Collaborating Across Anthropological and Environmental Science Domains

The view looking up from inside of a silo. The words, "Emerge from the silo" appear in the center

This lesson challenges students to think about how anthropology and environmental science are synthesized to understand complex systems. It exposes students to a range of perspectives on the challenges and possibilities involved when working with methods, data, knowledge, and epistemological frameworks from these distinct disciplinary backgrounds. It was originally designed for people with primary training in environmental and ecological sciences and may be a way to introduce these ideas. It can be tailored to advanced undergraduate or graduate classroom students, lab group enrichment, postdoctoral training, or self-directed learning.

Assumed Prior Knowledge
Advanced undergraduate or graduate training focused on environmental issues and systems.
Learning Objectives
  • Identify existing and potential intersections between biophysical science and anthropological approaches to environmental problems and socio-environmental systems thinking.
  • Explore examples of anthropological contributions to socio-environmental syntheses and theoretical and practical issues related to collaborative synthesis research.
  • Learn about the range of possible approaches used in socio-environmental synthesis and modeling and some of the challenges and critical debates involved in such syntheses.
  • Develop knowledge of terminology, basic theory, and epistemology to facilitate further collaborations with anthropologists.
Key Terms/Concepts
anthropology; socio-ecological (or socio-environmental) synthesis; socio-ecological (or socio-environmental) system; Interdisciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity
Teaching Assignments

This lesson is built around comparisons of different encounters between anthropological approaches to knowledge and other disciplinary subjects or practices, using the four articles below as examples.

Fabinyi, M., Evans, L., & Foale, S. J. (2014). Social-ecological systems, social diversity, and power: insights from anthropology and political ecology. Ecology and society, 19(4).

Kline, J. D., White, E. M., Fischer, A. P., Steen-Adams, M. M., Charnley, S., Olsen, C. S., ... & Bailey, J. D. (2017). Integrating social science into empirical models of coupled human and natural systems. Ecology and Society, 22(3).

Leenhardt, P., Teneva, L., Kininmonth, S., Darling, E., Cooley, S., & Claudet, J. (2015). Challenges, insights and perspectives associated with using social-ecological science for marine conservation. Ocean & Coastal Management, 115, 49-60.

Vaughn, S. E., Guarasci, B., & Moore, A. (2021). Intersectional Ecologies: Reimagining Anthropology and Environment. Annual Review of Anthropology, 50, 275-290.

Depending on time constraints, teacher/leader preferences, and logistical considerations, exploration of these materials could take several forms. A few options for lesson plans are sketched below.

  1. Option 1: Student synthesis (individual homework/preparation emphasis)

    Students are required to read all four articles (or subsets selected by instructor). This will require sufficient lead time for students to read each article and respond to prompts or annotation suggestions, which may be a substantial commitment. Class time is then devoted to summarizing the key points raised by each article (led by/solicited from students) as a class/entire group and facilitated discussion comparing the synthesis approaches discussed in each example.


    Possible reading response prompts (to be completed for each reading by each student before meeting):

    • How was anthropology used to understand the environment?
    • What other disciplinary backgrounds were drawn upon, and how did they interface with anthropology?
    • Were specific methods or data used? If so, how?
    • What were some of the problems and challenges described by the authors? Did they offer suggestions for future work or improvement?


    Possible class discussion prompts:

    • Were there any common themes across articles? Or contradictory conclusions?
    • What do you think seems most challenging about incorporating anthropological perspectives into the study of complex socio-ecological systems? 
    • Reflect on your own research or expertise. Are there research questions or subjects which might require anthropological approaches? If so, what challenges do you think might arise in synthetic or multi/inter-disciplinary work, and how could they be addressed?
  2. Option 2: Group synthesis


    Students are required to closely read one of the four articles before class meeting, responding to prompts and annotation suggestions before class time. This will require some lead time for students to read one article, and group work may be compromised if some students do not prepare. Class time is then devoted to students summarizing their articles to others in their group, then working together to complete prompts comparing articles, with possible review and discussion as a class/entire group afterwards if time allows. Different group activities are possible – small groups with one person from each reading (requires multiples of four), groups comprised of people who read the same article and are preparing to present it to the class, groups of 7-8 that may include multiple people who read each article…


    Possible reading response prompts (to be completed for each reading by each student before meeting, same as above plus a few more):

    • How was anthropology used to understand the environment?
    • What other disciplinary backgrounds were drawn upon, and how did they interface with anthropology?
    • Were specific methods or data used? If so, how?
    • What were some of the problems and challenges described by the authors? Did they offer suggestions for future work or improvement?
    • What did you find most interesting or novel in this article? 
    • Were there any points where you disagreed with the authors? Why?
    • How is this article relevant to your research or expertise?


    Possible group work instructions (if synthesizing different readings):

    • Summarize each article. What were the main points? 
    • Share responses to the reading prompts.
    • Were there any ideas that emerged in multiple articles? 
    • How did anthropological knowledge feature in each article, and how did its deployment or role differ between them?
    • Do you have any general suggestions for incorporating anthropological perspectives into synthetic or interdisciplinary work on the environment, or are collaborative projects and socio-ecological systems too unique?


    Possible group work instructions (if reviewing the same reading):

    • What were the main points of the article?
    • Review and compare your responses to each of the pre-class reading prompts for this article.
    • Prepare to present your article to the class (could be done one group at a time presenting to entire class, or “group shuffle” where new groups with representatives from each article are formed and each share about their article.


  3. Option 3: Instructor review


    Students may be assigned readings (or a subset) ahead of time if instructor wishes, including prompts or annotation suggestions, which may improve student retention of material and class discussion. Instructor describes key aspects of each of the four articles (example highlights below), then students compare by discussing in groups or as a class.

    • Fabinyi et al. (2014): “We discuss current approaches to understanding the social in the SES literature, and review in greater detail the critique of limited attention to social diversity and power. We then focus on how these two concepts have been addressed in social anthropology and political ecology, and then discuss to what extent these sorts of perspectives can usefully be integrated with or compared with the SES perspective.” This article explores how synthetic accounts of resilience may benefit from incorporating insights from anthropology, including a critique of how social power and diversity are theorized in socio-ecological syntheses and suggestions for building multi- and inter-disciplinary approaches. 
    • Kline et al. (2017): “We used an agent-based model (ABM) to compile biophysical and social information pertaining to actor behavior, and to project future landscape conditions under alternative management scenarios. Project social scientists were tasked with identifying actors’ forest management activities and biophysical and socioeconomic factors that influence them, and with developing decision rules for incorporation into the ABM to represent actor behavior. We (1) briefly summarize what we learned about actor behavior on this fire-prone landscape and how we represented it in an ABM, and (2) more significantly, report our observations about how we organized and functioned as a diverse team of social scientists to fulfill these CHANS research tasks. We highlight several challenges we experienced, involving quantitative versus qualitative data and methods, distilling complex behavior into empirical models, varying sensitivity of biophysical models to social factors, synchronization of research tasks, and the need to substitute spatial for temporal variation in social data and models, among others. We offer recommendations that other research teams might consider when collaborating with social scientists in CHANS research.” This article offers concrete analysis of the challenges involved in actual inter- and multi-disciplinary research.
    • Leenhardt et al. (2015): “Here, we synthesize conceptual frameworks, applied modeling approaches, and as case studies to highlight complex social-ecological system (SES) dynamics that inform environmental policy, conservation and management. Although a set of “good practices” about what constitutes a good SES study are emerging, there is still a disconnection between generating SES scientific studies and providing decision-relevant information to policy makers.” This article offers a broader background on theoretical approaches to inter- and multi-disciplinarity in synthesis work with examples drawn from marine conservation and management. Not specifically focused on anthropology, though anthropological methods and research frameworks were used in some of the examples described.
    • Vaughn et al. (2021): “Drawing on the work of Black feminist scholars, this review suggests “intersectional ecologies” as a method for critically engaging anthropology's relationship with the environment across subfields, intellectual traditions, and authorial politics… In this review, we examine the recent (re)turn to the environment in anthropology. In doing so, this article identifies themes—materiality, knowledge, and subjectivity—that emerge when scholars confront the environment as a creative resource for advancing a more ethically oriented discipline.” Very salient review of anthropology’s encounters with the environment, with critiques and suggestions missing from other reviews. Focused on the practices, frameworks, and scholars within anthropology but implicitly relevant to inter- and multi-disciplinary work. 


    Instructor would summarize key points of each article, compare different uses of anthropology to understand complex socio-ecological systems, and identify common themes and contradictions around synthesizing or combining anthropological approaches with other disciplines. Active participation may be interspersed by adapting questions from the group work described above, addressed to class as a whole or in targeted pair-share/group discussions around one or two questions at a time at the appropriate place in the lecture.

Background Information for the Instructor
  • Other SESYNC lessons on anthropology (see "Related Content" below)
  • (Optional) West, P. (2016). Foundations and debates in anthropology (SESYNC learning material/video). SESYNC Immersion distinguished scholar workshop: anthropology.
    • Overview of deeper intellectual genealogies and roots of anthropology more generally. Describes anthropology’s genesis in European colonial and imperial projects and how the late 20th century reckoning with these origins transformed the discipline, with a particular impact on conservation as anthropologists left academia. May prime students to think about critiques and challenges that may arise in synthesis work involving anthropology.