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Saturday, November 8, 2008

Human ecology

Human ecology is an academic discipline that deals with the relationship between humans and their natural, social and created environments. Human ecology investigates how humans and human societies interact with nature and with their environment.

Establishing the field of human ecology

In the USA, human ecology was established as a sociological field in the 1920's, although geographers were using the term much earlier. Amos H. Hawley published Human Ecology -- A Theory of Community Structure in 1950. He dedicated the book to one of the pioneers in the field who had begun writing the work with Hawley, R.D. McKenzie. McKenzie used the term in his paper entitled "The Ecological Approach to the Study of the Human Community," which is Chapter III of the 1925 book, The City, by Robert E. Park and Ernest W. Burgess. Hawley contributed other works to the development of the field. In 1961, an important reader, Studies in Human Ecology, was published (edited by George A. Theodorson).

In the 1970's William R. Catton and Riley E. Dunlap built on earlier works by Chicago School's Robert E. Park and Hawley. One main idea of Catton and Dunlap was to go away from the Durkheimian paradigm of explaining social facts only with social facts. Instead, they included physical and biological facts as independent variables influencing social structure and other social phenomena. This change of paradigm can be described as a change from a classical sociological view of human exemptionalism to a new view (named new ecological paradigm by Catton and Dunlap). Humans are no longer seen as an exceptional species that uses culture to adapt to new environments and environmental change, influenced more by social than by biological variables, but rather as one species out of many that interacts with a bounded natural environment.

In contrast to the Chicago School of Human Ecology developed by Park, Burgess, and Mckenzie during the 1920s, contemporary research in the School of Social Ecology at the University of California, Irvine goes beyond the biological and economic foundations of human ecology to provide a broader, cross-disciplinary perspective on the ways in which human-environment relations are jointly influenced by physical environmental, political, legal, psychological, cultural, and societal forces.

A line of conflict between this new paradigm and the classical sociological approach is the de-valuating of society and culture. Human ecology views human communities and human populations as part of the ecosystem of earth. In this view, sociology would be only a sub-discipline of ecology -- the special ecology of the species Homo sapiens sapiens. Of course, this is seen as an affront by most sociologists.

Human ecology is variously a sub-discipline of geography, anthropology, psychology, sociology, or ecology. The inclusion or exclusion of human ecology in sociology proper varies between countries and schools of sociological thinking. Environmental sociology is a field of sociology which encompasses the interactions between humans and nature/natural environment, but is rooted in the methodological and theoretical canon of sociology. Sometimes human ecology is seen as part of environmental sociology, sometimes it is seen as something completely separate. Influences can also be seen on occasion between human ecology and the field of political ecology.

Quotes on human ecology

Human Ecology is an interdisciplinary applied field that uses a holistic approach to help people solve problems and enhance human potential within their near environments - their clothing, family, home, and community. Human Ecologists promote the well-being of individuals, families, and communities through education, prevention, and empowerment.

– University of Alberta, Dept. of Human Ecology

Human ecology explores not only the influence of humans on their environment but also the influence of the environment on human behaviour, and their adaptive strategies as they come to understand those influences better. [...] For us, human ecology is a methodology as much as an area of research. It is a way of thinking about the world, and a context in which we define our questions and ways to answer those questions [...]

– "What is Human Ecology?", Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University

"In the absence of any precedent let us tentatively define human ecology as a study of the spatial and temporal relations of human beings as affected by the selective, distributive, and accommodative forces of the environment." R.D. McKenzie (1925)

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