Monday, August 6, 2007

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.


ted said...

Would you consider the Internet to be such a space?

Interesting read by the way. Not dull at all. But then again, I did Cultural Anthropology.


Taintus said...

Hi Ted,

Thanks for the comment, and thanks for reading.

I do think it is possible for the internet to contain such "open spaces".
However, like any other social space, it requires that human actors continue to keep those spaces open and alive.
For example, it would be interesting to see some figures on what percent of internet content is commercial in nature.

That being said, I really do think that the internet is a valuable new space capable of supporting democratic activities.



Anonymous said...

Hi: I really appreciate you dedication to validate Steward work for the discipline of anthropology. However, I think you should go back to school and redo you undergrad degree because your bias towards Steward is enabling you to see the linear thinking, and racist approach of his work towards cultural differences, especially First Nations Peoples.
No wonder, why anthropology is such a mess up field.
I may have offended you by saying that you should go back to school and really learn what many department of Anthropology across the globe subversively hide: The truth not only about the narrow minded of many , so called great Anthropologists, theories but also understand the consequences of their work in our contemporary social structure. Apologies to say that, but you are one of a kind that may believe that culture is totally isolated from our environment and possible I ought to say that this assumption leads the believe that there is hierarchies between cultures.

Anonymous said...

How can you be so bias! Please go back to school and redo your undergrad. Your view of the world through the anthropological lenses has been drastically distorted by our racist and linear minded friend Steward. As a PhD student of Anthropology you should know better my friend. Apologies for saying that but as an anthropologist we must see the implication of theories such as the one proposed by Steward as a threat to the homogeneity of human race as a global community. By the way, have heard about system theory?
Anyways, I have no time to further this comment at all. And, apologies but I can say thanks for your bias view--it is to much shit to swallow!

Taintus said...


With all do respect, your comments are totally off-base.

What I was attempting to do in this set of posts was to trace a genealogy of the discipline of environmental anthropology--something any anthropologist worth their salt should be able to do. Posting about Steward is in no way an endorsement of all of his work and/or ideas. Yet, in looking at the discipline's history we cannot simply toss the baby out with the bathwater just because we may disagree with where one of our predecessors' approach led him/her.

The reality is that Steward is an essential figure in the lineage of environmental anthropology. Does this mean that we must except every idea he forwarded--no--but it does mean that we should be able to digest and fully understand his work.

Your suggestion that I redo my undergrad education is preposterous. I would encourage you to diligently read Steward's work, as well as that of other major figures in environmental anthropology, so that you can forward substantive critiques instead of simply dismissing it all as "to much shit to swallow!"[sic].

Additionally, I must take issue with your statement about the "homogeneity of human race as a global community". The importance of cultural diversity was a major tenant of Steward's work, one that
remains central to environmental anthropology today. Your suggestion that humanity is "homogeneous" and comprises a "global community" dangerously disregards the realities of the cultural diversity that we see in our world today--a diversity that demands respect. Ideas of homogeneity and globalized communities are very much modern discursive inventions linked to the spread of global capitalism, which has been disastrous for many indigenous groups around the world.

Finally, yes I have heard of systems theory. If you had taken time to read my blog even cursorily you would know that it's a central framework for my research.

Thanks for the comments.

Best Wishes,