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Representing environments in flux: case studies from East Africa

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The dominant view in the ecology and anthropology of the 1950s saw populations harmoniously interacting in self-regulating systems; climax forests and stable societies were the ruling hypotheses. Now, however, ecology and social sciences are investigating nature and culture in flux. The flux paradigms of nature and culture describe a human–ecological relationship that is non-equilibrial, historically contingent and constantly negotiated at both material and ideological levels by unequal actors. In this paper, we examine the effect of changing ecological and cultural paradigms on interpretations of environmental change in three areas of East Africa: the North Pare Mountains, Tanzania, the Mkomazi Game Reserve, Tanzania and the Tsavo National Park, Kenya. We explore how discursive and materialist approaches can complement one another, by expanding the domains of ecological inquiry and demanding that analysts cross-check their data for unquestioned assumptions regarding stability, variability and spatial and temporal scales. Rather than testing a ruling hypothesis, we suggest that ecologists and social scientists work with multiple hypotheses, with the aim of understanding the interplay between ecological, environmental and social influences.

Keywords: Africa; culture; ecology; flux; nature; non-equilibrium

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3SZ, UK, Email: 2: Department of Anthropology, University of Vermont, Bington, VT 05405, USA 3: School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TB, UK

Publication date: December 1, 2003


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