Ethnoecology is the scientific study of how different groups of people living in different locations understand the ecosystems around them, and their relationships with surrounding environments.

It seeks valid, reliable understanding of how we as humans have interacted with the environment and how these intricate relationships have been sustained over time.

The “ethno” (see ethnology) prefix in ethnoecology indicates a localized study of a people, and in conjunction with ecology, signifies people’s understanding and experience of environments around them. Ecology is the study of the interactions between living organisms and their environment; enthnoecology applies a human focused approach to this subject. The development of the field of lies in applying indigenous knowledge of botany and placing it in a global context.


Ethnoecology began with some of the early works of Dr. Hugh Popenoe an agronomist and tropical soil scientist with the University of Florida and the National Science Foundation and National Research council and Drl Harold Conklin, a cognitive anthropologist who did extensive linguistic and ethnoecological research in Southeast Asia. In his 1954 dissertation “The Relation of the Hanunoo Culture of the Plant World” he coined the term ethnoecology when he described his approach as “ethnoecological”.

After earning his PhD he began teaching at Columbia University and continued his research among the Hanunoo. In 1955, Conklin published one of his first ethnoecological studies. His “Hanunoo Color Categories” study helped scholars understand the relationship between classification systems and conceptualization of the world within cultures. In this experiment, Conklin soon realized that people in various cultures recognized colors differently because of their unique classification system. Within his results he found that the Hanunoo uses two levels of colors. The first level consists of four basic terms of colors; darkness, lightness, redness, and greenness. The second level was more abstract and consisted of hundreds of color classifications; texture, shininess, and moisture of objects also were used to classify objects.

Other anthropologists had a hard time understanding this color classification system because they often applied their own idea of color criteria the Hanunoo’s color classifications. Conklin’s studies were not only the breakthrough of ethnoecology, but they also helped develop the idea that other cultures conceptualize the world in their own terms, and helped to reduce ethnocentric views of those in western cultures. Other scholars such as Berlin, Breedlove, and Raven endeavored to learn more about other systems of environment classifications and to compare them to Western scientific taxonomies.


Ethnoscience emphasizes the importance of how societies make sense of their own reality, and not the ethnographers. Ethnoecology borrows methods from linguistics and cultural anthropology, and seeks to understand how cultures perceive the world around them through their classifications and organization of their environment. Ethnoecology’s strength lies in the fact that it helps researchers understand how the society conceptualizes that environment in which they depend on for living, and that it can determine what a society considers “worth attending to” in their ecological system. This information can ultimately be useful for other approaches used in environmental anthropology.

As a field of environmental anthropology, ethnoecology has derived much of its characteristics from classic theorists and more modern theorists of that time. Franz Boas was one of the first anthropologists to question unilineal evolution, the belief that all societies follow the same, unavoidable path towards Western civilization. Boas strongly urged anthropologists to gather detailed ethnographic data from an emic standpoint in order to understand different cultures. Julian Steward was another anthropologist whose ideas and theories influenced the use ethnoecology. Steward coined the term cultural ecology, and instead of focusing on global trends in evolution, he focused on how evolutionary paths in similar societies result in different trajectories; this was named multilineal evolution. He took ideas from Boas and applied it to classical theories of cultural evolution. Both Boas and Steward contributed to the framework of ethnoecology in that they both believed that a researcher must use an emic standpoint, and that cultural adaptation to an environment is not the same for each society. Furthermore, Steward's cultural ecology provides an important theoretical antecedent and framework for ethnoecology. Another contributor was anthropologist Leslie White, who emphasized the interpretation of cultures as systems and laid the foundations for interpreting the intersection of cultural systems with ecosystems as well as their integration into a coherent whole.

Traditional ecological knowledge

Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK), also known as Indigenous Knowledge, “refers to tacit knowledge in embodied in life experiences and reproduced in everyday behavior and speech”.[1] It is common knowledge for a specific community and their environment and is fragile in its limited scope. In this context, TEK is a set of ideas including how the uses of plants and animals, how to best utilize the land for the greatest number of possibilities, the social institutions in which members of society are expected to navigate, and holistically, their worldview.[2]

The study of Traditional Ecological Knowledge frequently includes critiques of the theoretical division between cultural systems and ecosystems, interpreting humans as an integral part of the whole. The supposed distinction between culture and nature is often claimed to be nonexistent. Humans, for example, can represent a keystone species in a given ecosystem and can play critical roles in creating, maintaining, and sustaining it. They can contribute to processes such as pedogenesis, seed dispersal, and either increases or decreases in biodiversity. They can also modify and condition animal behavior in either wild or domesticated species.

The study of TEK has traditionally focused on what western science can learn from these communities and how closely their cultural knowledge mirrors scientific structures. It has been argued that this historical record of ecological adaption could have major influences on our ecological actions in the future. The diversity of culture can be expressed through the traditional environmental knowledge of the community.[3]

Local knowledge in western society

Within the discipline of Ethnoecology, there is a clear emphasis on those societies that are deemed “indigenous,” “traditional,” or “savage,” a common trend in anthropological pursuits through the 20th century.[4] However, societies exist within a wide range of biomes, and have needs to know and understand clear and present dangers beyond those of harmful plants or how to get the best crop.[4] Cruikshank contends that this may because many see Traditional Ecological Knowledge as a “static, timeless, and hermetically sealed” notion.[1] Locked within time and space, there is no opportunity to innovate, and is therefore not found within the very new structures of a post-industrial society, such as that of the United States.

In this way, ethnoecologies may exist without the bounded notion of the other. For example, social scientists have attempted to understand the markers inner-city youth use to identify a threat to their livelihood, including the wearing of gang colors, tattoos, or protrusions through clothes that may represent or be a weapon.[5] Likewise, concepts are spread about the health and needs of the community as they are related to the area around them. Instilled with recognizing dangers at an early age, and who these threats come from, a set of beliefs are held by the members of the society on how to live in their country, city, or neighborhood. This broadening of the discipline (bordering on human ecology) is important because it identifies the environment as not just the plants and animals, but also the humans and technologies a group of people have access to.

Similarly, social scientists have begun to use ethnoecological surveys in ethnographic studies in attempts to understand and address topics relevant in Western society as well as prevalent around the world.[5] This includes researching the ways in which people view their choices and abilities in manipulating the world around them, especially in their ability to subsist.

Epistemological concerns

According to Dove and Carpenter, “environmental anthropology sits astride the dichotomy between nature and culture, a conceptual separation between categories of nature, like wilderness and parks, and those of culture, like farms and cities.”.[6] It is inherent in this ideology that humans are a polluting factor violating a previously pristine locale.[6]

This is especially relevant due to the role in which scientists have long understood how humans have worked for and against their environmental surroundings as a whole.[2] In this way, the idea of a corresponding, but not adversarial, relationship between society and culture was once in itself baffling and defiant to the generally accepted modes of understanding in the earlier half of the twentieth century.[2] As time went on, the understood dichotomy of nature and culture continued to be challenged by ethnographers such as Darrell A. Posey, John Eddins, Peter Macbeth and Debbie Myers.[7] Also present in the recognition of indigenous knowledge in the intersection of Western science is the way in which it is incorporated, if at all. Dove and Carpenter contend that some anthropologists have sought to reconcile the two through a “translation,” bringing the ethnological understandings and framing them in a modern dialogue.[6]

In opposition to this paradigm is an attribution to the linguistic and ideological distinctiveness found in the nomenclature and epistemologies.[8] This alone has created a subfield, mostly in recognition of the philosophies in ethnotaxonomy.[8] To define ethnotaxonomy as new or different though, is inaccurate. It is simply placing a different understanding of a long-held tradition in ethnology, discovering the terms in which different peoples use to describe their world and worldviews.[8] It is worth noting that those who seek to use and understand this knowledge have actively worked to both enfranchise and disenfranchise the societies in which the information was held.[9] Haenn has noted that in several instances of working with conservationists and developers, there was a concerted effort to change the ideas of environment and ecology held by the native groups to the land, while plundering any and all texts and information on the resources found there, therefore enabling a resettlement of the land and redistribution of the knowledge, favoring the outsiders.[9]

See also


  1. 1 2 Cruikshank, Julie (2005). Do Glaciers Listen? : Local Knowledge, Colonial Encounters, and Social Imagination. Seattle: University of Washington Press. p. 9.
  2. 1 2 3 Berkes, Fikret (1998). "Exploring the Basic Ecological Unit: Ecosystem-like Concepts in Traditional Societies". Ecosystems. 1 (4): 409–415. doi:10.1007/s100219900034.
  3. Nazarea, Virginia (1999). Ethnoecology: Situated Knowledge/Located Lives. Tucson: The University of Arizona Press.
  4. 1 2 Haenn, Nora (2000). "Biodiversity Is Diversity in Use: Community-Based Conservation in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve". America Verde Working Papers. 7: 5.
  5. 1 2 Mathios, Alan (2009). "Exploring the Ecology of Poverty". Human Ecology. 37 (2): 5.
  6. 1 2 3 Dove, Michael R.; Carpenter, Carol, eds. (2007). Environmental Anthropology: A Historical Reader (Blackwell Anthologies in Social and Cultural Anthropology). Wiley-Blackwell. p. 4. ISBN 1-4051-1137-2.
  7. Posey, Darrell A. (1984). "Ethnoecology as Applied Anthropology in Amazonian Development". Human Organization. 43 (2): 95–107.
  8. 1 2 3 Gragson, Ted L. (1999). Ethnoecology: Knowledge, Resources, and Rights. Athens, Georgia: University of Georgia Press. pp. v–26.
  9. 1 2 Haenn, Nora (1999). "The Power of Environmental Knowledge: Ethnoecology and Environmental Conflicts in Mexican Conservatism". Human Ecology. 27 (3): 477–491. doi:10.1023/a:1018731708560.
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