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cultural ecology

  An approach to the study of the relations between a cultural group (a mode of life associated with specific material and symbolic practices) and its natural environment. It is most closely associated with the work of Julian Steward (1955) and with the study of third world peasantries, pastoralists, hunter-gatherers and tribal peoples (see subsistence agriculture). Cultural ecology proposes that similar configurations of environment and technology tend to be functionally and causally related to similar social organizations: it is therefore the study of the adaptive processes by which human societies and cultures adjust through subsistence patterns to the specific parameters of their local habitat (see ecology; environmental perception). Steward emphasized that adaptive processes could be explored through a \'cultural core\' of human activities; social evolution was not a series of stages through which all societies passed but a multilinear process of differing patterns of environmental adaptation. Cultural ecology can thus be seen as a subset of human ecology, an approach which attempts to link culture as a material and symbolic realm and Darwinist evolutionary theory (see Social Darwinism).

Cultural ecology since Steward\'s time has developed in two directions. First, to see it as a variant of Marx\'s materialism in which \'techno-environmental determinism\' becomes the motor of history (see Marxist geography). The second refines the concept of ecology by introducing notions drawn from systems analysis and systems theory (cf. ecosystem). Cultural practices are related to wider movements of energy, matter and information and fulfil homeostatic or regulatory functions to ensure environmental sustainability. In this latter view, cultural ecology is strongly influenced by cybernetics and ecological theory such that human populations are seen conceptually as like any other animal population struggling for survival amidst the complex webs of ecosystemic relations. Many geographers and anthropologists attempted to develop this theory of adaptation in which culture (for example pig-killing rituals in highland New Guinea or cosmological beliefs in the Kalahari) functions as a self-regulating adaptive mechanism with respect to local environmental systems (carrying capacity). Cultural ecology has been heavily criticized for its functionalism and teleology, its heavy reliance on organic analogies, and its incapacity to take account of political economic processes of surplus extraction and appropriation (cf. Marxian economics). (MW)

Reference Steward, J. 1955: The theory of culture change. Urban: University of Illinois Press.



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