Anthropological Approaches to Socio-Environmental Systems

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    A woman with two small children tending to a sheep

Understanding how human behavior factors into environmental issues is critical for finding potential solutions. As the study of humanity—including human biology, behavior, cultures, societies, and linguistics—anthropology can provide key insights into humans' role in shaping the environment—both past and present.  Below are several SESYNC resources that aim to explain the foundational theories of anthropology, its application to socio-environmental systems, and anthropologists' methods.


  • Foundations and Debates in Anthropology – In this lecture, Dr. Paige West outlines an intellectual genealogy of anthropology, describes past and present epistemologies underlying anthropology, and discusses key debates throughout the history of the discipline.
  • Anthropological Research Methods – In this lecture on anthropological research methods, Dr. Michael Paolisso presents an overview of the perspectives taken by researchers and the approaches used to gather and interpret information, including qualitative and quantitative methods for data gathering and analysis and the range of outcomes, such as case studies, comparisons, and participatory and collaborative research. 
  • Foundations of Environmental Anthropology – In this lecture, Dr. Eduardo Brondizio traces the history of ideas used to study the relationship between human culture and environmental constraints starting with cultural ecology and moving through ecological anthropology, political ecology, ethnobiology, and historic and symbolic ecologies.  He also covers how anthropology and related disciplines are dealing with the epistemological and moral tensions inherent in current challenges facing humans and the environment. 
  • Sustainability through the Lens of Human Behavioral Ecology – In this lecture, Dr. Monique Borgerhoff Mulder overviews the focus, history, and approaches used in the subdiscipline of human behavioral ecology, including how human behavior ecology seeks to better understand human tendencies, how those tendencies vary, and potentially how they can be contained or harnessed.
  • Culture, Cognition, and the Environment – In this lecture on culture, cognition and the environment, Dr. Michael Paolisso presents an overview of the cognitive approach to understanding culture, and its application to environmental challenges.
  • Contemporary Applications of Anthropological Concepts – In this lecture on contemporary applications of anthropological concepts, Dr. Monique Borgerhoff Mulder presents several examples of topics and research areas that are currently explored in environmental anthropology. 
  • Households, Populations, and Complex Socio-Environmental Systems – In this lecture on households, populations, and complex socio-environmental systems, Dr. Eduardo Brondizio uses the example of the Brazilian Amazon to describe the increasing complexity and connectivity of the modern globalized world.
    An aerial view of a fishing village with numerous boats along the coast



  • Introduction to Anthropology for Socio-Environmental Science – This lesson introduces anthropology to people with primary training in environmental and ecological sciences. 
  • Introduction to the Methods of Anthropologists – This lesson introduces research methods used in anthropology to people with primary training in environmental and ecological sciences; it is meant to help students identify complementary approaches to environmental issues and subjects, and to understand the scale and scope of data generated by these methods.
  • Collaborating Across Anthropological and Environmental Science Domains – 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.