Ecological Anthropology: Meaning, Importance, Methodology

Ecological anthropology is a subfield or a branch in anthropology and in simple terms, it is the study of interactions between human beings and the environment they live in. The discipline studies the adaptations and interactions of humankind and the environment for a generation at times.

Why is it an important discipline:

It has become more significant due to the effects such as global warming and environmental problems that we are facing. Anthropology can help with a better understanding and development to reduce climate change in some ways. An example can be that ecologist anthropologist who studies human interactions with the environments and the resources have profound knowledge of the principles of evolution and adaptation which can aid to make the climate changes more sensitive to the local circumstances and ecologies of the human communities in the areas. The discipline brings in findings and knowledge from different subjects such as ecology, geography, socio-cultural anthropology, and more for a better and comprehensive understanding. Ecological anthropologists can document environmental variation over time as well as track how humans have dealt or survived with it in the past and present time periods and will study the relationship between populations and their biophysical environments.

Methodology: Ecological anthropology

Some may confuse ecological anthropology as a portion of cultural ecology however the branch arose owing to the problems with environmental determinism, cultural ecology, and the rising environmental problems. It came into being because the past approaches had failed to recognize the biological perception of the ecosystem in which human relations are mutualistic and interrelated to each other. Thus a new holistic method came into being that could describe and study the multi-faceted human adaptability and it provides for a more suitable context for scientific inquiry.

Its research methods include comparative research as well as studies specific populations from both synchronic and diachronic perspectives. There are also high-tech research methods due to the advance in technology such as satellite imagery which is usually used to trace and find ecological hotspots, GIS or geographical information systems is used to map many varieties of data on human and environmental features. Software used by ecologist which is called Macroscope developed by J. Stephan Lansing and others which aids as it simplifies the mapping on a computer screen on various categories of information.  Another method is survey data which can be collected and linked across space and time for further study. The new ecological research can use high tech methods however one must keep in mind not to divert the attention from a first-hand ethnographic study of people and their lives with relation to the environment.  The last method that is used is called the Linkage methodology which was developed by Kottak and Elizabeth Colson which is the method to describe several multi-level, multi-site, and multi-time research projects that are conducted. In ecological studies, it recognizes the worth and importance of research samples that can be followed through time. This method is planned as an ongoing process which involves teamwork, over time and personnel are required to shadow a dispersing population to study diverse spots and interview at many different levels, they have to explore and study archives and records and to do follow-up studies.

One of the people who lead to the development of ecological anthropology was Julian steward who coined the term “cultural ecology”. In the mid-twentieth century, he stressed the dynamic two-way nature of cultural-environment relationships and had put importance on the idea of adaptation. The change in the subject brings in a combination of theory and analysis with importance on political awareness, policy concerns, and dealings with climate change matters.

Some terms and concepts in Ecological Anthropology:

Adaptation: The concept of adaptation is that it is the response an organism has to its setting or surroundings. It can be an adaptation in structural or functional characteristics. In ecological anthropology, these adaptations happen slowly and gradually through time in relation to the environment.  These adaptations can be culturally, socially, or biologically which means the adaptations of physiologically and genetically such as the darker skin colour in hot climates whereas the contrast of lighter skin colour in colder climates.

Cultural Ecology: Cultural ecology is the field of study which focuses on the adaptation of human societies or populations to their environments. There is a weight on the arrangements of the method, the economy, and the social organization through which culture intercedes the involvement of the natural world or environment.

Diachronic Study: A diachronic study looks at the relations of variables through an evolutionary time dimension or a historical perspective.

Synchronic Study:  Is the opposite of a diachronic study. It studies the relations of variables in a singular time frame which is usually a short-term study without any historical processes.

Ecology: Ecology is the study of the interaction between living and non-living mechanisms of the environment. It is the study of the relationship between an organism and all aspects of the organism’s environment.

Ecosystem: An ecosystem is the physical and practical interrelationships of the living organisms and the environment in which they live in. Ecosystems are known to be multifaceted and can be viewed on different stages.

Ecosystem Approach/Model: This is a method used by various ecological anthropologists that emphasizes the abiotic components and it usually uses the physical environment as the foundation about which growing species and adaptive responses are studied. The ecosystem model has been placed in a vital role within ecological anthropology.

Environmental Determinism: It is a deterministic approach that stresses or gives importance to one factor as the main or overriding influence in explanations. It is grounded on the assumption that cultural and natural areas have the same boundaries as the defence that culture signifies an adaptation to the particular environment. Thus, environmental factors shall determine the human social and cultural behaviours that exist.

Ethnoecology: Ethnoecology is the paradigm or model which examines the native perspective on environmental phenomena. The studies in ethnoecology usually place an emphasis on indigenous or native classification of hierarchies while referring to specific aspects of the environment.

These are a few of the terms and concepts of ecological anthropology to give an understanding of how it is a branch of anthropology which is very relevant and important to study.

Some links to Interesting video’s to watch:



ª  The Anthropologist, 78 minutes short documentary which is directed by Seth Kramer, Daniel A. Miller, and Jeremy Newberge.

ª  Fleeing climate change — the real environmental disaster, 42 minute documentary by DW Documentary on YouTube.



Kottak, Conrad P. “The New Ecological Anthropology.” American Anthropologist, vol. 101, no. 1, 1999, pp. 23–35. JSTOR, Accessed  31 July. 2020.

Platten, Simon, and Thomas Henfrey. “The Cultural Keystone Concept: Insights from Ecological Anthropology.” Human Ecology, vol. 37, no. 4, 2009, pp. 491–500. JSTOR, Accessed 31 July. 2020.

Vayda, A., & McCay, B. (1975). New Directions in Ecology and Ecological Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 4, 293-306. Retrieved July 29, 2020, from

Orlove, B. (1980). Ecological Anthropology. Annual Review of Anthropology, 9, 235-273. Retrieved July 29, 2020, from

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Mayumi Oseng Apang Nongrum is currently an undergraduate student pursuing anthropology, history and international relations. She is an individual striving for a better tomorrow.