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They also drew on newly developed computer science to think about dynamic feedback systems in which cultural and ecological systems self-regulate to promote social stability— homeostasis. Marvin Harris examined Hindu religious beliefs about sacred cattle from functional and materialist perspectives.

Among Hindus in India, eating beef is forbidden and cows are seen as sacred animals associated with certain deities. From the perspective of a Western beef-loving country, such beliefs may seem irrational. Why would anyone not want to eat a juicy steak or hamburger? Rejecting earlier academics who regarded the Hindu practice as illogical, Harris argued that the practice makes perfect sense within the Hindu ecological and economic system. He argued that cows were sacred not because of cultural beliefs; instead, the cultural beliefs existed because of the economic and ecological importance of cows in India.

Roy Rappaport examined subsistence practices of the Tsembaga in Highland New Guinea, a group that planted taro, yams, sweet potatoes, and sugar cane and raised pigs. Rappaport used scientific terms and concepts such as caloric intake, carrying capacity, and mutualism to explain methods used by the Tsembaga to manage their resources. A population of pigs below a certain threshold provided a number of benefits, such as keeping villages clean by eating refuse and eating weeds in established gardens that had relatively large fruit trees that would not be damaged by the pigs.

Once the population reached the threshold, the pigs ate more than weeds and garbage and began to create problems in gardens. In response, the people used periodic ritual feasts to trim the population back, returning the ecological system to equilibrium. Rappaport, like Harris, used ecological concepts to understand the Tsembaga subsistence practices, thus downplaying the role of cultural beliefs and emphasizing ecological constraints.

These early cultural ecologists viewed cultures as trying to reach and maintain social and ecological equilibrium.

This idea aligned with ecological thinking at the time that emphasized the balance of nature and the importance of the various components of an ecosystem in maintaining that balance. However, environments and cultures were rapidly changing as colonization, globalization, and industrialization spread throughout the world.

In many of those early cases, anthropologists had ignored these larger processes. The next sections examine those shifts in anthropology as environmental movements developed in response to increasing degradation of natural environments. Early anthropologists were notable for their attempts to understand how different groups of people interacted with their environments over time. Their work paved the way for future environmental anthropologists even though they generally were not directly concerned with environmental problems associated with modernity, such as pollution, tropical deforestation, species extinctions, erosion, and global warming.

As people around the world became more familiar with such issues, environmental anthropologists took note and began to analyze those problems and accompanying conservation movements, especially in the developing world, which was still the primary focus of most anthropological research. Traditionally, anthropologists studied small communities in remote locations rather than urban societies. While much of that work examined rituals, political organizations, and kinship structures, some anthropologists focused on ethnoecology : use and knowledge of plants, animals, and ecosystems by traditional societies.

Because those societies depended heavily on the natural world for food, medicine, and building materials, such knowledge was often essential to their survival. This work explains not only how and why people do what they do, but also the advantages of their systems in the environments in which they live. An indigenous practice long demonized by the media, environmental activists, and scientists is slash-and-burn agriculture in which small-scale farmers, mostly in tropical developing countries, cut down a forest, let the wood dry for a few weeks, and then burn it, clearing the land for cultivation.

Initially, the farmers plant mostly perennial crops such as rice, beans, corn, taro, and manioc. Later, they gradually introduce tree crops, and the plot is left to regrow trees while they open new fields for crops. Environmentalists and developers have decried slash-and-burn cultivation as a major cause of deforestation, and governments in many tropical countries have prohibited farmers from cutting and burning forests.

The anthropology of the middle class across the globe

Anthropologists have challenged these depictions and have documented that slash-and-burn cultivators possess detailed knowledge of their environment; their agricultural processes are sustainable indefinitely under the right conditions. They used the term swidden cultivation instead of slash and burn to challenge the idea of the practice as inherently destructive.

The surrounding forest allows the fields to quickly revert to forest thanks to seeds planted in the cleared area as birds roost in the trees and defecate into the clearing and as small rodents carry and bury the seeds. Furthermore, by mimicking natural processes, the small patches can enhance biodiversity by creating a greater variety of microclimates in a given area of forest. Figure 3: Beans and bananas planted in a swidden field in Acre, Brazil.

Note the fallen and burnt logs and the proximity of the forest. Photo by Christian Palmer. The system breaks down when cleared forests are not allowed to regrow and instead are replaced with industrial agriculture, cattle raising, or logging operations that transform the open fields into pasture or permanent agricultural plots.

In that case, local farmers must replant areas more frequently and soil fertility declines.

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A desire to plant cash crops for external markets can also exacerbate these changes because food is no longer grown solely for local consumption and more land is put into agriculture. One branch of ethnoecology is ethnobotany, which studies traditional uses of plants for food, construction, dyes, crafts, and medicine.

Scientists have estimated that 60 percent of all of the current medicinal drugs in use worldwide were originally derived from plant materials many are now chemically manufactured. For example, aspirin came from the bark of willow trees and an important muscle relaxant used in open-heart surgery was developed from curare , the poison used on arrows and darts by indigenous groups throughout Central and South America. In light of such discoveries, ethnobotanists traveled to remote corners of the world to document the knowledge of shamans, healers, and traditional medical experts.

They have also looked at psychoactive plants and their uses across cultures. This TED talk by ethnobotanist Mark Plotkin describes some important cases of knowledge of medicinal plants learned from indigenous people in the Amazon. Ethnobotanical work is interdisciplinary, and while some ethnobotanists are anthropologists, many are botanists or come from other disciplines.

Respecting local culture, history and language

Anthropologists who study ethnobotany must have a working knowledge of scientific methods for collecting plant specimens and of botanical classification systems and basic ecology. Posey was also an activist who contributed to drafting of the Declaration of Belem, which called for governments and corporations to respect and justly compensate the intellectual property rights of indigenous groups, especially regarding medicinal plants.


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In recent years, some anthropologists have questioned whether the idea of indigenous people having an innate positive connection to the environment—what some call the myth of the ecologically noble savage—is accurate. The image of the noble savage developed many centuries ago in Western culture. The depictions changed as Romantic artists and writers rejected modernity and industrialization and called for people to return to an idealized, simpler past. That reactionary movement also celebrated indigenous societies as simple people living in an Eden-like state of innocence.

What are these stereotypes? Where else do we see these kinds of depictions? Similarly, a naive interpretation of indigenous environmentalism may merely project an imaginary Western ideal onto another culture rather than make a legitimate observation about that culture on its own terms. These indigenous communities organized, sometimes with the aid of anthropologists who had connections to media and environmental organizations, to protect the forest. The combination of two causes—rainforest conservation and indigenous rights—was powerful, successfully grabbing media attention and raising money for conservation.

Their success led to later instances of indigenous groups joining efforts to halt large-scale development projects. These movements were especially powerful symbolically because they articulated the longstanding Western idea of the environmentally noble savage as well as growing environmental concerns in Europe and North America. Some anthropologists have noted that these alliances were often fragile and rested on an imagined ideal of indigenous groups that was not always accurate.

The Western media, they argue, imagined indigenous groups as ecologically noble savages, and the danger in that perspective is that the indigenous communities would be particularly vulnerable if they lost that symbolic purity and the power that came with it. The image of ecologically noble savages could break down if they were seen as promoting any kind of non-environmental practices or became too involved in messy national politics.

Though these indigenous groups achieved visibility and some important victories, they remained vulnerable to negative press and needed to carefully manage their images.

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Often, the more important questions for indigenous groups revolve around land rights and political sovereignty. Environmental concerns are associated with those issues rather than existing separately. The ramifications of these differences are explained in the next section, which discusses the people-versus-parks debate. One way that anthropologists have successfully used traditional ecological knowledge to advance indigenous rights is through advocacy on behalf of indigenous groups seeking to establish legal ownership or control over their traditional lands.

This was first done in Alaska and Canada in the s and s. Indigenous groups wanted to map their seasonal movements for hunting, gathering, and other subsistence practices. The maps would demonstrate that they used the land in question and that it was important for their continued physical and cultural survival. Since then, communities throughout the developing world have adopted similar strategies with the help of geographers and anthropologists to demarcate their lands.

Often, lands used by indigenous groups are seen as empty because their population densities are quite low, and developers imagine the land as unused and open for taking. The production of maps by indigenous communities challenges those notions by inscribing the landscape with their names, relationships, and the human histories that mark their claim to the land. The maps become important symbols and tools for organizing local resistance against large development projects.

Although the area, which consisted of 20, square kilometers, included communities, most government maps showed it as practically empty. Earlier, in a backroom deal, the entire area had been granted as a logging concession to Stone Container Corporation, a Chicago-based company that made cardboard boxes and paper bags. The power of maps to communicate the presence of indigenous people on the land is critical, especially when the indigenous groups lack legal ownership.

In the s, theoretical movements in the social sciences and humanities began to challenge the presumed benefits of modernity and science. These movements were led in part by feminist and post-colonial theorists who saw science as part of a patriarchal system that was complicit in the subjugation of women and colonized people throughout the world.

In environmental sciences, this move to question the objectivity of science can be seen in political ecology, a diverse field that includes many anthropologists along with geographers, political scientists, sociologists, and other social scientists. Questions of cause and effect, for instance, are comprised of political and economic agendas that can be masked by a seemingly neutral language of scientific objectivity. By focusing our attention on the power dynamic in political dimensions of conservation, principally in the developing world, political ecologists illustrate why conservation efforts so often fail to achieve the desired goals.

In an early an influential study of political ecology, Piers Blaikie and others argued that soil erosion was not caused by many of the factors blamed by state governments, including overpopulation, bad farming practices, and environmental stresses. Instead, they found that state policies such as taxes forced farmers into capitalist economic systems that encouraged unsustainable farming practices. Once attention had been drawn to the relationship between state policies and soil erosion, the solution to the problem could no longer come from simply teaching small-scale farmers better soil conservation techniques.

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It required eliminating government practices and economic conditions that provided an incentive to use unsustainable farming practices. Political ecology often focuses on the impacts of governments and corporations in establishing political and economic systems that constrain local behavior and challenges standard narratives regarding environmental destruction and conservation. Learning about political ecology can be difficult for environmentally minded people because it requires them to rethink many of their own positions and the science that supports them.

Some of my favorite work in political ecology challenges the causes and effects of tropical deforestation.

Ethnography List - Engaged Ethnography

James Fairhead and Melissa Leach, for example, looked at tropical deforestation in the West African country of Guinea. Administrators, foresters, and botanists had created forest policies based on the idea that this degradation was caused by local villagers as they cleared and burned forests to create fields for agriculture.

Through careful study of historical archives, oral histories, and historical aerial photographs, Fairhead and Leach challenged these narratives. Instead, they argued that the remaining fragments of forest had been planted by local villagers who had gradually planted useful species around their villages, improving the soil for planting and generating other positive ecological changes.

Rather than being the cause of the deforestation in areas that was previously forest, the villagers were creating the forest in an area that had previously been savanna through generations of hard work, turning the colonial narrative on its head. Balee was a friend of Darrell Posey, and their work together got Balee thinking about the extent to which the Amazon rainforest is a product of human productive activities and not entirely natural processes.

Balee disagreed with earlier anthropologists who had described how primitive groups were forced to adapt to the constraints imposed by fragile tropical ecosystems, such as declining soil fertility, a lack of plants and animals that provided protein, and other limiting factors that constrained their behavior. His conservative estimated was that at least 12 percent of the Amazon, the largest rainforest on the planet, was a product of indigenous intervention.