Cultural ecology is the study of the adaptation of a culture to a specific environment and how changes in that environment lead to changes in that specific culture. It also focuses on how the overall environment, natural resources available, technology, and population density affect the rest of the culture and how a traditional system of beliefs and behavior allows people to adapt to their environment. Interplay between any population and their environment is the subject of ecological studies. Cultural ecologists study how humans in their society and through specific cultures interact with the larger environment. In the case of human beings, much of the behavior involved in interaction with the environment is learned behavior that has become part of the reserve of learned skills, technology, and other cultural responses of a people in a society.
Much of cultural ecology was founded on Marx’s methodology. Marx claimed there are real regularities in nature and society that are independent of our consciousness. This reality changes, and this change has patterned consistencies that can be observed and understood. Tensions within the very structure of this reality form the basis of this change. These changes add up until the structure itself is something other than the original organization. A new entity is then formed with its own tensions or contradictions.
When studying a society, the research should begin with a people’s interaction with nature. Humans, through their labor, produce the means of their own survival. The environment, natural and social, in which people provide the basis of their own survival, becomes central to the analysis of a society.
Through the means of production, which includes technology, environment, population pressure, and work relationships, a people are able to take from nature what they need to survive; this, in turn, creates what is possible for the various parts of the superstructure. Any study of the historical change of a people must assume economic factors will be of first importance. The economic primacy is not absolute, however, because each of the various parts of a society has its own continual influence on the social whole.
Researchers who study noncapitalist societies become aware that major differences do exist between individual noncapitalist societies. One major difference that is noticed by social scientists is the degree of complexity in social structures between one society and another. It is argued that the differing degrees of complexity of the social relations are directly related to different productive levels, including how efficiently a technology can utilize a particular environment to support the people of that social structure.
With changes in the organization of labor, there are corresponding changes in the relationship to property. With increasing complexity of technology and social organization, societies move through these diverse variations to a more restrictive control over property, and eventually, with a state society, there develop restrictions on access to property, based upon membership in different economic classes.
A social system is a dynamic interaction between people, as well as a dynamic interaction between people and nature. The production for human subsistence is the foundation upon which society ultimately stands. From the creation of the specific methods of production of an economic system, people, in turn, establish their corresponding set of ideas. People are the creators of their social ideologies. People are continually changed by the evolution of their productive forces and of the relationships associated with these productive forces. People continuously change nature, and thus continually change themselves in the process.
The study of history begins with the material or objective organization of people living their everyday lives. This is set into motion by means of a people’s relationship with nature, as expressed in their social and cultural lives. Through these relationships, humans produce their own means of subsistence. Each generation inherits and reproduces this means of subsistence and then changes it to fit their changed needs. This historically and culturally specific setting shapes individual human nature. This means that how people are organized and interact is determined by production.
Production molds all other social relations. This includes the relation of one nation to another as well as the internal social structure of a single nation. With every new change in the forces of production, there exists corresponding change in the relations of production. These changes lead to changes in the division of labor. With changes in the division of labor, there are changes in the property relations of the nation. Ultimately, this means ideological changes as well.
The first historical act is the production to satisfy material life. Following the first historical act is the
production of new needs that are the practical result of satisfying the needs of material life. People reproduce themselves, their families, and their culture daily. These acts of production and reproduction are prearranged by the historical past of a people, but this very activity changes both the people and their culture. With the changes, the needs of a people are changed; old needs are redefined or eliminated, and new needs are created. With these ever-changing needs, the development of human life is both social and natural. Humans are both the animal creations of nature and the social creations of society. With this, each society creates its own social organization based upon its own historical mode of production. The nature of society is based upon the mode of production and consciousness. People’s relations to nature mold their relations with each other. People’s relations with one another affect their relations to nature. Borrowing from Marx, then, production, human needs, population pressure, and change make up cultural ecology.
Julian Steward coined the term cultural ecology, which is a continuation of his theory of multilinear evolution. Multilinear evolution searches for regularities in cultural change. Cultural laws can be defined that explain these changes. Determinism is not the issue, but patterns of historical change follow patterns of an interaction between parts of a society and the larger environment. Cultural traditions have distinctive elements that can be studied in context. Similarities and differences between cultures are meaningful and change in meaningful ways. The evolution of recurrent forms, processes, and functions in different societies has similar explanations. Each society has its own specific historical movement through time. This prefaces cross-cultural studies.
Cultural ecology is the adaptation by a unique culture modified historically in a distinctive environment. With this definition, Steward outlined a creative process of cultural change. Steward focused on recurrent themes that are understandable by limited circumstances and distinct situations. This helps to establish specific means of identifying and classifying cultural types. Cultural type is an ideal heuristic tool designed for the study of cross-cultural parallels and regularities. This analytical instrument allows assembling regularities in cultures with vastly different histories. This type of classification is based upon selected features. It is important to pick out distinctive configurations of causally interdependent features of cultures under study. These features are determined by a particular research problem within its own frame of reference. The researcher chooses specific physiognomies that have similar functional interrelationship with one another.
For example, economic patterns are important because they are more directly related to other social, cultural, and political configurations. This is the cultural core. These comparative associations are the particular attributes of patterned organization in an evolutionary sequence. Universal evolutionary stages are much too broad to tell us anything concrete about any particular culture. The changes from one stage to another are based upon particular historical and cultural ecological arrangements unique for each society. Exceptionalism is the norm. Global trends and external influences interact with a locally specific environment, causing each society to have a unique evolutionary trajectory.
Cultural ecology is a look at cultural features in relation to specific environmental circumstances, with unique behavioral patterns that are related to cultural adjustments to distinctive environmental concerns.
Cultures are made up of interrelated parts. The degree of interdependence varies in the ways in which some traits have more influence than other characteristics. The cultural core is grouped around subsistence activities and economic relationships. Secondary features are more closely related to historical contingencies and less directly related to the environment. Cultural ecology focuses upon attributes immersed in the social subsistence activity within the specific environment in a culturally directed fashion. Changes are in part alterations in technology and productive arrangements as a result of the changing environment. Whether these technological innovations are accepted or not depends upon environmental constraints and cultural requirements. Population pressure and its relative stability are important. Also, internal division of labor, regional specialization, environmental tension, and economic surplus create the cultural conditions in which technological innovation becomes attractive, leading to other cultural changes. These social adaptations have profound effects upon the kinship, politics, and social relations of a group.
Culture, according to Steward, is a means of adaptation to environmental needs. Before specific resources can be used, the necessary technology is required. Also, social relations reflect technological and environmental concerns. These social relations organize specific patterns of behavior and its supportive values. A holistic approach to cultural studies is required to see the interrelationship of the parts.
The researcher begins with the study of the relationship between technologies of a people and how they exploit their environment for their survival. To use these technologies within an environmental setting, certain behavior patterns are established. The interaction between labor (behavior patterns) and the connection between technology and the environment has a reciprocal relationship with other aspects of culture, including ideology.
Marvin Harris expanded upon cultural ecology and called his approach “cultural materialism.” Human communities are fused with nature through work, and work is structured through social organization. This is the basis of the industry of all societies. Social science must reflect this if it is to understand the deeper underlying connections between specific social actions and global trends. In this, industry, commerce, production, exchange, and distribution establish the social structure, which, in turn, gives birth to the ideological possibilities of any culture. Along these lines, social-economic classes are determined by the interaction between technology and social organization in a particular environment. The needs of every society and the individuals in that society must be met; this, in turn, creates its own ideological support. With the development of capitalist society, for example, science develops to meet the needs of its economic requirements. Even more important, science is established as the integrating principles of modern industrial capitalism. This is possible because the principal ideas of any class society are that of the ruling class. Those who control the material forces of society also define the values and beliefs of that society. Workers are subject to those ideas, while the dominant ideology reflects the dominant material relations of the society. In this, Marxism, cultural ecology, and cultural materialism have similar thoughts on the subject.
The complex relationships between the material base of technology, the environment, population pressure, and the ideological superstructure are a constant factor in studying social change. The social consciousness, while being the product of real material relations of society, in turn has an impact on those social relations. This feedback loop is central to understanding the historical dynamics of society. Social consciousness becomes the collective reflection of social relations. Through social consciousness, people become aware of and act upon nature and society. Even though forms of social consciousness reflect a specific social existence, this social whole is not a static or passive relationship. The ideological superstructure is different in each community and changes as the economic relations of that society change. More precisely, there is an interactive relationship of all the parts of society. Economics is the most important of all these interactive parts. From this, the forms of commonly held feelings, religious expressions, ways of thinking, and, over all, worldview, including the different forms of property relations, are established. The ideology of a society reflects the social conditions of its existence.
Through the means of production, which includes technology, environment, also called infrastructure, and work relationships, called structure, a people are able to take from nature what they need to survive. This interaction, in turn, creates what is possible for the various parts of the superstructure. The superstructure includes not only the ideology but also the social psychology of a people. The superstructure and structure are ultimately molded and limited by the infrastructure. The infrastructure sets the limits of what is possible for both the structure and superstructure.
The interaction between social organization (structure) and the use of a technology within an environment (infrastructure) can be used to understand many particulars about the total culture. The evolution from band-level society to tribal-level society, tribal to chiefdom, and chiefdom to state-level society has to take into consideration changes in the organization of labor, including the growing division of labor and, ultimately, changes in the technology used by a people. With changes in the organization of labor, there are corresponding changes in the relationship to property. With increasing complexity of technology and social organization, societies move through these various stages to a more restrictive control over property, and eventually, with a state society, there develop restrictions on access to property, based upon membership in economic classes.
Marxism, cultural ecology, and cultural materialism all agree that a social system is a dynamic interaction between people, as well as a dynamic interaction between people and nature. The production for human subsistence is the foundation upon which society ultimately stands. In producing what people need to live, people also produce their corresponding set of ideas. People are the creators of their ideologies, because people are continually changed by the evolution of their productive forces; they are always changing their relationships associated with these productive forces. People continuously change nature and thus continually change themselves in the process.
Cultural Core as Used After Steward
Cultural core is the central idea of cultural ecology. Current scholars in the field add the use of symbolic and ceremonial behavior to economic subsistence as an active part of the cultural core. The result of cultural beliefs and practices leads to long-term sustain-ability of natural resources. The symbolic ideology becomes as important as economics in the cultural core. Through cultural decisions, people readapt to a changing environment. This opens the door for a critical anthropology; the anthropologist can act as an advocate for groups threatened by corporate agricultural concerns. The humanistic approach does not negate anthropology as a social science. The new anthropology has a new activist approach by recognizing that different agents may have competing interests in resource management. Any historical analysis of important issues must include indigenous knowledge in maintaining not only long-term sustainability but also protecting the rights of those most vulnerable.
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- Foster, J. B. (2000). Marx’s ecology: Materialism and nature. New York: Monthly Review.
- Harris, M. (1980). Cultural materialism: The struggle for a science ofculture. New York: Vintage Books.
- Harris, M. (1998). Theories ofculture in postmodern times. Walnut Creek, CA: Rowman & Littlefield. Netting, R. M. (1977). Cultural ecology. Menlo Park, CA: Benjamin/Cummings.
- Steward, J. H. (1955). Theory of culture change: The methodology of multilinear evolution. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.