Monday, August 6, 2007

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.

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