasis on historical processes

-focus on household as unit of analysis

-frequent use of demographic analysis

McNetting (Alps, Nigeria)

Viazzo (Alps)

Lee (San peoples in Kalahari)

Lofgren (Scandinavia)

Wilk (Belize)

Frick (Nepal)

Bennett (Canadian Plains)

Ideational -Cognitive

-linkages to linguistics and ethnobotany

-addresses cognitive aspects and interpretation of nature

-explores role of environmental perceptions and beliefs

-current interest in ‘sociology of nature’

-cataloguing of terms used to describe natural world

Conklin (swidden producer)

Rappaport (Pacific)

Culture and Ecology in East Africa Project

recent edited volumes by:

Descola and Palsson, Croll and Parkin, Milton


-focus on dialectical interaction between human groups and environment

-boundary issues

-Wolf’s notion of ecotypes

-Bennett’s concept of adaptive strategies and processes

-new influence of praxis theory

-household as the unit of analysis

-strong focus on agricultural societies

Barth (Pathans)

Sahlins (Pacific)

Wolf (Latin America)

Geertz (Indonesia)

Ingold (Scandinavia)

‘Relevant’ (Applied)

-problem focused

-considers settings where environmental degradation is occurring

-political ecology approaches influenced by political economy

-analysis of human decision-making processes (e.g. land use decision making)

Wilk (Belize)

Chibnik (Peru)

Scmink and Wood (Amazon)

Sheridan (Mexico)


Table 2.

Definitions of Adaptation and Adaptive Strategies used in Cultural Ecology

Source Definition of adaptation and adaptive strategies uses in cultural
Steward (1953) Steward 1972 (1955: 5, 30)No definition. This is the question which is to be defined through analysis. Consider how much of culture is adaptation to environment versus other factors and the origin of cultural features which can be traced to relationships with environment (p.31). cultural ecology = effect of environment upon culture. Special type of ecology characterizing man as culture bearer.
Geertz (1963: 6) Involution or ‘overadaptation’. Driving of an established
form (e.g. wet rice agriculture under increasing population density) in
such a way that it becomes rigid through an inward-directed
Wolf (1966) Wolf 1966, p.19 Ecotypes. The ecological adaptation of the peasantry consists
of a set of food transfers and a set of devices used to harness inorganic sources of energy to the productive process. Together, these sets make up a system of energy transfers from environment to man. Such a system of energy transfers we call an ecotype.

Cohen (1968-70: 1-4) Adaptation as organizing principle. Humans alter their
relationships to a habitat in order to make that habitat a more fit place
to live.
Rappaport (1971) Homeostatic. Adaptation is multidimensional. Man adapts to
two environments: cognitive and operative. Culture imposes on nature as nature imposes on culture. How men participate in an ecosytem depends not only on the structure and composition of that ecosystem but also upon the cultural baggage of those who enter it — what they and their descendents subsequently receive by diffusion or invent themselves, the demands imposed on the local population from outside, and the needs which may be fulfilled by the local population from abroad.
Vayda and McCay
(1976: 302)
Existential game. Response to hazards. 
Bennett (1976: 3) Adaptation as social process and strategic behavior.
Rational or purposive manipulation of social and natural environments.
Multidimensional in terms of impacts: good for one group, not good for
another, or for nature. Structure is loose, not fixed.
Löfgren (1976) Pattern of resource exploitation within a given macroeconomic framework. The peasant economy is seen as more than a specific form of adaptation to the physical environment. The model also
considers forms of supra-regional division of labor, as reflected in the
local economies. The diversity of possible modes of adaptation is a
response to a specific environment (Mitterauer 1992:139).

Morán (1982: 325) Adaptive strategy. Conscious or unconscious, explicit or
implicit plans of action are carried out by a population in response to
either external or internal conditions.
Ellen (1982) Human adaptation involves the modification of behavior in
order to adjust to new conditions, cope with hazards, or improve existing conditions. May be an active conscious process or unconscious byproduct of another activity. Individuals are the main agents of adaptation and they adapt mainly through changes in their social and economic relationships.
Wilk (1991) Households as adaptive groups. Structures of patterned human
action. The household is the logical level of analysis in cultural ecology
studies. (Fricke 1986). “Societies adapt in only the most abstract sense of the word but households adapt in concrete and observable ways” (31).
Adaptation is an active and dialectical process whereby people change their environment even as they change themselves and their social arrangements. Existing form or ‘tradition’ provides template for
acceptable change and involves interaction between social forms and
productive techniques.
Fricke (1993: 18) Behavior is fashioned in such a way as to attain certain ends. Like Bennett, distinguishes between adaptive strategies (patterns formed by the many, separate adjustments of people to obtain and use resources) and adaptive processes, the long term changes that result from their choices. Analysis of decision making based on Barth.Choices among alternatives are constrained by intersection of natural and sociocultural environments and individual’s own goals. Adaptation is not a cyclical or seasonal process but a continual one rooted in actors who must constantly decide and act

Table 3. Niche and Related Concepts in Cultural Ecology

Author Use of niche and related concepts in cultural ecology
Kroeber Analysis of culture areas shows broad geographic correlations
between ecological features and distribution of cultural features (North
America) resulting from combined processes of cultural diffusion and
limits set by environmental conditions.
Barth (1956) A Niche is the place of a group in its total environment,
including its relations to resources and to other occupants of that
environment. The position is occupied by an individual or a group in
relation to resource, competitors and clients.
Frake (1962) Focuses on the niche-carving activity of man. Argues man is
unique in that he interacts with his environment through cultural rather
than biological specialization, actively carving or constructing the
environment he uses. This process creates niches by which man remolds his existing biotic community and culture.
Hutchinson (1965) Sees the niche as hyperspace, a theoretical space defined
or delimited by the dimensions of the resources which determine their use by an organism (shape, size, color of resource are all factors).
Morán (1982) The niche includes all components of the environment with
which the organism or population interacts.
Hardesty (1977) The human ecological niche is composed of
microenvironments. The spatial use of a subsistence resource and the
spatial division of resource clusters found in a habitat create a
Wilk (1991) The household or economic niche is not a place, resource, mode
of production, or particular form of social formation, but a combination
of different resources and techniques for production and consumption with which members survive and reproduce (like a survival strategy).

Draws attention to the particular ecological setting of a household which
defines a niche. Discusses the economic role of the household in
developing country is that they bring together and integrate the
fragmented and disarticulated local, regional, national, and even
international economies, continually integrating different modes of
production.Barth (1994)A niche represents divergent adaptations and ethnicity.
Environment and ecology have always provided the main framework in terms of which anthropologists have sought to understand cultural
differentiation. The linkage of ethnicity to the concept of niche and to
the theme of resource competition demonstrates how breaks and continuities can arise in the continuous variation of culture.

Particular cultural traits may be useful as adaptations to particular environments and modes of subsistence in particular times and places. Thus, groups with different cultural features may co-reside and even diverge culturally because these differences are adaptive for their respective exploitation of different resources in the same area.

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