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I.9.7 Concepts and methods of Ecological Anthropology

Ecological anthropology is a branch of anthropology which is concerned with bio-cultural responses and processes that affect the survival, reproduction,  development, longevity and spatial distribution of human populations

It integrates findings from ecology, physiology, socio-cultural anthropology, geography etc

It arose as

      • Environmental Determinism
      • Natural Possibilism
      • Cultural Ecology

all these approaches failed to recognize the biological concept of ECOSYSTEM in which human relations are mutualistic. Hence, an holistic approach is needed that can describe such multi-faceted human adaptability  hence Ecological Anthropology came into existence. Ecosystem concept emphasizes on SYSTEMS APPROACH.

Ecological anthropology studies the relations between human beings and their environments.

Its foundations were laid by Julian Steward in the mid-twentieth century. Steward emphasised the dynamic, two-way nature of the culture-environment relation, and the importance of the concept of adaptation in understanding it. Steward distinguished ‘cultural’ from ‘biological’ ecology on the grounds that the former was about the adaptation of culture as a system existing outside of individual human organisms. Theories developed in animal ecology were considered applicable to humans as well. Drawing on one such theory, of group selection, ecological anthropologists focused on how aspects of cultural behaviour maintain balance or ‘homeostasis’ in the relations between a local group and its environmental resources, and so promote its long-term survival.

  • Clifford Geertz – first anthropologist to use the concept of ecosystem in anthropology
  • Roy Rappaport
  • Andrew Vayda

What is Adaptation?

  • The response of an organism to the structural and functional characteristics of its environment
  • Adaptation happens through slow and gradual adjustments to the environment
  • Human adaptation is multi-dimensional and multi-hierarchical
  • Humans can adapt biologically, culturally and socially
  • Biologically, humans can adapt physiologically and genetically

Types of Adjustments – Rickelfs

  • Regulatory Responses
  • Acclimatory Responses
  • Developmental Responses
  1. Regulatory Responses
  • Cultural strategies
  • Psychological and Behavioral
  • Very rapid mode of adjustments
  1. Acclimatory Responses
  • Take longer time
  • Changes in organic structure
  • Occurs when external stimuli are present for sufficient period of time
  • Usually reversible
  • Exercise – Muscles
  1. Developmental Responses
  • Irreversible Responses
  • Occurs during growth and development
  • They are adjustments to environment present during
    developmental period
  • Owing to greater plasticity of the individual during
    developmental period
  • Child – High Altitude – Larger lung capacity


The new ecological anthropology can draw on a series of high-tech research methods.

  1. Satellite imagery (deployed synchronically or diachronically) has been used to locate ecological hotspots (e.g., areas of deforestation or pollution).
  2. GIS (geographical information systems) and other approaches may be used to map various kinds of data on human and environmental features.
  3. Macroscope software, developed by J. Stephen Lansing and others, facilitates the mapping—on a computer screen—of various kinds of information, such as yields in Balinese fields in relation to pest damage and farming practices.
  4. Survey data can be collected across space and time and compared.
  5. Ethnographic research
  6. Linkages methodology, as elaborated by Kottak and Colson- anthropologists are increasingly developing models of their subject matter that are isomorphic with the structure of the modern world, including the various regional, national, and international linkages within it.

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