Introduction to Anthropology for Socio-Environmental Science

5 men stand talking in a jungle
Anthropological Interview. Photo Courtesy of Peter Newton. 

This lesson introduces anthropology to people with primary training in environmental and ecological sciences. It can be tailored to advanced undergraduate or graduate classroom students, lab group enrichment, postdoctoral training, or self-directed learning. A SESYNC lecture by Eduardo Brondizio, as well as, examples from climate change are suggested to introduce key concepts and foster discussion.

Assumed Prior Knowledge
Advanced undergraduate or graduate training focused on environmental issues and systems.
Learning Objectives
  • Introduce anthropology’s scope of inquiry, epistemological foundations, and methods, with emphasis on the development of approaches to understand relationships between people and their environment.
  • Identify existing and potential intersections between biophysical science and anthropological approaches to environmental problems and socio-environmental systems thinking.
  • Develop knowledge of terminology, basic theory, and epistemology to facilitate further collaborations with anthropologists.
Key Terms/Concepts
anthropology; epistemology; ethnography; ecological anthropology; political ecology; socio-environmental synthesis
Teaching Assignments

The following are suggestions for assignments and/or in-class use. 

  1. Introduction: Climate Change Example

    • “Studying climate change in the Arctic” (2 min. video by Los Alamos National Lab)
      Short video that describes biophysical approaches to studying climate change in the Arctic. 

    • Ask students to respond to the following prompt individually, with a list or sketch (3 min): What kinds of research approaches can be used to understand climate change? This is loose – research on climate change can be defined broadly here (evidence, causes, impacts, responses), and list broad frameworks, specific methodologies, and everything in between. Note the disciplinary background required for each approach you list.


    • Solicit sharing from a few people. What kinds of approaches did they include in response to the prompt above? Which disciplines were represented? Ask students to raise hands if they included a natural science approach (e.g. global climate models, species distribution). Then ask about social sciences, can ask about a few specifically (political science, economics, sociology, etc.), then anthropology.


    • Have students read Barnes et al. (2013) while in the class/meeting (3 pg., < 10 min). 
      Barnes, J., Dove, M., Lahsen, M., Mathews, A., McElwee, P., McIntosh, R., ... & Yager, K. (2013). Contribution of anthropology to the study of climate change. Nature Climate Change, 3(6), 541-544. 

    • Facilitate brief discussion (5-10 min) on the main points (“Ethnographic insights”, “Historical perspective”, “A holistic view”). From abstract: “Societal dynamics, as drivers of change, always interact with, and often outweigh, climate change — an issue that needs recognition for the success of public policies.”
      Possible discussion prompts: 

      • Were you familiar with the approaches to studying climate change discussed?
      • How do these approaches to studying climate change compare to the list you made before reading?
      • Why are social science perspectives important for understanding climate change? According to the authors, what is special about anthropology in this regard?


  2. Overview of Anthropological Approaches to the Environment

    • Students will need to view Brondizio video or read Brondizio et al. (2016) (see background information for instructors at the bottom of the page) before class to prepare, or instructor can show video in class or create lecture reviewing main points.


    • Activity: Have students (in groups) compare/contrast different subfields/approaches described in Brondizio video/article. Prompts should reinforce distinctions and similarities among the different approaches anthropologists have used to understand environmental questions. Brondizio suggests anthropology has influenced socio-ecological systems thinking but anthropologists have not been central in its development and suggests this is a missed opportunity on all sides, and that developing synthetic approaches that learn from these past anthropologies is key to this project, and prompts can encourage students to identify potential connections to their own experience/knowledge of S-E approaches. Example prompts:

      • Identify the different approaches anthropologists have used to understand the relationships between people and their environment. Describe the key features of each approach, list any potential limitations or criticisms mentioned, and give an example of a research question or goal that each approach might pursue.
      • What are the units of study and the spatial scales involved in these different anthropological approaches? How do they compare to the units of study and scales involved in biophysical approaches to understanding similar issues or phenomena? What kinds of data might be collected in anthropological vs. biophysical approaches to studying human relationships with their environments?
      • Are you familiar with any research related to your background or own research subjects that seems similar to the approaches described here? What kinds of questions might anthropological approaches ask about your research interests? 


    • Discussion: Have students reflect on how anthropology approaches environmental phenomena and issues, and how their own work might benefit from collaboration. Instructor can reinforce key information with slides if desired. Possible prompts for discussion:

      • What kinds of questions about your (students’) system of study might be posed from anthropological perspectives?
      • How does anthropology differ from other disciplines in the social sciences and humanities in approaching ecological systems?
      • What scales and units of study have been used in anthropological research, and how do these compare to scales and units of study used in ecological and environmental sciences?


    • Reinforce main messages in Brondizio materials by either presenting key points and soliciting feedback, or have students report back from their group discussions and draw out key messages.


    • Compare examples of different approaches. Depending on time constraints and instructor preference, this can be a group activity, pair-share, homework, or presentation by instructor. Instructor will need to develop specific materials. The following articles explore impacts of climate change in the Arctic using very different approaches. Both involve changes in river systems and altered weather and ice patterns, and both draw conclusions about how ecosystems are changing. Students should understand in general terms the scope of the research questions, methods, and conclusions drawn from each, compare the types of knowledge gained from each approach, and reflect on the roles of each approach in attempting to understand a complex socio-environmental problem. Instructor should reinforce perspective that neither approach is wrong—the point is not to decide which is better or worse. Rather, students should see how multiple approaches are necessary to understand complex systems. Both articles are open-access:

      • Moerlein, K. J., & Carothers, C. (2012). Total environment of change: impacts of climate change and social transitions on subsistence fisheries in northwest Alaska. Ecology and Society, 17(1). 
      • Pavelsky, T. M., & Zarnetske, J. P. (2017). Rapid decline in river icings detected in Arctic Alaska: Implications for a changing hydrologic cycle and river ecosystems. Geophysical Research Letters, 44(7), 3228-3235. 


Background Information for the Instructor
  1. Foundations of Environmental Anthropology

    • This video describes the intellectual genealogy of different anthropological approaches (primarily in sociocultural domain) to studying the relationships between people and their environment, and the debates and interconnections between disparate intellectual traditions. (40 min.)

    • Brondizio, E. (2016). Foundations of Environmental Anthropology. SESYNC.


  2. History and scope of environmental anthropology

    • Similar material as Brondizio video above, in text form.

    • Brondizio, E., Adams, R. T., & Fiorini, S. (2016). History and scope of environmental anthropology. In: Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology (pp. 10-30). Routledge.


  3. Foundations and Debates in Anthropology (Optional)

    • 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. Potential alternative to Brondizio video for lesson material. 

    • West, P. (2016). Foundations and Debates in Anthropology. SESYNC.


  4. Sustainability Through the Lens of Human Behavioral Ecology (Optional)

    • Presentation of human behavioral ecology connections to environmental sustainability and conservation. This video may require further reading, discussion, and contextualization related to controversial (and sometimes discredited and eugenicist) applications of evolutionary theory in human contexts. Thoughtful and informed discussion of the uses and misuses of behavioral ecology may be interesting and helpful for students, but guidance on such discussions is beyond the scope of this lesson.

    • Borgerhoff Mulder, M. (2016). Sustainability Through the Lens of Human Behavioral Ecology. SESYNC.