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

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Anthologies
  • Journals

Ecology Human Ecology
Michael R. Dove
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 June 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0050


Contemplation of the relationship between human beings and their environment is millennia-old. As Hippocrates wrote over two millennia ago in his “Airs, Waters, Places” (Hippocrates 1923, cited under History), “For in general you will find assimilated to the nature of the land both the physique and the characteristics of the inhabitants” (p. 137). The contemporary efflorescence of studies of this relationship dates from the second half of the 20th century, with the rise in public perceptions of an environmental “crisis” spawned by industrial society and attendant recognition of the need for analysis and interventions based on the social as well as natural sciences. The term human ecology, which encompasses this field, came into vogue in the second and third decades of the 20th century, followed in declining order of frequency of use by the term social ecology and then, in the 1960s and 1970s, cultural ecology, and then ecological anthropology. Human ecology has been used for widely disparate fields of study, most of which are referenced in the current Wikipedia article on the term. The term today is variously applied to the household-oriented College of Human Ecology at Cornell University (focused on the themes of design and technology, development and the life course, economic and social well-being, and human nutrition, health, and genomics), the industry-oriented Commonwealth Human Ecology Council in London, and the Department of Human Ecology in the School of Environmental and Ecological Sciences at Rutgers University, which focuses on the human dimensions of environmental problems. The focus in this essay, in keeping with the focus of the Oxford Bibliographies project, is on human ecological studies that address the relationship between human society and the physical environment. Within this focus, however, this article is not concerned with ephemeral distinctions between its various subfields (e.g., the differences among human ecology, social ecology, cultural ecology, and ecological/environmental anthropology). Examples of institutions where this field with this focus is studied include the aforementioned program at Rutgers University and similar programs of ecological or environmental anthropology at the University of Georgia, the University of Hawaii, the University of Kent at Canterbury, and Yale University.

General Overviews

For much of human history, intellectual interest in the environment has been concerned with its impact on human society, as famously illustrated by the quotation in the Introduction from Hippocrates (Hippocrates 1923, cited under History). In direct contrast, some (but far from all) of the broadest and most influential modern approaches to the subject of human ecology have focused on the reverse, on human impacts on the environment. Justifiably hailed as a pioneer was George Perkins Marsh (Marsh 1965, first published in 1864). A pivotal mid-20th century statement on the subject was Thomas 1956, the theme of which was subsequently revisited and updated in Turner, et al. 1990. A salient dimension in these discussions of both impacting on and being impacted by the environment is culture, which most clearly distinguishes human ecology from nonhuman ecology. In the latter case, the unit of adaptation is the physical organism; whereas in the former case it is culture. Scholars from Hippocrates to Montesquieu and Ratzel (see Antecedents) have attributed cultural differences to differences in environment. Modern scholars see the relationship between culture and environment as less deterministic and more complex, but many still see culture as the most important mediating element between human beings and their physical environment. Steward (see Steward 1963, cited under Canonical Works) is recognized as the father of cultural ecology, a phrase that he coined in 1937 to describe a method for studying how culture changes in adaptation to the environment. Important theoretical elaborations of cultural ecology subsequently followed with Frake 1962, Geertz 1963 (cited under Monographs), Netting 1968, and Netting 1977 (cited under Textbooks), as this subfield gained ground within geography (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987, cited under Political Ecology) and especially anthropology. The historic and ongoing development within anthropology of these and other approaches to understanding the relationship between society and environment are reviewed in Vayda and McCay 1975 (cited under Environmental Perturbation and Change) and Scoones 1999 (cited under Environmental Perturbation and Change).

  • Bates, Marston. 1953. Human ecology. In Anthropology today: An encyclopedic inventory. Edited by Alfred L. Kroeber, 700–713. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    A comprehensive, interdisciplinary review of the state of the field in the mid-20th century, encompassing studies of the environment, population, the community, and ecology, and evolution.

  • Frake, Charles O. 1962. Cultural ecology and ethnography. American Anthropologist 64.1: 53–59.

    DOI: 10.1525/aa.1962.64.1.02a00060

    An early critique of the lack of anthropological study of environmental relations, Frake argues that we cannot be satisfied with just cataloguing the components of a cultural ecosystem according to the categories of Western science but must describe the environment as the people themselves would according to the categories of their own ethnoscience. This study helped to lay the theoretical groundwork for the ensuing generation of studies of indigenous environmental knowledge.

  • Marsh, George Perkins. 1965. Man and nature: Or, physical geography as modified by human action. Edited by David Lowenthal. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    A true conservation classic and one of the first sustained critiques of the American belief in an inexhaustible natural resource endowment, Marsh presents separate chapters on human impacts on biological species, woods, waters, sands, and geography. His avowed purpose is to indicate the extent of human changes in the world, caution against interference with its spontaneous arrangements, and recommend restoration of disturbed harmonies. Originally published in 1864.

  • Netting, Robert McC. 1968. Hill farmers of Nigeria: Cultural ecology of the Kofyar of the Jos Plateau. Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press.

    An early and now classic cultural ecological study by one of the most important scholars of smallholder agriculture (see also Netting 1993, cited under Social Organization). For Netting, an anthropologist, the term cultural ecology denotes that (i) the unit of study is a culturally defined population of human beings, (ii) the focus is on cultural rather than physical adaptations, and (iii) the approach is in debt to the theory and method of Julian Steward (b. 1902–d. 1972); see Steward 1963, cited under Canonical Works.

  • Thomas, William L., Jr., ed. 1956. Man’s role in changing the face of the earth. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    This impressive and extremely wide-ranging volume comes out of a 1956 symposium, sponsored by the Wenner-Gren Foundation designed to build linkages between anthropology and other fields also interested in the subject of the anthropogenic environment, and bringing together seventy scholars, a virtual who’s who of scholars then working on this subject, which is reflected in the fact that Thomas’s junior editors were Carol O. Sauer, Marston Bates, and Lewis Mumford.

  • Turner, B. L., II, William C. Clark, Robert W. Kates, John F. Richards, Jessica T. Mathews, and William B. Meyers, eds. 1990. The earth as transformed by human action: Global and regional changes in the biosphere over the past 300 years. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    The rationale for this volume was the doubling of global population since the assessment of the human transformation of the earth by Thomas 1956, and the lack of a “comprehensive and authoritative survey” (p. xi) of these changes since Marsh’s 1864 classic (Marsh 1965). This massive forty-two-chapter volume, which includes leading scholars among its contributors, contains sections on Changes in Population and Society, Transformations of the Global Environment, Regional Studies of Transformation, and Understanding Transformations.

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