In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Socioecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Defining Socioecology
  • Foundational Works
  • Contemporary Views
  • Criticism and Alternative Approaches

Ecology Socioecology
Peter M. Kappeler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 16 March 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0045


Socioecology emerged as a subdiscipline of behavioral ecology in the 1960s examining systematic relationships between ecology and social behavior of animals. Using an evolutionary approach, socioecology has focused on adaptive behavioral responses of adult males and females to variation in resource size and distribution, predation risk, and the risk of sexual harassment. The main emphasis of socioecological research has been on explaining species differences in grouping structure and patterns of social relationships. The verbal model underlying the latter aspect of this framework has been extended and refined repeatedly, primarily with data from field studies of nonhuman primates. The emerging socioecological model has been applied to various taxa, but it has been criticized more recently for being too primate-centered and for not considering phylogenetic information.

General Overviews

The relationships between ecological variables and social behavior were first formalized in Klopfer 1962 and first explicitly studied by the author of Crook 1964 in African weaverbirds. Similar earlier comparative approaches focused more on the usefulness of behavioral variation as a source of phylogenetic inference. Winn 1958 focuses on darters and provides a representative example of this approach. The most influential early comparative study was Crook and Gartlan 1966 on the socioecology of primates. Classic papers that subsequently facilitated the breakthrough of this approach include Jarman 1974 and Clutton-Brock and Harvey 1977. These early studies are still widely featured in relevant textbooks, including Davies, et al. 2012. More recent summaries and critiques can be found in Clutton-Brock and Janson 2012, which also points out important gaps in theory and empirical studies.

  • Clutton-Brock, Timothy, and Paul Harvey. 1977. Primate ecology and social organisation. Journal of Zoology 183:1–39.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1469-7998.1977.tb04171.x

    The first study to introduce statistical rigor to comparative analyses. An important improvement over Crook and Gartlan 1966 and highly influential for other kinds of comparative studies in evolutionary biology.

  • Clutton-Brock, Timothy, and Charles Janson. 2012. Primate socioecology at the crossroads: Past, present, and future. Evolutionary Anthropology 21:136–150.

    DOI: 10.1002/evan.21316

    Comprehensive review of the history and main achievements of primate socioecology. Identifies shortcomings of the assumptions and predictions of the underlying model and makes constructive suggestions for more comprehensive future studies.

  • Crook, John. 1964. The evolution of social organisation and visual communication in the weaver birds (Ploceinae). Behaviour 10:1–178.

    The first broad comparative test of the notion that variation in social systems across species is correlated with differences in their ecology, using data on more than ninety African weaverbirds.

  • Crook, John, and Stephen Gartlan. 1966. Evolution of primate societies. Nature 210:1200–1203.

    DOI: 10.1038/2101200a0

    Influential application of the comparative approach to organize the limited information on primate sociality and ecology available at the time.

  • Davies, Nicholas, John Krebs, and Stuart West. 2012. An introduction to behavioural ecology. 4th ed. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    The classical introductory textbook on behavioral ecology. Chapter 2, “Testing Hypotheses in Behavioural Ecology” (pp. 24–51), summarizes influential studies defining the socioecological approach.

  • Jarman, Peter. 1974. The social organization of antelope in relation to their ecology. Behaviour 48:215–267.

    DOI: 10.1163/156853974X00345

    The most-cited empirical study in socioecology, correlating variation in antelope social organization to variation in habitat use.

  • Klopfer, Peter. 1962. Behavioral aspects of ecology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

    DOI: 10.1037/13127-000

    The first book devoted to the relationships between ecology and animal behavior. Laid the foundation for the later formal development of behavioral ecology and socioecology, in particular.

  • Winn, Howard. 1958. Comparative reproductive behavior and ecology of fourteen species of darters (Pisces-Percidae). Ecological Monographs 28:155–191.

    DOI: 10.2307/1942207

    Represents an example of the antecedents of modern comparative studies of interspecific variation in social behavior.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.