Tuesday, August 28, 2007

God bless Max Roach

The legendary Jazz drummer Max Roach died on August 16, 2007. His funeral was held in New York last Friday. Though I had long admired Roach for his quintessential role as an innovator in jazz, I was surprised to learn of his activism. He once descended on the UN, along with his then wife, Abbey Lincoln, and the poet Maya Angelou, to voice dissent over imperialism and the treatment of blacks in the U.S.--Harlem at the UN--pretty amazing stuff. During a Miles Davis concert at Carnegie Hall in 1961, Roach stopped playing and walked to the edge of the stage carrying a sign that read, “AFRICA FOR THE AFRICANS, FREEDOM NOW.” This exemplifies the breadth of Roach's activism. He wasn't only fighting against racism in America, he beat past all that to examine the true causes of inequality--digging deep to expose the legacies of colonialism and the dangers of fascism.

What saddening beauty it is to watch these wise men, born into structures of disempowerment and bondage, rise up and flourish, become giants, then slip silently, not passively, back into the milieu that birthed them; the world so unaware.

Max Roach made beautiful noise. Looking at our world should make us realize that we need to listen more. At Roach's funeral Maya Angelou eloquently stated that when a giant tree falls, we should gather around to admire the sacred ground from which it sprang.

Also, today Alberto Gonzalez finally resigned.

Thanks, Max. God Bless.


Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Brad Pitt might save America

Thought I'd take a few minutes between writing a letter to the town where I am hoping to do research and studying for comps to jot a few words.

I heard an interesting little snippet of radio today. It was a female talk radio host--conservative woman, not sure of her name--and she was talking about Brad Pitt. Apparently he and Angelina are now living (at least part of the time) in New Orleans. My first inclination was to make some snide remark about THAT, but when one realizes that Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears are also out there, I suppose you have to give a little props.

However, Brangelina's charity work is not what I am getting at here. This woman on the radio was expressing her astonishment at Brad Pitt stating that Katrina was not a natural disaster, it was a human-made disaster. The radio host's reaction reminded me of a comic I had seen post-Katrina that depicted Bush nailing a wanted poster of "Mother Nature" to a tree.

The message seems to be: Americans are RIGHT, and whether it's terrorists or hurricanes harming us there is no culpability on our part. Terrorists are religious fanatics and hurricanes are freak events--not our fault. Fault--right or wrong--here lies the problem. Perhaps neither terrorism nor "natural" disasters are our fault, yet this doesn't mean we are not culpable in a very real sense.

What Americans witnessed with 9/11 and Katrina were the culminations of complex intertwined sets of historical and natural processes. In an article entitled, The Rat That Ate Louisiana: Aspects of Historical Ecology in the Mississippi River Delta, Tristram R. Kidder explains how human introduced rats set off an ecological chain reaction that decimated wetlands, leaving coastal areas vulnerable to tropical storms. Likewise, one need not read too much Middle Eastern history to begin gaining a sense of the complex socio-political boondoggles that are now the legacy of our post-colonial world.

Now, I know Bill O'Reilly would scream that I am a BAD American for saying such things. But, perhaps it's time that ALL Americans began to deal with the fact that we are all at least a little BAD. America was created through bad deeds, and perhaps admitting to that and dealing with it is the first step towards becoming a good country.

But, what do I know?


Monday, August 6, 2007


Part of my research is focused on historical changes in forest landscapes in Japan. Historical ecology as an approach emerged from critiques of the neo-functionalism of Rappaport, who I wrote about previously. The neo-functionalist approach focused on ecological and human systems as functional entities that took on a timeless quality. The idea was to understand how a system maintains balance, so little attention was paid to processes of change (history). Thinking in terms of ‘non-history’ stemmed from the old dichotomy of nature/culture, which I’ve focused on a lot. In these terms culture is historical, changing—humans create culture and it progresses through time. Due to their very ‘primitiveness’ tribal groups were conceived of as existing outside of culture. Obviously things were not so simple as this, but it’s important to understand how anthropologists (and others) were struggling to think about historical versus natural processes.

It was Eric Wolf and his book Europe and the People Without History that brought historical thinking into anthropology. Essentially, he showed that understanding the history of a certain people was critical to studies in the present. Wolf was well versed in the writings of Karl Marx, so he was particularly interested in showing that the rise of capitalism of had impacted the entire globe; in other words, there were no ‘people without history’.

Notions of historical change demanded the rethinking of notions of indigenous people as ‘noble savages’ maintaining harmonious balances with their environments. Archaeologists had for years understood that different people had different impacts on their environments and so there was a refocusing on understanding the processes of human/environment interactions. In this way historical ecology began to take form. Investigations into the ways that humans impact their environments began to yield interesting results. William Denevan, for example, argued against the ‘pristine myth’ that had developed in America, which conceived of nature as wild and untouched. He showed that pre-contact America was better characterized as a garden, one that had been managed by indigenous groups for thousands of years. Numerous other studies from all around the world began to uncover the footprints in what were thought to be ‘pristine’ environments.

Historical ecology, therefore, begins with the premise that the humans have impacted, to greater and lesser degrees, every part of the biosphere; in most cases these impacts have been occurring for thousands of years.

Japan is no exception. In fact heavy deforestation has been occurring since the 7th century to support monumental construction. Visiting the wonderful temples of Kyoto and Nara takes on a new dimension in this light. What’s more, many forests in Japan have been closely managed since the 17th century. In other words, ‘natural’ forests have not existed in Japan for hundreds of years.


What is Environmental Anthropology? PT. V

Studying for comps is coming along. My office here at the university is freezing though. Who knew I'd need all of my sweaters here in Hawaii. I start my exams in a little over a month, which is absolutely frightening. I really don't feel prepared and still have a lot of reading to get done. But, I'm trying to start formulating thoughts, which is what I'm doing here I suppose. So, though none of this may be particularly interesting, it's helping me.

After this entry I'm going to get away from the narration of the itellectual lineage of environmental anthropology and talk some more about current questions and how they relate to my own research. I'm particularly interested in political and historical dimensions of environmental research in anthropology so I will be talking about that. But, that will have to be next time. For now, here's the last posting conerning the history of environmental anthropology.

As ecology grew as a discipline, a group of anthropologists sought to apply its evolutionary oriented concepts to studies of humans. The basic idea was to situate humans within the local environment and study as one among many kinds of species. The scheme has been termed “neo-functionalism” as it was interested in understanding the functioning of human systems as part of larger ecosystems. Accordingly, neo-functionalist anthropologists drew on ideas from systems theory and thermodynamics concerned with energy flow. The first law of thermodynamics deals with a closed system’s ability to conserve energy, while the second law deals with the movement of a system towards entropy (greater and greater disorder). In sum, neo-functionalists were concerned with observing how human groups function within ecosystems so as to conserve energy and maintain equilibrium.

By far the most famous book to have emerged within this approach was Roy Rappaport’s Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of New Guinea People. In this book Rappaport reports on fieldwork with the Tsembaga Maring of Papua New Guinea. In line with the neo-functionalist approach, Rappaport spent a lot of his time counting caloric intake in an attempt to trace energy flows. The title of the book refers to ritualized pig slaughters that occurred periodically among the Tsembaga, whereby meat was ingested in part to provide sustenance to ancestors. Rappaport described this ritual as serving an ecological function by allowing the Tsembaga to control pig populations and redistribute surplus wealth. Though Rappaport’s “Pigs” has been heavily criticized it is often credited as being the first truly ecological study of humans.

The idea of a true ecological study of humans, however, raised a whole new set of questions for anthropologists and resulted in a new set of approaches to understanding humans and the environment. These questions were quintessentially anthropological nature and focused on the human/nature ‘divide’ that Rapport’s study had so masterfully illuminated. In other words, because anthropologists were not ready to accept humans as simply one species among many, there was a need to understand he nexus of human/nature interactions itself. A centralizing paradox thus emerged: humans are simultaneously a part of nature and apart from nature. There was a need to understand the human/nature nexus in broader contexts of history, society, politics, and systems of meaning.


Why we fight and mapping new spaces

A couple of things today. I recently watched a film called "Why We Fight" that I would highly recommend. Thinking again about my comments in my last post concerning the open spaces of democracy, I find myself wondering more and more about the power citizens have to do this. The hope in all the darkness I think is that systems seem to require this stage of control and rigidity in order to find ways to novel forms and processes. A fear that remains with me is the effects of the collapse that is sure to follow the tightening of our current system. Will it be fast? Slow? Painful? I think keeping open the spaces were democracy can thrive is vital, because it is in these same spaces where we find compassion, understanding, and new ways of thinking. The hope is that the new combinations that arise from systemic collapse will lead to brighter futures.

So, that's a little gloomy, but also a little hopeful. Ed Abbey said it well: "Down with Empire! Up with SPRING!"

Second thing today is a piece I wrote about early thoughts on Maps and Space, one of my comp exam questions. It's quite long, so perhaps people can just skim. Anyway, I've been quite intrigued with the questions of power that mapping presents and interested in exploring ways that we can open new spaces and think about alternative futures through the use of old tools. So, here it is:

Maps have always played a roll in encounters between state societies and indigenous communities around the world; including between anthropologists and indigenes. Recent theoretical trends emanating from Western nations have tasked social scientists with exploring the workings of power in these encounters. These explorations have forced reflexive engagements with power as it is expressed in various institutions, discourses, and methodologies at different levels of society. In these reflexive inquiries into the process of inquiry itself maps become critical nexuses interlocking a variety of social-political elements through which we are compelled to consider broad contexts of power. At the same time, maps are also tools, capable of creating effects within the very contexts of power they reflect. Understanding the constructive nature of maps and the effects they create within and between communities are also critical endeavors. At the same time, it is beneficial to consider the activity of mapping as a process that occurs within a specific socio-political context and produces effects at all stages, not only through a final map product. Thus, in considering maps within the context of encounters, it is also essential that we consider the process of mapping.

Harley (2001) has argued convincingly for a discursive perspective of maps as embodiments of specific historical emergences of power. As texts, maps represent not only geographical spaces, but also the political agendas and cultural biases of the map-maker and his commissioners. Thus, we can link Western mapping specifically with the voyages of the Age of Discovery and the establishment of colonial relationships between European nations and other nations across the globe. Early maps and the techniques of mapping grew up in the hands of powerful men who sought to record lands in order to demarcate political boundaries and ensure their access to resources; creating ‘empty’ spaces while lessening the burden of conscience concerning communities on the ground. Therefore maps and mapping, according to Harley and others, are linked to structures of power associated with Western society and colonialism.

The power of maps comes from their ability to reference physical space through abstraction, thereby allowing them to be linked to larger discourses. In his study of the mapping of Siam, Winichakul (1994) expresses the power of such abstraction through his discussion of geo-bodies. The ability to conceive of Siam as a bounded space, argues Winichakul, played an essential role in processes of state-formation. Through their own envisioning of a Siam geo-body Siamese leaders were able to draw on Western mapping techniques and participate in the making of their own state. This raises an interesting set of questions regarding power and cartography. Escolar (1997) suggests that as cartography developed as a discipline it gained epistemological autonomy from the structures of elite power that birthed it, and thus attained neutrality. However, engagements with indigenous communities and mapping have raised new questions regarding any supposed neutrality of maps and processes of mapping.

Clearly, maps are not simply representations of physical space, but also textual representations of mental projections of physical space. What might maps tell us about these mental projections? In an early attempt to address this question, Gould (1973) offers insights into the influence that socio-economic factors have on the mental maps produced by individuals in geographical, and therefore socio-cultural, settings. Brody (1981) and Basso (1996) take us further beyond textual maps to explore the complex cultural processes that serve to link community members (in these cases Native Americans) to their lands through the cross-referencing of geographical features with meaningful stories and knowledge. Ethnographies such as these require that we broaden our concepts of mapping and carefully consider the meaning that ‘maps’ have for indigenous communities. These issues have become particularly critical as anthropologists and other scholars have begun to engage with indigenous groups using mapping as a tool to achieve particular ends. These engagements come as these groups continue to struggle against the powers referenced in Western-style maps.

Engagements between indigenous communities and structures of state power are nothing new; nor are engagements between indigenes and anthropologists. What is new is the use of mapping techniques in these engagements. The earliest attempts at mapping indigenous lands were among First Nation peoples in Canada beginning in the 1960’s. Since that time various mapping approaches and techniques have developed around work with indigenous and other local communities, these include: participatory mapping, community mapping, and public participation GIS.

Though the goals of mapping involving local communities differ from case to case, we might say that the general aim is to represent community landscape perspectives using cartographic techniques. Attempts at ethnocartography, to use Chapin and Threkeld’s term, have made it readily apparent that Escolar’s neutrality is, in fact, extremely elusive. In other words, engagements with indigenous societies have forced into relief the assumptions and biases of Western cartographic techniques. This reflexivity has taken form through attention to the following three areas: 1) the socio-political context in which maps are created; 2) the socio-political context into which maps are placed; and 3) the exclusionary nature of mapping. In sum, maps and mapping occur in socio-political contexts, which they both reflect and influence, ‘freezing’ dynamic processes and resulting in what Fox, et al. call “ironic effects” (2005).

In light of these ironic effects, an appropriate question to ask is: What’s the use of mapping? Indeed, this question has been answered in a variety of ways. Mapping has been used to make counter claims on land (Brody 1981, Peluso 1995), to promote community participation (Weiner, Harris, and Craig 2002), to encourage community cohesion (Parker 2006), and to ensure recognition and resource rights (Fox 2002). The multifarious ways that maps have been employed in work involving local communities suggests that context is key when considering the potential (ab)uses of mapping technology.

In the case of Japan, for example, we must wonder to what ends mapping will be put. Because territorial claims and land claims have been more or less settled since WWII, there is little need for mapping directed at such aims. Yet, Japanese landscapes have changed significantly over the past decades and many rural villages are in danger of extinction. However, the majority of mapping in Japan has taken place at the national level, in line with national interests. Missing throughout much of Japan’s history have been the voices of local communities, despite their bearing the brunt of the asymmetrical impacts of the landscape changes associated with Japan’s urban-focused modernity. Participatory and community mapping could potentially have several benefits for villages in Japan. First, communities would benefit from the process of mapping, which would allow individuals opportunities to work together while interacting with neighbors and the surrounding environment. Second, maps enable a landscape view that would potentially offer new possibilities for managing private and municipal land. Maps would also provide local communities with a medium for conveying their ideas and perspectives to prefecture and national level officials, reversing a top-down trend that has been disastrous for rural areas. Finally, mapping has the potential to illuminate the experience, beliefs, and knowledge of community members that give meaning to village landscapes. This has the potential to reveal values capable of opening new spaces in which the discourses of advanced capitalism can be confronted and countered.

An understanding of maps as points of articulation, conflict, and contestation within broader socio-political contexts invites us to envision novel ways of mapping alternative futures. Anthropological engagements with mapping have revealed the discursive nature of maps. This revelation brings with it new dangers and new responsibilities, but also new possibilities. A common assumption seems to be that once a geographical space is mapped it is no longer open to alternative maps, therefore much work in community mapping occurs at the ‘edges’ of the mapped world. How might we approach community mapping in those areas where maps have long gone uncontested? Might we map new courses of thinking about the world of advanced capitalism?

Basso, K. 1996. Wisdom sits in places: landscape and language among the Western Apache. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.
Brody, H. 1981. Maps and Dreams: Indians and the British Columbia Frontier. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre.
Escolar, M. 1997. Exploration, cartography and the modernization of state power. International Social Science Journal 49:55-75.
Fox, J. 2002. Siam Mapped and Mapping in Cambodia: Boundaries, Sovereignty, and Indigenous Conceptions of Space. Society & Natural Resources 15:65-78.
Fox, J., K. Suryanata, P. Hershock, and A. H. Promono. 2005. "Mapping Power: Ironic Effects of Spatial Information Technology," in Mapping Communities. Edited by J. Fox, K. Suryanata, and P. Hershock, pp. 1-10. Honolulu: East-West Center.
Gould, P. R. 1973. "On Mental Maps," in Image and Environment: Cognitive Mapping and Spatial Behavior. Edited by R. M. Downs and D. Stea, pp. 182-220. Chicago: Aldine
Harley, J. B. 2001. "Maps, Knowledge, and Power," in The New Nature of Maps: essays in the history of cartography. Edited by P. Laxton, pp. 51-81. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.
Parker, B. 2006. "Constructing Community Through Maps? Power and Praxis in Community Mapping*," vol. 58, pp. 470-484.
Weiner, D., T. Harris, and W. J. Craig. 2002. "Community participation and geographic information systems," in Community Participation and Geograpic Information Systems. Edited by W. J. Craig, T. M. Harris, and D. Weiner, pp. 3-16. New York: Taylor and Francis.
Winichakul, T. 1994. Siam Mapped: a history of the geo-body of a nation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.


What is environmental anthropology? PT. IV

So, I guess I said I was going to write about Julian Steward today.

Steward was born back east and his father was a bureaucrat of some sort. His mother was a Christian Scientist, which appears to have turned Steward off to religion for life. As a teenager he attended a boys school in a small valley at the base of the Sierra Nevada mountains in small basin near Owens Valley, California. I'm forgetting the name of the school now, but basically it was a place where the boys lived, worked, and were educated. Steward appears to have fallen in love with the place, and the austerity of his surroundings had a big impact on his approach to anthropology.

Steward's father had passed away at some point and so caring for his mother fell to he and his sister. This was often a burden for Steward as he struggled to pay for graduate studies (and I thought that was only a contemporary problem). Anthropology was still young at this point, with nearly all departments having been started with students of the great Boas. I'm not remembering for sure now, but I believe Steward finished his undergraduate degree at Cornell where he studied zoology and biology. But, the east didn't suit the young graduate's passions and so he went West again to Berkeley, where he enrolled in graduate school in anthropology.

At this time the anthropology program at Berkeley was part of a single department with geography. The "building" that housed the department sounds like it was almost like an airport hanger, filled with an Egyptian sarcophagus and other such archaeological treasures--real Indiana Jones type anthropology. The only two anthropology faculty were Robert Lowie and Alfred Kroeber, both Boas students. The department's faculty also included Carl Sauer, a geographer who has since become legendary in the field.

Steward became very close to Kroeber and carried on a personal and professional correspondence with him for the rest of his life. As he scrapped by with grants from his old school in the California desert, Steward took part in fieldwork to assist Kroeber in studies he was engaged in that focused on the gathering of cultural trait lists to explore theories of diffusion from one group to another. Steward seems to have been entirely indifferent to the work, but it allowed him to begin exploring his own ideas which focused on cultural traits and resource use.

Steward finished his M.A. and then Ph.D. at UC Berkeley, with the latter coming in 1929, just in time for the Depression. Jobs and funding were extremely scarce, so Steward bumped around finding this or that grant to fund fieldwork and further research. He soon married his first wife, who was a child psychologist. She obtained a position at the University of Utah and played a role in helping her husband to get hired as well. Before this, Steward had been appointed to the new department of anthropology at the University of Michigan, but left the job (against the advice of Kroeber) to move to Utah and marry his fiancee. He perhaps should have heeded his former professor's advice, because his marriage was soon in trouble and Steward has become involved with a student (a Mormon gal from Salt Lake City). Divorce was not favorably looked upon and because Steward worked at the same university as his wife, the decision to end the marriage was a terribly difficult one. But, he took the professional risk and finally divorced from his wife and married his new love interest. It appears that his second wife was less educated than his first and therefore paid greater interest to Steward's work, something he must have liked because the second marriage lasted the rest of his life.

That's sort of the juicy part of Steward's life. Most of the information comes from a book called "Scenes From the High Desert" by Virginia Kearns. It's a really interesting read and I'd recommend it to anyone, anthropologist or otherwise. Kearns does a good job weaving her historical narrative into an examination of the constructivity of scientific knowledge. For example, her observation of Steward's apparent need for some ego-stroking from his wife may be reflected in the fact that his theories never sought to account for the activities of women. And with that, on to the theories.

Steward's approach to anthropology is known as cultural ecology. Essentially he was trying to understand the cultural features that allowed different groups to adapt to particular environments. He suggested a suite of cultural traits revolving around subsistence activities, and labeled this the culture core. In other words, any of the cultural traits that developed around the obtaining of food were part of the culture core (Steward's lack of focus on women's activities severely warped this concept, as much of the food in small-scale societies comes from the gathering activities of females). Steward hypothesized that, although peripheral traits would exhibit great variation, similar environments would result in similar culture cores. Put differently, desert dwellers in the Great Basin are going to share core cultural characteristics with desert dwellers in Mexico, or Africa, or western China. Once a common culture core had been discovered through cross-cultural comparisons of different groups, this could be called a culture type.

Comparison is the key for Steward. Partly as a reaction to the Boasian tradition that so dominated American Anthropology, he was trying to establish a theoretical framework that could allow for cross-cultural comparisons. Steward was extremely positivistic and so he sought to establish laws that governed cultural evolution. Unlike early evolutionists, however, Steward recognized that cultures could evolve in a great variety of forms, thus he termed his brand of cultural evolution multilineal evolution. In sum, Steward saw the procurement of food as the most basic necessity of humans and therefore suggested that similar environments would produce similar techniques for obtaining food. Peripheral traits could take on a variety of forms, but the core traits would tend to be similar and universal.

So, Steward's main contribution was to bring ecological thinking to anthropology. He opened the door for perceiving humans as parts of natural ecologies and suggested that cultural traits could be understood in part through an examination of their ecological relationships to the natural world in which they existed. It's fair to say that Steward is the father of ecological anthropology. Through his students he established a new direction in anthropology that paid consideration to the environment as a major causal force in human culture. Anthropology focused on the environment --> culture issue for a while, until others flipped the equation and began inquiring about human impacts on the environment. In reality, both of this intellectual threads occurred simultaneously, but in anthropology the former tended to diminish the other. In my next post I'll discuss them both.


What is environmental anthropology? PT. III

So, we're in the Americas now.

I've included a picture of Franz Boas, who I discussed before. Boas was a very strict empiricist who paid little attention to theory that was not supported by evidence. In the case of Anthropology he was highly critical of the evolutionists who had spent much time producing 'armchair' theory based on little actual data. He also perceived the mass extinction of Native Americans occurring in the United States and therefore sought to collect as much information as possible about these indigenous groups. Boas also despised the racist sentiments that were prevalent in much social science at the time and so he specifically targeted his research on culture to show that biology had very little to do with people's intelligence. In terms of the environment, Boas' work suggested that it didn't matter if you lived in Ohio or Timbuktu, your beliefs and behavior stemmed from the culture you had been born and raised into.

Boas' impact on American Anthropology was deep and broad. He set up camp at Columbia and began cranking out the nation's first Ph.D.s in anthropology. Moreover, he sent them out forth as if they were missionaries to spread the word of historical particularism (a perspective that suggests that cultures are entirely unique and therefore must be studied with attention to historical details rather than appeals to larger theories). The nations most famous anthropologists were students of Boas, including: Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict, Alfred Kroeber, Clark Wissler, Robert Lowie, Edward Sapir, and Fay-Cooper Cole. These students established anthropology departments across the country and American Anthropology entered its childhood.

In line with the Boas' culture-focused scheme, few anthropologists paid much attention to environment in the first decades of the 20th century. A notable exception was Clark Wissler whose "culture area" concept suggested that similarities in cultures could be explained, in part, as adjustments to particular environments. In other words, Wissler suggested that though environments didn't PRODUCE cultures, they furnished the mediums through which grew. Thus, a culture had certain elements that were related to the geographical area in which it was located.

Wissler's contemplation of the connection between culture and environment previewed the work of arguably the most important figure in ecological and environmental anthropology, Julian Steward.

Steward is a very interesting figure, who did much of his early fieldwork in the Great Basin among the Shoshone, so I'm quite fond of him. His story is fascinating, so in my next entry I'll try to focus a bit more on him as a person, as well as his important contributions to my discipline.

As an ending note, I'd like to invite whomever might be reading to think about an idea that I rediscovered recently in an article by Terry Tempest Williams. She discusses the "open space of democracy", a need for open spaces: physical, spiritual, emotional, political, and social were new ideas can be presented and discussed so that we can envision alternative futures. As I watch my own country narrow its focus more and more on fictive dangers like 'terrorism' while true dangers lurk both home and abroad (wire-tapping, secret vice-presidencies, attacks on dissent, poverty, AIDS, global warming. . .), I wonder if we can all find ways to re-open some of these spaces for democracy. Can we ignore some of the disctractions and take time to find these places? There are real spaces, between FOX and CNN, where real ideas hum like notes waiting for a singer to sing them into something new and beautiful. I hope we can all begin to find spaces to rethink our world; otherwise they will all disappear.


What is environmental anthropology? PT. II

What is environmental anthropology? PT. II

So, to pick up where I left off. Anthropologists have inherited the intellectual question of how to related humans to the natural environment. In the earliest stirrings of anthropological thought, this relationship was largely one-sided, with human actions being more or less determined by the surrounding envirionment. The perspective has been appropriately labelled "environmental determinism". This simplistic causal relationship theorized by early thinkers is more sensible when we place it in proper historical context. As voyages of discovery set upon by Western countries shifted into structures of colonialism, more and more information concerning the various peoples being encountered began to filter back to European academics who were grappling with metaphysical questions related to new encounters with reasoning about a "new" knowable earth. An important question was, how to account for diversity among humans. As naturalists had done to the biological sphere, so these men set out to apply classifications to the sphere of humanity. However, data from colonial administrators and various voyagers and tradesmen was sporadic and geographically limited. Therefore, the picture of human diversity that began to develop in Europe was one of categorical examples denoting clear differences between the peoples of different geographical regions. Missing were the mulititudes upon mulititudes of slight variations that marked the transitions between people of one color and those of another. So the questions came, well naturally, why are these people tall, dark, and lean, while these are short and stalky? Why do these people have light hair and eyes, while these ones have hair that is black and dark eyes?

Environmental differences reinforced by geographical distances turned into easy explanations for these variations. Categories were created and from there it took only a small intellectual leap to begin explaining a range of human characteristics by referencing environmental influences. In 1859 Darwin's The Origin of Species added a robust theoretical base for the idea of the environment as a determining factor in the human differences begin encountered. Evolution as a concept became conflated with theories of society that sought to account for other, non-biological differences between human groups. Theories of race and social complexity appeared and lent themselves to moral arguments that allowed for the commodification of human beings as capitalism unfurled across the globe.

The first anthropologists picked up on these themes and began to develop evolutionary schemes to explain humanities progression from savagery to civilization. The environment began to drop away as an explanatory device as concepts of culture started to develop to account for differences. However, this was a culture that was held in check by assumed differences in biological capacity, particularly brain size, which kept it rooted, ultimately, in environmental causality.

With the growth of American Anthropology, under the guidance of its 'father', Franz Boas, cultural explanations, capable of exposing the racist fallacies of environmental determinants for human behavior, came to dominate the discipline.

I'll pick up on American Anthropology in my next post. I think what is most important to realize about this early era of thinking about humans and nature is that it occured within a specific historical context that has given shape to our inquiries ever since. Europe was still dazed from its own Age of Reason, which had raised fundamental metaphysical questions. God, to borrow Neitzsche's wording, was dead (or at least dying) and so there seems to have been a mixture of excitement and utter fear about what the world meant. Combine this with the new force of Capitalism that was also little understood. Put simply, there was a need to understand how all of these new things related to one another. If God was no available to give his blessing to the West's ambitions than nature had better be. So, the West was civilized and making new discoveries about, and gaining new mastery over, nature all the time--things were good. The rest of the world's people were a little slower, still influenced by the whims of nature, and perhaps just not as smart (maybe it was the heat). Anyway, we can see how the context contributed itself to a theory that began to dichotomize nature and civilization. So there was a sense of emerging from and gaining mastery over nature. And, of course, this fit with stories that Europeans had heard in church for a long time.

So, as this all gets rolling in America were facing this new division: culture/nature. We've forgotten about nature for the time being because there is a lots of culture to see and document (Native Americans). I'll try to pick the story up there next time.




What is environmental anthropology? PT. I

I've begun studying for my comprehensive doctoral exams and so time has become scarcer and scarcer recently. However, I've lamented my first failed attempt to keep an active blog, and so I'm going to try (however futile) again. Here's my thoughts on this attempt. In preparation for my comps I need to take time to synthesize the huge amount of reading that I am doing, otherwise my answer will be wholly incomprehensible even to myself. So, I will try to use the opportunities I have to blog to begin working through some of the thoughts that are developing in my head as I plow through all this literature. It may not be entertaining for anyone else, but it will be helpful for me. In addition, hopefully friends and family might be able to get a bit of insight into what it is exactly that I am studying, seeing as such topics make for dreadful chit-chat at holiday parties and such. And, if I say something interesting once and a while. . .all the better. Anyway, this is my blog disclaimer. . .DO NOT ENTER unless you are prepared to be bored.

I'd like to start of writing a bit about environmental anthropology. There really is no more dreaded question for any academic than: "So, what is _____________ exactly?" So, I'll attempt to convey my own understanding of the term.

Anthropology is generally described as the holistic study of humanity. Meaning that anthropolgists attempt to gain knowledge concerning all aspects of what it means to be humans, including: biological, linguistic, cultural, social, political, economical, et cetera. Traditionally, anthropology has been divided into four sub-fields: physical (biological), cultural, archaeology, and linguistic. We can see then that, from the get go, anthropology fails to be totally holistic. If this weren't enough though, in recent decades anthropology has splintered into even more specializations as researchers have pursued, what I would label holistic, questions by narrowing their focus. These specializations include: medical anthropology, historical anthropology, social anthropolgy, and my own sub-field ecological anthropology.

Environmental anthropology in turn grew from studies in ecological anthropology. However, I want to return for a moment to the idea of pursuing holistic questions through ever more specialized approaches. In terms of ecological anthropolgy the holistic questions being asked have to do with the elementary relationship of humans and nature. Of course, humans have for a long time pondered their relationship to nature in a variety of ways. This is an important point to make because we must realize that the questions being asked within anthropology (and many other disciplines) have a unique history rooted in Western conceptions of humans as being apart from nature. This idea, however, is by no means universal; in fact many societies are likely to find anthropological inquiries quite arbitrary, as they seek answers to questions that these societies have known for millenia. In other words, anthropologists' search for a holistic understanding of the human-nature relationship might be viewed in part as a self-reflective pursuit towards overcoming a self-constructed dichotomy (human vs. nature).

Anyway, back to ecological anthropology. What I had started to say was that thinking about humans and nature didn't start with anthropologists. From at least the time of the Greeks, Western cultures have been examining nature as something outside--to one degree or another--humanity. In the interest of space I won't attempt to trace the entire history of Western thought concerning nature. I'll simply say that among Western cultures there has been a tendency to seperate humanity from nature in a very palpable way and that this has been the inheritance of anthropological thinking concerning the subject.

Well, this takes longer than I thought, so I'll have to end for now and pick this topic up again next time.