DISCIPLINES: Ethnobiology


Rodrigo Penna Firme







      Ethnobiology is the study of dynamic relationship among people, biota, and the environment (NSF, 2003). More specifically, Ethnobiology is the systematic cross cultural study of how people learn, name, use, and organize knowledge about the biota around them. “Folk biology” is a term commonly used by ethnobiologists to refer to biological classification and reasoning particular to cultural groups (Casagrande, 2004). This field has become for anthropologists a characteristically academic pursuit interested largely in human cognitive capacities explored through exotic classifications of flora and fauna (Sillitoe, 2006).

      Before entering in a brief overview of the actual realm of this field, it will be presented here a summary of the most fundamental questions posed by contemporary Ethnobiology. According to a recent review carried out by Casagrande (2004), these questions can be summarized as follows: are patterns of classification that we observe across societies the result of (1) universal cognitive predispositions that have resulted form evolution, (2) the objective taxonomic structure of local biota that we cannot help but recognize, (3) culturally relative interpretations, or (4) merely artifacts of our methods?

      The National Science Foundation (NSF) panel on Ethnobiology, which congregates thirty five midcareer leaders in Ethnobiology, or if you will, the NSF Biocomplexity Workshop Report (2003) defines both the scope and the recent intellectual developments in Ethnobiology by dividing it up into five main general subjects: (1) knowledge systems, (2) medicine, health and nutrition, (3) Ecology, evolution and systematics, (4) Landscapes and global trends, and (5) Biocomplexity and Ethnobiology.   

     In trying to establish a contemporary picture of this field one may pay attention to the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary “nature” of such an area of inquiry. In other words, the way in which this field is connected to other disciplines is somewhat complex, diffuse and difficult to map. As the NSF panel puts it, “these are exciting times for Ethnobiology, a rapidly and creatively field. As a result, however, research is difficult to characterize, due to its diverse and multifaceted themes”.  

      Despite the rapidly development of the field, which is gaining professional, student, and public interest within the U.S, and internationally, there still exist a pressing need for Ethnobiology to define better its research focus, objectives and methodology for the study of people biota environment interactions. The relatively poor development of theory in Ethnobiology has also been a matter of concern (Bennett, 2005). As this author puts it, in the case of Ethnobotany (an area of Ethnobiology more concerned with human plant interactions), for instance, with the exception of Brent Berlin’s classical (1992) work on folk taxonomy and Tim Johns’ (1990) chemical ecology approach to medicine and food plants, the majority of studies have been solely descriptive. Having, most of those researches provided only long lists of plants and its uses.

      The other two main problems Ethnobiology has to deal with immediately are both the development of interdisciplinary education programs to train students and the need to increase academic funding resources. There still exist enormous difficulties in setting up interdisciplinary programs in Ethnobiology. The creation of such programs takes necessarily the definition of a common background in social and environmental sciences, by means of focusing on shared problem process oriented research objectives.

      Depending on the future development of Ethnobiology, its task for integrating the advances in anthropology, behavioral sciences, ecology, and geology would become even more difficult to accomplish. The projected development for this field has being pushed toward a more experimental and technological approach (NSF, 2003). In fact, there has been a tendency to subject all kinds of data collected in Ethnobiology studies to a statistical rigor.

      This conception may be seen by looking at the way through which the NSF (2003) panel puts it, “analyses of ethnobiological data may be undertaken with current demographic models (of plants, animals, and people), with nonlinear analyses to model combined interdisciplinary data, with bioinformatics to analyze molecular data, … We, would like to facilitate the interactions between ethnobiologists and their applied math colleagues…”. 

     It turns out that the task of placing the Ethnobiology’s social components into a hard science framework seems to be somewhat counteracting the mainstream contemporary anthropological thought, by reducing the human cultural diversity to a set of quantitative models and variables. On the other hand, some authors have turned their main interest to a more qualitative and interpretative approach while doing Ethnobiology research. One of the main characteristics of modern times in Ethnobiology has been the fact that some author have moved beyond asking how humans classify biological items to why. The privileged way the ethnobiologists have taken in searching for answers for these questions has been the strengthening of the ties between cultural anthropology, cognitive sciences, linguistics, and dynamic models in ecology and biology. There has been a permanent borrowing of traditional field methods from anthropology, characterized mainly by the use of questionnaires, participant observation and participatory approaches.


      It has been explicitly said that Ethnobiology must be interdisciplinary, bringing the natural and social sciences (NSF, 2003). As a result, the practitioners of Ethnobiology in the U.S, and internationally, are found spread among different institutions as well as tied either to social or environmental departments. For the prospective students, Bennet (2005) states that there is only a handful programs in the United States. He provides a brief list of the few summer field courses opportunities offered by American universities and institutions.  Some of them are as follows: University of Michigan, the National Tropical Botanical Garden, or the institute for the Tropical Ecology and Conservation.

      On the American Anthropological Association (AAA, 2006) website, under its anthropology and the environment section, one may find a list containing fifteen educational institutions and programs worldwide devoted to the area of environmental anthropology. Twelve programs are offered by American universities and institutes. Such programs offer a variety of opportunities for students committed to interdisciplinary research on the broad area of population, culture and environmental interactions. Interestingly, according to this list, there are only five anthropology departments in the U.S explicitly offering training in environmental anthropology. The universities that offer such programs are as follows: University of California (Riverside), University of Washington, University of Georgia, Rutgers University, University of Florida, and Indiana University.

      Because of its interdisciplinary nature, both Ethnobiology’ research and education tend to be tied to a broad array of departments and institutes. Often times in searching for a graduate training in Ethnobiology, a prospective student might find it suitable to compete for a place at departments that explicitly focus on both social and environmental sciences. On the AAA website (2006) one can grasp helpful information about these programs. Most of them have been conceived as a consortium made up of cultural anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, ecologists, biologists, linguists and so fourth. Examples of such programs and institutes obtained from this website are as follows: (1) The Conservation, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development Program at University of Arizona; (2) Anthropological Center for training and Research on Global Environmental Changes at Indiana University; (3) Cognitive Students of the Environment at Northwestern University; (4) The Gender, Justice and Environmental Change Program at Michigan State University; (5) Geography at University of South Carolina; and (6) The environmental and sociology program at Florida International University.

      Regardless, the prospective graduate students face a hard competition to enter in both field trainings and graduate programs, since there are few openings each year. Bennet (2005) suggests that the best one student can do before getting started in such a competition is to gain a broad training in both biology and anthropology in general. When it comes to saying what the actual opportunities for research and the fate of the graduated PhD students would be in the academia, he is even more conservative. On the other hand, as he puts it, since the field is linked to applied anthropology, medicine, and at the same time to conservation and management of biodiversity issues, it is not rare for high qualified students to find job opportunities outside the university after graduating. These positions are mostly available at conservation NGOs, local governments, development organizations, and industry as well. However, for the sub field of Ethnobotany, for example, he says that for the past 10 years there have been no more than a handful of few jobs at the PhD. level.

      Bennet (2005) also points out that a common complaint from students is the lack of research funding for ethnobiological research. Because of its interdisciplinary nature, Ethnobiology does not readily fit funding categories of national agencies or private foundations. For instance, for the NSF, zoological and botanical aspects inherent to research in Ethnobiology can only be supported through the directorate for Biological Sciences. The anthropological aspects of this kind of research are supported through the directorate for Social, Behavioral & Economic Science. Unfortunately, it seems to be an international patter for funding interdisciplinary research.


      Despite the differences that might occur in their specific objectives and methodological approach, what intellectually ties ethnobiologists together is the general concern they share about people and environment relations. However, one might ask himself or herself what makes them “apart” from the self defined ecological anthropologists, human ecologists, historical ecologist, political ecologists, and so fourth? The partial answer would be at first glance what follows: the ethnobiologists have focused historically their attention mostly to the “indigenous” or “traditional” ecological knowledge (TEK), also known as people’s “folk biology” (Casagrande, 2004). Comparing Ethnobiology to others human environment interactions fields previously mentioned, one may find it to be, to a certain extent, more concerned with small scale processes such as people plant interactions. Finally, according to the Proceedings of the Seventh International Congress of Ethnobiology (2002), other predominant issues, or if you will, themes in Ethnobiology have been: Biodiversity Prospecting and Protection, Intellectual Property Rights and Benefit Sharing, Biocultural Diversity and Conservation, Medical Ethnobiology, Economic Ethnobiology, Historical Ethnobiology, Traditional Agriculture and Home Garden.




   2006  American Anthropological Association. http://www.aaanet.org/ar/index.htm.

Bennet, C Brendley

   2005  Ethnobotany Education, opportunities, and needs in the U.S. Ethnobotany Research & Applications 3: 113 to 121.

Casagrande, David

    2004  Ethnobiology lives! Theory, Collaboration, and Possibilities for the Study of Folk Biologies. Reviews in  Anthropology, vol. 33, pp. 351 to 370.

Stepp, J Richard, Felice S. Wyndham and Rebecca K. Zarger, ed

   2002  Ethnobiology and Biocultural Diversity. The International  Society of Ethnobiology. University of Georgia Press. Athens, Georgia.


    2003  Intellectual Imperatives in Ethnobiology: NSF Biocomplexity Workshop Report. Missouri Botanical Garden.

Sillitoe, Paul

   2006  Ethnobiology and applied anthropology: rapprochement of the academic with the practical.  L. Roy. Anthrp. Inst. (N.S), 119 to 142.



Berlin, Brent

   1992  Ethnobiological classifications: principles of categorization of plants and animals in traditional   societies.   Princeton: Princeton University press.

Ellen, R. F

  2000  Indigenous environmental knowledge and its transformations : critical anthropological      perspectives. Amsterdam : Harwood Academic.
Ellen, Roy

  1993  The cultural relations of classification: an analysis of Nuaulu animal categories from Central Seram. Cambridge: Cambridge University press.

Ford, Richard 

  1985  An Ethnobiology source book : the uses of plants and animals by American Indians.
New York: Garland.

2001 Ethnobiology at the millennium : past promise and future prospects.
Ann Arbor: Museum of Anthropology, University of Michigan.

Gragson, Ted  

   1999  Ethnoecology: knowledge, resources, and rights. Athens: University of Georgia Press.
Medin, Douglas 

   1999  Folkbiology. Cambridge, Mass. MIT Press.

Nazarea, Virginia 

    1998  Cultural memory and biodiversity. (Virginia Dimasuay), Tucson : University of Arizona Press.

      1999  Ethnoecology : situated knowledge/located lives (Virginia Dimasuay), 1954
      Tucson : University of Arizona Press, c.

Plotkin, Mark 

   1983  Tales of a Shaman's Apprentice: An ethnobotanist searches for new medicines in the Amazon rain forest. New York: Penguin.

Posey, Darrell

  2002  Kayapó ethnoecology and culture. London; New York: Routledge.

Sanga, Glauco

  2004  Nature knowledge : ethnoscience, cognition, and utility. New York: Berghahn Books.
Schultes, R Evans and Siri von Reis

   1995  Ethnobotany: Evolution of a Discipline. Portland, Oregon: Dioscorides Press (an imprint of Timber Press). A collection of papers on the history and current status of ethnobotany.

Townsend, Patricia

   2000 Environmental Anthropology: from pigs to policies. Prospect Heights, Ill. Waveland Press.


American Anthropological Association. http://www.aaanet.org/ar/index.htm.

Anthropology and the Environment: A Section of the American Anthropological Association. http://www.eanth.org/

Culture & Agriculture.  http://colfa.utsa.edu/organization/culture&agriculture/

International Society of Ethnobiology. http://ise.arts.ubc.ca/

Society for Linguistic Anthropology. http://www.aaanet.org/sla/index.htm

Society for Medical Anthropology. http://www.medanthro.net/index.html

Society for Psychological Anthropology. http://www.aaanet.org/SPA/index.htm

Society for the Anthropology of Food and Nutrition. http://www.aaanet.org/cna/index.htm

Society of Ethnobiology. http://ethnobiology.org/

The Society for Economic Botany. http://www.econbot.org/home.html



American Anthropologist

American Ethnologist

Culture and Agriculture

Ethnobotany Research and Applications


Journal of Ethnobiology

Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology

Journal of Linguistic Anthropology.

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Medical Anthropology Quarterly

Mind and Language

National Association for the Practice of Anthropology Bulletin

Psychological Review

Reviews in Anthropology



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