What I Believe: Reflections on Historical and Political Ecology as Research Frameworks in Southeastern Archaeology

By Thompson, Victor D. | Southeastern Archaeology, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

What I Believe: Reflections on Historical and Political Ecology as Research Frameworks in Southeastern Archaeology


Thompson, Victor D., Southeastern Archaeology


Research themes centering on human-environment interaction have a long history in the writings of Southeastern archaeologists (e.g., Caldwell 1958). Indeed, it is still a primary concern among many contemporary researchers. However, while our fascination with the environment remains constant, the way in which Southeastern archaeologists conceptualize it has not. Today, we are faced with a multitude of concepts that can be broadly labeled as environmental or ecological archaeology. Many researchers with a theoretical bent towards environmental concerns center on subsistence related research problems (see Watson 1990). Others tend to examine large-scale environmental change (e.g., the Pleistocene-Holocene transition) and the accompanying shifts in cultural traditions. Such research frameworks and bodies of theory fall under numerous names, including cultural ecology, human behavioral ecology, and evolutionary ecology. It is not my intention here to critique these approaches. However, many of the core ideas and concepts central to these bodies of literature do not articulate well with other popular theoretical frameworks that are motivated by questions of agency and history as a mechanism for understanding the past (e.g., historical processualism). Even though some argue that the methodological individualism of some of these approaches (e.g., human behavioral ecology) is congruent with agency-based approaches (Winterhalder 2002:10), this misses the point regarding the role of the individual as both a reproducer of structure and a nexus of structural change (see Beck et al. 2007 for an explanation of the roles of agency and structure).

Perhaps the primary reason why environmentally influenced theoretical frameworks do not mesh well with others that incorporate more agency-based approaches is that the latter approaches advocate views that emphasize more proximate causes of change which are situated in notions of tradition building through practice (Pauketat 2001a:2-4; see Moore and Thompson 2012 for similar points). As Pauketat (2001b:86) states, approaches to many of the core questions (e.g., social inequality, origins of agriculture) in archaeology "still essentialize macroscale phenomena to the detriment of explaining historical processes."

My goals in this paper are to illustrate that in contrast to other "ecological anthropologies," both historical and political ecology allow for a more fully integrated discussion of both agency and history, although each is not without its problems or deficiencies. Specifically, I advocate an approach that emphasizes and augments some of the core ideas from these bodies of literature. The overlap between these two research programs is somewhat ambiguous. In some instances, historical ecology is discussed as being encompassed by political ecology (Offen 2004; Robbins 2012). However, others view their similarities as only converging in terms of the applied side of such work (Balée 2006:80). This confusion over where the overlap and convergences lie between historical and political ecology may be due in large part to the vagaries surrounding the exact research agenda of political ecology, whereas scholars of historical ecology provide clear guidelines to the concepts that structure their research (see Balée 2006; Robbins 2012). My aim in this paper is to offer ideas and points of departure regarding how concepts from both can be articulated in the context of archaeological research. It is not my intention to develop a new theory or research agenda in combining these concepts. However, following Offen (2004), I refer to melding these bodies of literature as historical-political ecology as shorthand to emphasize when I am talking about where these frameworks overlap in their core ideas. In the concluding section of this paper, I consider how aspects of these perspectives are useful for research in the American Southeast.

Why the Environment?

Before moving on to consider how concepts of historical and political ecologies intersect and overlap, I would like to consider a fundamental question related to this literature. …

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