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Environmental Anthropology

Example Image Research Topic Environmental Anthropology
Foto: Michaela Meurer


This field of Anthropology studies the interaction between humans and the environment. Its long history has been shaped by a wide range of ideas including environmental determinism, the notion of the transformation of the environment by humans and, more recently, the question how the environment is conceptualized and classified by other cultures.

In the context of 1940s Neo-Evolutionism, Leslie A. White identified the scope of the technological appropriation of nature (energy) as key factor for measuring a society’s “degree of cultural evolution” (“White’s Law”). Building upon this idea, Julian H. Steward developed his method of “cultural ecology” in the 1960s. He influenced a generation of cultural materialist researchers (e. g. Marvin Harris) who saw adaptation to environmental conditions as a society’s “base” and thus, the main cause of cultural difference and change. The adoption of biological models was further elaborated by Roy A. Rappaport who described society and culture in terms of the ecosystem. Even if the term “cultural ecology” had been introduced by Steward, the German term Kulturökologie usually refers to the interdisciplinary ecosystem approach.

Approaches from Structuralism (mostly in Europe) and Ethnoscience (in the U.S.), by contrast, focused their attention on the logics of classification and ethnotaxonomies that lay behind local understandings and conceptualizations of environmental phenomena. By the 1980s, cultural-ecological studies met with increasing criticism. As scholars started paying closer attention to their interlocutors’ own understanding of culture, sociality, environment, and nature, they became increasingly critical of an unquestioned transfer of a modern Western notion of nature to non-Western societies. The Western idea of a nature-culture dichotomy is either alien to many non-Western societies or is expressed by means of categories and definitions that differ from Western notions. For this reason, analytical concepts connected to the “ontological turn”, like “multinaturalism”, “perspectivism” (Viveiros de Castro) or “(neo-)animism” (Descola) or the perspective of “dwelling” (Ingold), strive to do better justice to emic concepts of nature.

Research that identifies with the “ontological turn” and a critical attitude toward the nature-culture dichotomy, which can be subsumed under the term “anthropology of nature”, has mostly originated in France and the Spanish-speaking world; the term “environmental anthropology”/”anthropology of the environment”, by contrast, refers to the American tradition. Today we are observing a cross-fertilization of both traditions. Research and teaching at the Department of Cultural and Social Anthropology involve both approaches: equal attention is paid to local concepts and ontologies, on the one hand, and a political-ecological view on the relations of local actors to global forces, on the other. The latter include regional, national, and international institutions and organizations (states and communities of states, multinational corporations, NGOs, global religious communities, etc.), as well as natural phenomena on a global scale (depletion of the ozone layer, desertification, deforestation, climate change, etc.).


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