(Clifford Geertz)



PART I - Starting Points, Theoretical and Factual




The recent burst of efforts to adapt the biological discipline of ecology the science which deals with the functional relationships between organisms ano their environment to the study of man is not simply one more expression of social scientists to disguise themselves as "real scientists," nor is it a mere fad. The necessity of seeing man against the well-outlined background of his habitat is an old, ineradicable theme in anthropology, a fundamental premise. But until recently this "anthropogeography" or "possibilism", and the turn to ecology represents a search for a more penetrating frame of analysis within which to study the interaction of man with the rest of nature than either of these provides.



The limitations of traditional approaches


In the anthropogeographic approach, of which the climatological theories of Elsworth Huntington are the most famous, if hardly the most sophisticated, example, the problem was phrased in terms of an investigation of the degree and manner in which human culture was shaped by environmental conditions.1 This position did not necessarily involve a thorough-going environmcntal determinism because some variation in human culture independent of geographic forces was admitted by even the most extreme members of this school. But such variations were put down to "accident," the escape hatch of ethnology, or, on occasion, to "race," the escape hatch of biology. In the possibilist approach, on the other hand, the environment was seen not as causative but as merely limiting or selective. Geographical factors did not shape human culture a wholly historical, even "superorganic" phenomenon but they set boundaries to the forms it could take at any place and time. A. L. Kroeber's classic discussion of the confinement of maize-growing in aboriginal North America to regions where a 120 day period with sufficient rain and without killing frosts existed, is an example of this even more popular type of analysis: the nature of the environment does nothing in itself to stimulate the growing of maize, but it can insure the nongrowing of it.2


Neither of these views is simply wrong, yet both are inadequate for precise analysis. Geographic factors do often seem to play, as the anthropogeographers argued against the possibilists, a dynamic, not merely a passive role in the development of human culture. But at the same time the direct derivation of virtually any specific cultural practice from the nature of the geographical habitat as such seems to be, as the possibilists argued against the anthropogeographers, a nonsequitur: maize-farming may have been well adapted to the physical conditions of the pre-Columbian Southwest (or those conditions to it), but it can hardly be said to have been caused by them. The indeterminacy on either side here actually stems from a serious conceptual defect the two approaches share. Both initially separate the works of man and the processes of nature into different spheres "culture" and "environment" and then attempt subsequently to see how as independent wholes these externally related spheres affect one another. With such a formulation, one can ask only the grossest of questions: "How far is culture influenced by environment?" "How far is the environment modified by the activities of man?" And can give only the grossest of answers: "To a degree, but not completely."


The ecological approach attempts to achieve a more exact specification of the relations between selected human activities, biological transactions, and physical processes by including them within a single analytical system, an ecosystem. In ecology generally, an ecosystem consists of a biotic community of interrelated organisms together with their common habitat and can range in size, scope, and durability from a drop of pond water together with the micro-organisms which live within it to the entire earth with all of its plant and animal inhabitants.3 The concept of an ecosystem thus emphasizes the material interdependencies among the group ot organisms which lorrn a community and the relevant physical features of ihe setting in which they are found, and the scientific task becomes one of investigating the internal dynamics of such systems and the ways in which they develop and change. "When the ecologist enters a field or meadow," Paul Sears has written, "he sees not what is there but what is happening there."4

What is happening there is a patterned interchange of energy among the various components of the ecosystem as living things take in material as food from their surroundings and discharge material back into those surroundings as waste products, a process Haeckel, who was perhaps the founder of the field of ecology (at least he coined its name), aptly called "external physiology."5


And as in internal physiology, so in external , the maintenance of system equilibrium or homeostasis is the central organizing force, commonly referred to in this context as "the balance of nature."6 If one takes, for example, a flock of sheep in a pasture, the sheep are, with their sharp, close-cropping teeth, apparently destroying the grass by ingesting it. Bur the sheep are also fertilizing the pasture with their manure. Thus, if the sheep were removed the pasture would, at least in many cases, be removed too; for trees would begin to seed and grow, finally killing off the pasture grass, and where once was a field would now be a wood. The sheep and the pasture form an integrated, equilibrated system, each of them dependent upon the other for its existence. Such equilibria are commonly, of course, quite complex consider the neat balance between water, oxygen, light, heat, green plants, microscopic animals, insects, and fishes in a pond.


Nor does the inclusion of man as an element in an ecosystem change the nature of its basic principles. Clarke, from whom the shecp-in-the-pasturc example is drawn, tells of ranchers who, disturbed by losses of young sheep to coyotes, slaughtered, through collective effort, nearly all coyotes in the immediate area. Following the removal of coyotes, the rabbits, field mice, and other small rodents, upon whom the coyotes had previously preyed, multiplied rapidly and made serious inroads on the grass of the pastures. When this was realized, the sheep men ceased to kill coyotes and instituted an elaborate program for the poisoning of rodents. The coyotes filtered in from the surrounding areas, but finding their natural rodent food now scarce, were forced to turn with even greater intensity to the young sheep as their only available source of food.7


Nevertheless, the adaptation of the principles of ecological analysis and o the concepts in terms of which they are expressed (niche, succession, climax, food chain, commensality, trophic level, productivity, and so on) to the study of man can be conducted in a variety of manners, not all of which ate equally useful.8 The simplest method is merely to view the whole of human society as basically a biotic phenomenon like any other and to apply ecological concepts to it directly and comprehensively, an approach characteristic of the school of "urban," "social," or "human" ecology founded by the sociologist Robert Park.9 In practice, most of such analyses turn out to be investigations in what might be more properly called "locational theory" than ecology. Not only are the biological concepts employed more analogically than literally, but a fundamentally a-cultural view of human society is adopted which sees settlement patterns, and in fact human activities generally, as an inevitable result of the free play of competitive "natural" (or "economic") forces, regulated, save for slight and temporary distortions introduced by customs, sentiments and values, by the principle of least costs. In any case, this reductionist use of ecology as an exclusive and comprehensive frame for the analysis of human community structure is not intended here. When we speak of ecological analysis we are concerned not with ''explaining the territorial arrangcments that social activities assume ... the regularities which appear in man's adaptation to space,"10 but with determining the relationships which obtain between the processes of external physiology in which man is, in the nature of things, inextricably embedded, and the social and cultural processes in which he is, with equal inextricability, also embedded.



Cultural Ecology


Much closer to the perspective adopted here is that of Julian Steward, who has been developing a mode of analysis he calls "cultural ecology." 11 The distinctive feature of his approach is a strict confinement of the application of ecological principles and concepts to explicitly delimited aspects of human social and cultural life for which they arc particularly appropriate rather than extending them, broadly and grandly, to the whole of it. The still powerful anthropological doctrine of "holism," which holds all aspects of culture lo be fully interdependent, leads to a formulation of the culture-environment problem in gross overall terms and thus to the "there is something in both arguments" paradox already mentioned. Generally characterized habitat types "the tropics," "the polar regions," "the high plains" are matched to whole, and presumptively integral, cultures "the Javanese," "the Eskimo," "the Sioux." On such a global level, Huntington, for all his simplistic Excesses, can make a case that climate does somehow affect culture, for surety there is something vaguely arctic about the Eskimo, tropical about the Javanese. But Hegel can, with equal plausibility, dismiss environmental determinism with the fine Johnsonian argument that "where the Greeks once lived, the Turks now live; and that's an end on the matter".


Steward, however, rather than asserting that all aspects of culture are, in some indeterminate way, functionally interrelated, argues that the degree and kind of interrelationship is not the same in all aspects of culture, but varies. He attempts to isolate in the culture he analyzes certain aspects.


1 Huntington, 1945. See also, Stemple, 1911.
2 Kroeber, 1939, pp. 207-212. For other statements of the possibilist position, see Foide, 1948; and Wissler, 1926.
3 Dice, 1955, p. 2.
4 Seats, 1939, quoted in Clarke, 1954, p. 16.
5 "Just as morphology falls into two main divisions of anatomy and development, so physiology may be divided into a study of inner and outer phenomena. ... The first is concerned with the functioning of the organism in itself, rhe second wirh its relationships with the outer world. ... By ecology we understand the study of the economy, of the household, of animal organisms. This includes thc relationships of animals with both the organic and inorganic environments, above all the beneficial and inimical relations with other animals and plants, whether direct or indirect." Haeckel, 1870; quoted in Bates, 1953.
6 Odum, 1959, p, 25. The most systematic treatment of homeososis as general phenomenon is Ashby, 1960.
7 Clarke, 1954, p. 19.
8 Bates, 1953, often a survey of the divergent ways in which ecology has been used as a label for human studies, some of which amount to hardly more than sloganeering.
9 Park, 1934, 1936. For more recent formulations, see Hawley, 1950; and Quinn, 1950. For a brilliant and devastating critique of his whole approach, see Firey, 1947, pp. 3-38.
10  Firey, p. 3.
11 Steward, 1955, pp. 30-42.




The ecological approach in anthropology, chapt. 1 (in part) in: Geertz, Clifford: Agricultural involution: the process of ecological change in Indonesia. Berkeley/Ca./USA 1963: University of California Press, publ. for the Association of Asian Studies (Ann-Arbor/Mi./USA), pp. 1-6



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