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

  • Introduction
  • Reference Resources
  • Applied Organizations and Practitioner Groups
  • Journals
  • Sustainability, Conservation, and Environmental Knowledges
  • Human Health, Disease, and the Environment
  • Ecology, Resilience, and Livelihoods
  • Settlement, Urban Ecology, and Territoriality of Land Use
  • Communities, the Commons, Governance, and Sustainability

Geography Cultural Ecology and Human Ecology
Karl S. Zimmerer
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0041


Cultural ecology and human ecology are closely related and represent a continuum of approaches and themes within the human-environment and nature-society subfields of geography, the cognate disciplines, and the expanding domains of interdisciplinary ideas and research. Specifically, cultural ecology denotes the habitually embedded adaptive practices and behaviors that have coevolved in the relations between humans and their nonhuman worlds; human ecology denotes systems of bidirectional interactions, mutual influences, and dynamics of change within human societies and their environments. In addition to the meanings associated with the traditional subfields, the terms cultural ecology and human ecology both are used more expansively. Their broader meanings, increasingly common, denote the range of activities, institutions, and ideas that are rooted in the interrelations of humans, their societies, and their environments. In the early 21st century, the influence of the concepts of cultural ecology and human ecology—such as adaptation, sustainability, and degradation—is integral to rapidly expanding interdisciplinary subfields such as political ecology, sustainability science, global-change science, land change science, environment-development and population-environment studies, agrobiodiversity analysis, political ecologies of health, resilience ecology, ecological-footprint analysis, and social-ecological systems (SESs).

General Overviews

Cultural ecology and human ecology are traced through genealogies dating to the early 20th century and continuing through to the early 21st century. The genealogies of these concepts, along with their meanings, institutional centers, and practical applications, have been largely distinct and somewhat parallel, although they occasionally overlap and intersect. The term human ecology was coined in 1907 by J. P. Goode, the chair of the newly founded Department of Geography at the University of Chicago. The formulation of the concept was influenced by well-known ecologists, such as Frederic Clements and others, in the university’s botany and zoology departments; subsequently, human ecology was championed by social scientists at the university, ranging from Harlan H. Barrows (Barrows 1923) to urban sociologists (see Communities, the Commons, Governance, and Sustainability). Porter 1978 provided a useful landmark analysis several decades later. In the case of cultural ecology, a different early history was traced insofar as it arose as an environmentalist theory of cultural change based on the adaptations of cultural forms and social organization to a “culture core” that encompassed the material basis (economic and environmental) of the provisioning of basic needs, such as food. Nietschmann 1974, Turner 1989, and Butzer 1989 exemplify the significant broadening of this approach within geography, which, as advanced in Head and Atchison 2009 and Zimmerer 2010 (both cited under General Overviews: Recent Trajectories), continues to the subject of important contemporaneous concepts and overarching perspectives.

  • Barrows, Harlan H. “Geography as Human Ecology.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 13.1 (1923): 1–14.

    Barrows boldly formulates and argues for the disciplinary identity of geography as human ecology, which he defines as the mutual relations of human societies and their adjustments, especially to the environment. Barrows’s idea borrowed, yet differed in its formulation, from an earlier definition that was presented to the Ecological Society of America in 1916 by the Yale geographer Ellsworth Huntington. Available online by subscription.

  • Bennett, John W. Human Ecology as Human Behavior: Essays in Environmental and Development Anthropology. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1996.

    Bennett’s book is a classic advance in human ecology, with an emphasis on a behavioral perspective of humans-in-environment, which has subsequently flourished within the human-environmental sciences, in particular, human ecology and ecological anthropology.

  • Butzer, Karl W. “Cultural Ecology.” In Geography in America. Edited by Gary L. Gaile and Cort J. Willmott, 192–208. Columbus, OH: Merrill, 1989.

    The chapter by Butzer, a renowned cultural ecologist, presents cultural ecology as a full-fledged research perspective within geography—as well as an interdisciplinary approach shared with anthropology—focused on the relations among people, resources, and space. Butzer makes the case for a new paradigm of cultural ecology in which it is infused with ideas often associated with human ecology (e.g., cybernetics, systems ecology).

  • Netting, Robert McC. Cultural Ecology. Cummings Modular Program in Anthropology. Menlo Park, CA: Cummings, 1977.

    Netting’s synopsis of cultural ecology has become a classic, exerting influence in anthropology, geography, and related fields. The work contains Netting’s prefacing comment that “cultural ecology is a convenient, conventional title rather than an invitation to scholarly debate” (p. vi). Netting’s statement alludes to the role of broad-based suites of ideas, rather than focused scholarly debate, within subfields (e.g., political ecology, peasant studies). A second edition was published in 1986.

  • Nietschmann, Bernard. “Cultural Ecology: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue.” Paper presented at the 70th Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers, Seattle, WA, May 1974.

    A historically influential paper that provides one of the best summaries of cultural ecology at a formative moment. The paper offers a trenchant fourteen-page critique and overview of geographic cultural ecology at a critical phase of its development within the discipline. This influential work continues to circulate widely throughout classes and seminar rooms.

  • Porter, Philip W. “Geography as Human Ecology: A Decade of Progress in a Quarter Century.” American Behavioral Scientist 22.1 (1978): 15–39.

    DOI: 10.1177/000276427802200102

    Porter’s classic state-of-the-field analysis of human ecology—defined as mutual relations of people and the environment, as seen through empirical case studies and the increased use and influence of ecological science. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Sears, Paul B. “Human Ecology: A Problem in Synthesis.” Science 120.3128 (1954): 959–963.

    DOI: 10.1126/science.120.3128.959

    The perspective and insights of a renowned biological ecologist, and founder of modern environmental science and the environmental movement, arguing for the perspective of human ecology as offering a framework for analytical synthesis much needed for enabling a scientific approach to society’s worsening environmental crises. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Turner, B. L., II. “The Specialist–Synthesis Approach to the Revival of Geography: The Case of Cultural Ecology.” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 79.1 (1989): 88–100.

    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8306.1989.tb00252.x

    Tuner, a prolific scholar in cultural ecology, discusses 1980s-era cutting-edge contributions to advanced research on (1) agricultural change and (2) the relation of resource intensification in agriculture to social complexity, including state-level organization. The examples illustrate the strengths of cultural ecology as a so-called specialist-synthesis approach that generates much of the best research in geography, even as it is recognized mainly at the interdisciplinary level. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Turner, B. L., II. “Spirals, Bridges and Tunnels: Engaging Human–Environment Perspectives in Geography.” Cultural Geographies 4.2 (1997): 196–217.

    DOI: 10.1177/147447409700400205

    This remarkable overview identifies cultural ecology and human ecology as core approaches in human-environment geography and as intermediate epistemic positions along a continuum of the natural sciences and humanities. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

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