Ecology is a biological term for the interaction of organisms and their environment, which includes other organisms. Cultural ecology is a theoretical approach that attempts to explain similarities and differences in culture in relation to the environment. Highly focused on how the material culture, or technology, related to basic survival, i.e., subsistence, cultural ecology was the first theoretical approach to provide a causal explanation for those similarities and differences. Developed by Julian Steward in the 1930s and 1940s, cultural ecology became an influential approach within anthropology, particularly archaeology. Elements of the approach are still seen today in ethnoecology, political ecology, human behavioral ecology, and the ecosystems approach (Tucker 2013).
Using Steward’s approach, anthropologists compare cultures in order to determine what factors influence similar cultural development; in other words, similar adaptations. In cultural ecology, cultures, not individuals, adapt. This approach assumes that culture is superorganic, a concept Steward learned from Alfred Kroeber (see historical particularism).
Steward proposed that we could begin to understand these adaptations by first examining the cultural core, as this was the critical cultural component that dealt with the ability of the culture to survive. The cultural core was comprised of the technology, knowledge, labor, and family organization used to collect resources from the environment (Tucker 2013). He then thought that examination of behaviors associated with the cultural core was necessary, which included the organization of labor. Thirdly, Steward advocated for examining how social institutions and belief systems were impacted by subsistence-related behaviors. According to the cultural ecology school of thought, cultural similarities were explained by adaptations to similar environmental conditions, causing the approach to be labeled environmental determinism. Cultural changes were due to changing environmental conditions. Since environmental changes were not predictable, cultures changed in multiple directions. Cultures that may have been similar at one point might become dissimilar if environmental conditions changed. Conversely, cultures that were dissimilar could become similar. This idea of multi-directional change is called multilinear evolution and is one of the major departures from earlier evolutionary explanations of culture. Leslie White was another proponent of cultural ecology, although he was focused primarily on how cultures harvested energy from the environment and how much energy they used.