Anth 210 – Lecture Notes 1

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Julian Steward and Cultural Ecology

It is useful to examine the background of Julian Steward. His mentor, Alfred Kroeber, was trained by Franz Boas, the father of American anthropology. Boas identified two forces that influenced human behavior—1) limiting, static, outer forces and 2) creative, dynamic, inner psychological forces. The natural environment is a limiting and not a creative force. Boas was primarly interested in creative forces.
Alfred Kroeber, buillt upon the ideas of his advisor, Boas. Kroeber also identified two aspects of culture: reality culture and value culture. Reality culture had to do with the practical, present, and immediate needs and was cumulative (added to over time, e.g., new subsistence technologies).Value culture had to do with the creative, playful, and imaginative aspects of culture. These aspects of culture were not cumulative (e.g., clothing fashions). He was more interested in value culture and general non-adaptive shifts in culture, such as changes in fashion (e.g., length of dress over time).
Julian Steward was Kroeber’s student and went in the opposite direction of his professor. He focused on reality culture more than value culture. He also relied more on observer categories (called etic categories in anthropology) versus local peoples’ categories (called emic, which Kroeber focused on). Steward’s research emphasized a scientific approach whereas his mentor emphasized more of a humanities approach (e.g., literary, cultural analysis). As described below, he distinguished between culture core, features most closely related to environment, subsistence and economy, and secondary features, not strongly tied to the core and determined by cultural-historical factors.
Basic concept of Steward is the idea of the culture core. He defines the culture core as comprised of the

  • these features include the technological strategies and material practices that local cultures develop to adapt to the ecological conditions of their home place; technology is adapted to exploit the environmental conditions in place;

  • thus, cultural diversity emerges from ecological diversity as is evident in the variety of technologies and material practices of subsistence among different cultures; mountain cultures develop different strategies and techniques of subsistence when compared to plains cultures, desert cultures, rainforest cultures, maritime cultures etc.

  • Steward proposed the methods of cultural ecology to ascertain the technology and material practices of subsistence that define a given culture core; cultural ecology involves the study of the relationship of technology used in subsistence production to the environment in which it is used; then they relate other behavioral patterns, like kinship, customary law, childrearing practices, communal work, and religious ritual to the pattern of subsistence strategies.

Cultural ecology represented an effort to deal with two problems facing anthropological study of human cultural variety in ecological context:

  1. the racist and colonialist legacy of an anthropology that had posited the idea of unilinear evolution in which human cultures were seen as evolving from simpler, more primitive, even savage, cultures to more complex, modern, even progressive cultures;

  1. the reaction to this older, ethnocentric, form of anthropology was to adhere to the idea of cultural relativism – every culture was to be accepted on its own terms as a product of its unique history, development, and location in a given environmental context; thus, one could not understand cultures in terms of universal truths;

  1. Steward disagreed with both of these approaches; he rejected the racist and colonialist assumptions of the unilinear evolutionists and he also shunned the idea that there were no knowable universal patterns; he supported the view that cultural ecologists could uncover universal regularities and patterns across cultures through careful observation and comparison;

  1. Steward proposed an alternative theory of multilinear evolution that basically argued that cultures everywhere had to produce subsistence but produced sequences of change that were not universal. He proposed that this could be explained because of the diversity in patterns of cultural adaptation. This idea is simply that culture adapts to its biophysical environment.

Steward arged against strict environmental determinism, in part, because he was trained by Alfred Kroeber who emphasized environmental possibilism. The second part of the figure (from Bettinger) shows the differences between culture core and other elements of culture.

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