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Human ecology, the study of the relationships between humans and their environments, is a field with a large scope and complex history. It arose out of multiple disciplines—animal biology, anthropology, geology, ecology, and sociology—in the early 1900s as scientists struggled to make sense of the impact of humans on the man-made and natural environment and the impact of environments on the social systems of humans. Human ecology is also viewed by many as a methodology or framework for studying human activities and social institutions, often in conjunction with the health and functioning of the natural environment.
History and Development
The earliest mention of human ecology can be found in the early 1900s among animal ecologists, who, as a result of studying population trends among plants and animals, suggested that ecological principles also applied to humans and their relationship to the natural environment. Later, biological ecologists and population scientists used similar concepts—such as ecosystem, environmental niche (the space occupied by an organism in which it can survive and reproduce), feedback loop, stability, and growth—to address issues of population growth and environmental destruction; this line of study became particularly prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, as in the 1973 work of Paul Erhlich, Anne Erhlich, and John Holdren. Also in the 1970s, Urie Bronfenbrenner (1979) developed an ecological model of human development to understand the reciprocal relationships between individuals and the multiple environments in which they live. Gerald Marten (2001) uses human ecology and complex systems theory as a framework to examine economic systems and other social institutions and their impact on the natural environment. In particular, he discusses human ecology as a tool for resolving issues of sustainable development and environmental problems by understanding the complex interrelationship between human social systems and the ecosystem.
Anthropologists used ecological concepts to study the history and culture of human groups and societies to explain their success, failure, or adaptation. The concepts of equilibrium, movement of resources, sustainable development (meeting present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs), and the adaptation of organizational systems have been applied to the study of families, communities, race relations, schools, workplaces, government agencies, and other social institutions. It was in the study of urban environments that the concepts of human ecology achieved prominence. Sociologists working in this area—Park and Burgess (1920s), Frazier and Sutherland (1930s), and Janowitz (1950s)—addressed key issues such as the impact of human settlement on land-use patterns (for example, traffic flow patterns, water and flood management), the intertwined history of industrial development and urban decay, race relations, and white flight to the suburbs—in other words, the components of urban and regional planning. The underlying issue is understanding how demands for space and resources influence the development of community and business organizations across rural and urban landscapes, and how the environment influences the structures and strictures imposed by human social systems.
The sociological approach to human ecology was epitomized by the Chicago School—an approach to research pioneered most famously by the Department of Sociology at the University of Chicago beginning in the 1920s and 1930s—which focused on using theory and field research methods to understand human behavior and organization in the urban environment. Beginning in the early 1920s, scholars such as Ernest Burgess and Robert E. Park employed ecological concepts to explain the development of cities and communities. For example, the POET model—population, organization, environment, and technology—was developed to address the complex relationships between humans, their social organizations, and their environments. One of the architects of sociological human ecology was Amos Hawley (b. 1910), a population specialist and professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who argued that human ecology was “the basic social science” (1944, p. 405). Hawley is known for his work on the conceptual and theoretical foundations of sociological human ecology (see Hawley 1986) and the associations among population, the socialpolitical-economic environment, and change in developing nations.
The Ecology of Human Development
Human development is a subfield within the larger field of human ecology. In the 1970s Bronfenbrenner developed the ecological theory of human development, which made use of the general principles of ecology, general systems theory, and human development to explain individual differences in cognitive, biological, and social-emotional development in context. Bronfenbrenner conceived of context as a series of concentric circles, with the individual at the center and each circle representing increasingly complex environments, from proximal to distal, that might affect the development of the individual. Lines of influence are viewed as reciprocal within and between environments. For example, the most proximal environment for a child is the family, represented by parent-child interactions, childsibling interactions, and marital interactions, all of which may influence some aspect of the child’s development. Just as humans do not live in isolation from nature, a family does not exist in isolation, but operates in a microsystem encompassing those individuals with whom children and parents have regular and ongoing interaction. The third circle represents larger societal institutions, such as schools, businesses, churches, and local government, and the outer circle (the exosystem, or societal institutions that form larger environments of family units) represents larger structural institutions such as state and federal government and international social systems whose polices and laws may affect families and their natural environments. This theoretical framework explicitly recognizes that individuals do not develop in isolation; interactions with families and social groups influence individual development across the lifespan and across generations.
Human Ecology as a Field Of Study
As an academic discipline, human ecology has emerged around the world as a field that brings together various aspects of sociology, economics, home economics, anthropology, gender studies, community development, agronomy, and regional planning. The concepts of human ecology fit into the scientific framework of multiple disciplines, all of which examine some aspect of the interactions between humans and their multiple environments. In a 1994 article William Catton suggests that sociologists “must learn to see human social life ineluctably intertwined with other components of ecosystems” if human ecology is to understand and address the problems of human societies (p. 86). Although different, not always overlapping strains of human ecology have evolved in multiple disciplines, the central concepts are strikingly similar, whether pertaining to issues of urban and regional planning, the use of natural resources and sustainable development, or the study of individuals and families. Humans and their social systems, from small to large, must be viewed within their larger environments, including the natural environment, to trace the “chain of effects through ecosystems and human society, and by understanding more generally how people interact with ecosystems” (Marten 2001, p. xv).
Researchers and writers across multiple disciplines agree that human ecology is a valuable framework for studying and understanding the interrelationships between the social systems of humans and the systems of nature. The health of humans, their social systems, and their natural environments may depend on an understanding of this interdependency.
- Bronfenbrenner, Urie. 1979. The Ecology of Human Development: Experiments by Nature and Design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
- Bronfenbrenner, Urie, and Pamela A. Morris. 1998. The Bioecological Model of Human Development. In Theoretical Models of Child Development, Vol. 1 of Handbook of Child Psychology, 5th ed., ed. William Damon, 993–1028. New York: John Wiley.
- Catton, William R., Jr. 1994. Foundations of Human Ecology. Sociological Perspectives 37 (1): 75–95.
- Ehrlich, Paul. R., Anne H. Ehrlich, and John P. Holdren. 1973. Human Ecology: Problems and Solutions. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman.
- Hawley, Amos H. 1944. Ecology and Human Ecology. Social Forces 22 (4): 398–405.
- Hawley, Amos H. 1950. Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. New York: Ronald Press.
- Hawley, Amos H. 1986. Human Ecology: A Theoretical Essay. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Marten, Gerald G. 2001. Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development. London and Sterling, CA: Earthscan Publications.
- Micklin, Michael, and Harvey M. Choldin, eds. 1984. Sociological Human Ecology: Contemporary Issues and Applications. Boulder, CO: Westview.
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