Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

The Conceptual Utility of Models in Human Ecology

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

The Conceptual Utility of Models in Human Ecology

Article excerpt


Anthropology and bioecology are currently at a point in their development where researchers in both fields are working towards an integration, which can be described as a form of human ecology. Integration of such disparate disciplines is not easily achieved. Important steps which facilitate integration are the clear definition of terms relevant to the disciplines, and the development of a common framework which would allow the overlapping of domains of the disciplines. The objective of this paper is to contribute to an understanding of human ecosystems by discussing (1) the definition of human ecosystems, and (2) the use of models in illustrating the integration of bio-physical and socio-cultural components of human ecosystems. Icons from the systems modeling languages of H. T. Odum and J.M. Forrester are applied to the modeling of human ecosystems. Specifically, models of R.A. Rappaport's work with the Tsembaga Maring are discussed in terms of their depiction of the components of human ecosystems. Modeling allows one to conceptualize the complexity of human ecosystems, and is an important step towards a human ecology.


In E.P. Odum's (1969) discussion of the development of ecosystems through their "lifetime," he makes it a point to focus part of his discussion on human ecosystems. Noting bioecology's historical omission of humans from ecosystem analysis, he called for a form of ecosystem analysis that considers humans as a part of, not apart from, nature. The recognized role of humans in ecosystem analysis has not changed much since then. Bioecologists continue to treat humans as external to their notion of system, searching for "undisturbed" and "pristine" ecosystems in which to conduct basic research. By focusing on the negative effects of humans on ecological processes, ecologists continue to reinforce the idea that humans are not "natural" biological or ecological entities.

Some attempts have been made to integrate humans into ecosystem analysis, but progress among bioecologists is slow. Within conservation and applied ecology there are attempts to integrate humans into ecological systems. A recent book (McDonnell and Pickett 1993) reports a conference in which researchers approached humans as components of ecosystems. The National Science Foundation has recently provided funding to establish Phoenix and Baltimore as Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) sites, where the city itself is treated as an ecosystem. So, bioecologists are beginning to consider humans to be ecological entities, not simply external disturbance factors.

Cultural anthropologists, beginning with the cultural ecology of Steward (1949) and White ( 1949) attempted to develop ecological models of human systems. Although these models included energy and (implicitly) matter, they tended to exclude much of the non-human environment. Like bioecology, they also tended to avoid addressing the need to model information. Other cultural anthopologists, like Rappaport (1968), and archeologists (cf. Flannery 1968, Kowalewski et al. 1983), attempted to formalize the modeling of human systems, but this approach began to lose favor by the early 1990s. Current biocultural and life-history approaches (cf. McElroy 1990, Hill 1993) have tended to downplay the systems approach and limited the scope of analysis to a few key variables. If our goal is to gain a complete and useful understanding of human ecology, we still need to develop approaches that incorporate human systems, the non-human environments, and the ephemeral nature of information in human decision making and non-human ecological function.

In this paper, I attempt to integrate several concepts and ideas that contribute to our understanding of human ecosystems. I will begin by defining some terms relevant to human ecology. Then I briefly discuss some shortcomings of the bioecological treatment of humans. Lastly, I discuss the role that modeling can play in working toward an integration of the physical, biological, social, and cultural components of human ecosystems. …

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