What is Ecological Anthropology?

1. Overview of the Topic – Summary:

From Wikipedia: Ecological anthropology is a sub-field of anthropology and is defined as the “study of cultural adaptations to environments”.[1] The sub-field is also defined as, “the study of relationships between a population of humans and their biophysical environment“.[2]

Ecological anthropologist, Conrad Kottak published arguing there is an original older ‘functionalist’, apolitical style ecological anthropology and, as of the time of writing in 1999, a ‘new ecological anthropology’ was emerging and being recommended consisting of a more complex intersecting global, national, regional and local systems style or approach.[4]

2. What is the focus of this Topic?:

The focus of its research concerns “how cultural beliefs and practices helped human populations adapt to their environments, and how people used elements of their culture to maintain their ecosystems.”[1]Ecological anthropology developed from the approach of cultural ecology, and it provided a conceptual framework more suitable for scientific inquiry than the cultural ecology approach.[3] Research pursued under this approach aims to study a wide range of human responses to environmental problems.[3]

3. Why it’s listed here – What is the relevance to Architectural Medicine?

Ecological anthropology studies the relations between human beings and their environments.[5]

While Architectural Medicine is more than just a simple evaluation and analysis of the built environment on its own, it includes the many facets related to how culture defines Health and Wellness. This includes the different definitions based on culture and society.

The approach of Architectural Medicine is location independent, yet it does recognize that each location does matter, along with the history and viewpoints of the different cultures around the world. The psychological impact of architectural spaces for occupants in different regions of the world varies, and therefore architectural design styles and material choices should include this in the design process.

Ecological anthropology considers this cultural ecology, and can help with the integrative nature of Architectural Medicine to work with many different professionals and backgrounds. Considering these big picture viewpoints while striving for solutions in the local built environment for overall health and wellness is critical for the future of Architecture.

4. Common groups and individuals involved with this topic:

In the 1960s, ecological anthropology first appeared as a response to cultural ecology, a sub-field of anthropology led by Julian Steward. Steward focused on studying different modes of subsistence as methods of energy transfer and then analyzed how they determine other aspects of culture. 

The first stage concerns the work of Julian Steward and Leslie White, the second stage is titled ‘neofunctionalism‘ and/or ‘neoevolutionism‘, and the third stage is termed ‘processual ecological anthropology’.[6]

One of the leading practitioners within this sub-field of anthropology was Roy Rappaport. Patricia K. Townsend’s work highlights the difference between ecological anthropology and environmental anthropology. In her view, some anthropologists use both terms in an interchangeable fashion. She states that, “Ecological anthropology will refer to one particular type of research in environmental anthropology – field studies that describe a single ecosystem including a human population”.[7] Studies conducted under this sub-field “frequently deal with a small population of only a few hundred people such as a village or neighbourhood”.[7]

5. Resources: