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Saturday 26 November 2022

Cultural Ecology and Julian Steward


Cultural Ecology and Julian Steward:

Table of Contents

Cultural Ecology and Julian Steward: 1

Steward’s theory: 1

Arrival of Culture ecology. 2

Sources: 3

Further reading: 3




The question of how culture is formed, evolved or changed continues to remain a puzzle to the anthropologists. The answer to this question is never settled and called for increasing number of diverse answers. The question is dealt differently by different schools of thought. Hence, for the 19th century evolutionists it was similar to Darwinian evolution, for scholars like Franz Boas (Harris, 1968) it was the ‘historical determinants’ for ecological anthropologists, championed by Julian Steward (1955) it is the ‘ecological determinants’ or cultural ecology.

The cultural ecologists speak about an intimate relationship between culture and environment. For Sahlins (1969) it is cultural moulding of ecological challenges to enhance life chances, and for Steward (1955) it is a dialectic-interplay of culture and environment creating something known as ‘reciprocal-causality.’

Steward’s theory:

Steward created a theoretical perspective that was distinctive in mid-20th-century anthropology. His environmental perspective on culture was unusual, as was his synthesis of comparative, secondary data from archaeological and ethnographic research. Both were essential to his goal of understanding the causes of cultural change by charting the course of change in the past. He did share a broadly historical orientation with archaeologists and many American cultural anthropologists of his time. But he departed sharply from the cultural historicism of Franz Boas and his American students, who included Steward’s own teachers, Kroeber and Lowie.

Steward’s theoretical perspective, in contrast to theirs, was materialist, environmentally oriented, generalizing, and concerned with causality. It was also thoroughly behaviorist. His theoretical ideas were the antithesis of humanistic and relativistic trends in cultural anthropology at the time. The work of Ruth Benedict—his colleague at Columbia University and a student of Boas—perhaps best represented those prevailing trends, which Steward always rejected.

Unlike Benedict, and in keeping with behaviorist principles, Steward consistently focused on what was external and observable. He gave priority to environmental resources, primarily those most important in human subsistence, such as edible plants, animals, and water; to technology, especially the tools used in procuring food and water; and to behavior, above all, subsistence-related work. These elements constituted what he eventually termed the cultural core, a key concept in his thinking about the causes of cultural change. Another, earlier foundational concept was what he termed the patrilineal band. Steward developed this concept in an essay that he called his “first work,” a 1936 essay on types of bands (later divided into two essays and republished in Theory of Culture Change). He defined the patrilineal band as an exogamous and politically independent group of male kin who own land and defend exclusive rights to that territory. Patrilineal bands, he hypothesized, developed in arid regions and others where food resources were scattered and limited and where hunting centered on the pursuit of nonmigratory game animals. These were causal factors that limited the size of bands and kept population density low. Steward thought of this type of band as a particular cultural type, or cross-cultural type as he termed it. He argued that the patrilineal band occurred under certain ecological conditions, while different conditions produced—that is, caused— other types.

Steward drew his first evidence for the patrilineal band from published, but fragmentary, accounts of

hunter-gatherers written by explorers, missionaries, and early anthropologists. He set out to find first hand evidence through his own ethnographic fieldwork in the Great Basin in 1935 and 1936, but his search for the patrilineal band did not succeed. Steward found no evidence that hunter-gatherers in the Great Basin of western North America had formerly lived in patrilineal bands. In his 1938 ethnography, Basin-Plateau Aboriginal Sociopolitical Groups, he instead documented the diversity he had found. He focused on how environmental resources and conditions in different localities varied, how people in each place had adapted culturally, and how this resulted in differences in the size and structure of local groups. The concept of cultural adaptation, which Steward sometimes termed cultural ecological adaptation, provided a conceptual framework for the monograph. Over time, it became a unifying concept in American anthropology, spanning several subfields.

Steward’s search for the patrilineal band also motivated his two subsequent efforts at fieldwork with hunter-gatherers: the failed effort in South America in 1938 and his final fieldwork with Carrier Indians in Canada in 1940. In Canada, as in the Great Basin, he found no evidence of patrilineal bands. He never succeeded in documenting this type of band structure in his own fieldwork. During a 20-year period, between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, Steward wrote and published the series of articles that he later included in the collection titled Theory of Culture Change. One of the most important was “Cultural Causality and Law: A Trial Formulation of the Development of Early Civilizations,” first published in 1949. Using secondary data from published archaeological reports, Steward argued that the earliest civilizations developed in arid and semiarid environments and shared a uniform sequence of development, including the use of irrigation in agriculture. As the telling title suggests, “Cultural Causality and Lawaddressed one of Steward’s central questions: What causes cultural change such as the independent development of civilization? A central premise came from the natural sciences. Steward believed that just as there are natural laws, discovered through scientific inquiry, so are there cultural laws that can likewise be discovered.

Arrival of Culture ecology

Steward came to call his approach cultural ecology, having used the terms ecology and ecological in print since the 1930s (e.g., “Ecological Aspects of Southwestern Society,” first published in 1937 and later reprinted in Theory of Culture Change). In the early 1950s, he finally wrote an essay on the concept and method of cultural ecology; it appeared in print as a chapter in Theory of Culture Change. There, he explicitly named and defined the cultural core, a concept implicit in his previous writings about patrilineal bands, lineage- and clan-based societies, and early civilizations. A few years later, he quietly abandoned the concept of the cultural core—which was arguably the linchpin of cultural ecology—but he never questioned the concept of the patrilineal band, despite the lack of empirical evidence to support it. This foundational concept, inspired in part by experiences at Deep Springs, held deeply personal as well as intellectual meaning for him.

In the 1950s, Steward began to be linked with Leslie White as a fellow cultural evolutionist. White’s brand of cultural evolution differed in many ways from Steward’s ideas about the causes and the course of cultural change, and Steward adopted the term multilinear evolution to distinguish his approach from what he called White’s universal evolution.

Despite its name, the basic ideas of multilinear evolution came from cultural ecology. Steward consistently focused on environmental resources, technology, and the organization of work in analyzing cultural change. To analyze change in sociopolitical structures and complexity, a topic of perennial interest to him, he developed a concept he termed levels of sociocultural integration. He included a chapter on that topic in Theory of Culture Change.

Steward always preferred the name cultural ecology for his approach, a set of ideas that he complained had been hard to “sell.” That name proved to be the one that endured, and his theoretical ideas began gaining ground after the publication of Theory of Culture Change. Steward’s environmental perspective helped stimulate a range of ecological approaches later in the 20th century, including human behavioral ecology, which has drawn adherents from biological anthropology, archaeology, and cultural anthropology. Cultural ecology’s influence on three of the four subfields of American anthropology is undeniable but perhaps not widely appreciated.

Steward has become a figure of controversy among cultural anthropologists and Native scholars for his role in the Indian Claims Commission trials and the way in which he represented Great Basin Indians in his testimony and in his published writings; for his conviction that anthropology was a value-neutral science; and for his notable preoccupation with men’s labor but his near silence about women’s, despite having learned in fieldwork as early as 1935 that women had made the larger contribution to subsistence in much of the Great Basin.

Many archaeologists, among others, continue to find great heuristic value in Steward’s cultural ecology. His founding role in environmental anthropology also continues to receive favorable attention. The Julian Steward Award, launched in 2002 and given periodically by the Anthropology and Environment Section of the American Anthropological Association, recognizes what is judged the best new book in ecological/environmental anthropology.



Theory in Social and Cultural Anthropology – An Encyclopedia, Edited by R. Jon McGee and Richard L. Warms 2013, Sage: Thousand Oaks, California

Dictionary of Anthropology, Edited by Thomas Barfield, New York: Blackwell, 1996


Further reading:


Neo-evolutionism: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2019/07/neo-evolutionism-with-special-emphasis.html

Branches of Social Cultural Anthropology (especially ecological anthropology): http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2014/11/branches-of-social-cultural-anthropology.html

Political Anthropology: http://sumananthromaterials.blogspot.com/2014/11/political-anthropology.html




 A brief discussion on Cultural Ecology by Julian Steward (Bilingual meant for my college students)

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