Monday, August 6, 2007

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.

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