Rather than construing the environment as “pure nature” to which humans must adapt, ecological anthropology understands the environment as something which is always perceived, interpreted and transformed by people in very culture-specific ways. At the same time, the environment shapes people.
In its early days (the 1940s), the assumption within ecological anthropology was that the social structures of pre-industrial societies living in similar environmental conditions closely resembled each other. The reasoning for this was that traditional societies optimally adapted their subsistence to their surroundings. Furthermore, both the division of labour within groups concerning resource management and resource conflicts between neighbouring groups were perceived to shape the social structure of societies.
Today, ecological anthropology studies how traditional regulations of resource usage are challenged, or even disabled, by state claims for sovereignty and global market forces. It thereby analyses how access to resources such as land, seeds, forest or water is negotiated amongst indigenous and settler groups as well as amongst state and private sector actors in contexts of competing normative and legal systems. Ecological anthropologists are particularly interested in how societies are transformed in the context of these negotiations.
Ecological anthropology takes a holistic approach towards studying the relationship between diverse societies and environments. Therefore, a focus on economic anthropology can be combined with research questions from economic anthropology, legal anthropology and also from the anthropology of religion. Hence, ecological anthropology can be studied in all three master programs.