Metabolism in Cultural and Ecological Anthropology

The beginnings of cultural anthropology (as in the works of Morgan 1877) were, similar to sociology, marked by evolutionism, that is, the idea of universal historical progress from more 'natural', barbarian to more advanced and civilized social conditions. Then cultural anthropology split into a functionalist and a culturalist tradition. The functionalist line, from which contributions to societal metabolism should be expected, did not, as was the case in sociology, turn towards economics and distributional problems, but retained a focus on the society-nature interface. In effect, several conceptual clarifications and rich empirical material on societies' metabolism can be gained from this research tradition.

Leslie White, one of the most prominent anthropologists of his generation and an early representative of the functionalist tradition, rekindled interest in energetics. For White, the vast differences in the types of extant societies could be described as social evolution, and the mechanisms propelling it were energy and technology. 'Culture evolves as the amount of energy harnessed per capita and per year is increased, or as the efficiency of the instrumental means (i.e. technology) of putting the energy to work is increased' (White 1949, p. 366). A society's level of evolution can be assessed mathematically: it is the product of the amount of per capita energy times efficiency of conversion. So this in fact was a metabolic theory of cultural evolution - however unidimensional and disregarding of environmental constraints it may have been.

Julian Steward's 'method of cultural ecology' (Steward 1968) paid a lot of attention to the quality, quantity and distribution of resources within the environment. His approach can be illustrated from the early comparative study, Tappers and Trappers (Murphy and Steward 1955). Two cases of cultural (and economic) change are presented, in which tribes traditionally living from subsistence hunting and gathering (and some horticulture) completely change their ways of living. The authors analyze it as an irreversible shift from a subsistence economy to dependence upon trade.

Several outright analyses of metabolism have been produced by the 'neofunctionalists': Marvin Harris (1966,1977), Andrew Vayda and Roy Rappaport (Rappaport 1971; Vayda and Rappaport 1968). The followers of this approach, according to Orlove (1980, p. 240), 'see the social organization and culture of specific populations as functional adaptations which permit the populations to exploit their environments successfully without exceeding their carrying capacity'. The unit which is maintained is a given population rather than a particular social order (as it is with sociological functionalists). In contrast to biological ecology, the neofunctionalists treat adaptation, not as a matter of individuals and their genetic success, but as a matter of cultures. Cultural traits are units which can adapt to environments and which are subject to selection.3 In this approach, human populations are believed to function within ecosystems as other populations do, and the interaction between populations with different cultures is put on a level with the interaction of different species within ecosystems (Vayda and Rappaport 1968).

This approach has been very successful in generating detailed descriptions of food-producing systems (Anderson 1973; Kemp 1971; Netting 1981). In addition to that, it has raised the envy of colleagues by successfully presenting solutions to apparent riddles of bizarre habits and thereby attracting a lot of public attention (Harris 1966, 1977; Harner 1977).

There certainly are some theoretical and methodological problems in neofunctionalism which need to be discussed in greater detail. They entail the difficulty of specifying a unit of analysis: a local population? A culture? This is related to the difficulty of specifying the process of change, and to the difficulty of locating intercultural (or inter-society) interactions in this framework. These scientific traditions, however, have prepared cultural anthropologists to be among the first social scientists actively participating in the later discussion of environmental problems of industrial metabolism.

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