Monday, August 6, 2007

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.

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