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This research paper presents social ecology as used in the social and behavioral sciences, with special emphasis on the research conducted by the Chicago School of Sociology. By sketching the central concepts from plant and animal ecology, the author shows how these concepts were transferred to the study of human communities. Additionally, it is shown how social ecology altered the methods used in the social and behavioral sciences. In a final section, the reasons why the approach lost influence are given and personal and thematic successors of the approach presented.
- Origins of Social Ecology
- Ecological Concepts and Their Transfer to Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Main Ecological Concepts Used in the Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Natural Areas
- Competition and Cooperation
- Reasons for Using Social Ecology in the Social and Behavioral Sciences
- Reasons for the Loss of Influence
- Phenomena of Decline
- External Factors to Control Development
- Economic Focus
- Forces Counteracting Processual Development
- Follow-Up in the Late twentieth Century: the Successors of Social Ecology
- Modification of Social Ecology
- Symbolic Interactionism
- Sustainability Studies
Social ecology describes the conceptual adaptation of plant and animal ecology to the analysis of human communities within the social and behavioral sciences. The approach is also known as human ecology and was particularly used in the early twentieth century to explain the change of societies within their physical environment over time. Its central topic of research was the social and spatial structure of industrial societies, mainly in the context of urbanization. Research with an ecological focus was prominently carried out by sociologists at the University of Chicago from the 1920s to 1930s onward, later known as Chicago School of Sociology. The sociological research using ecological concepts will therefore be in this research paper’s focus.
Origins of Social Ecology
Social ecology as field in the social and behavioral sciences roots in the times when disciplines like sociology, psychology, demography, or economics were still quite young scientific disciplines. In search for theoretical concepts and methodological frameworks, researchers started to use the concepts of ecology for the study of human communities in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In doing so, the researchers transferred the main concepts and explanatory structures of the (biological) theory of evolution to the changes of human communities. The community as basic unit of analysis in plant and animal ecology was then also used as unit of analysis in the social and behavioral sciences. The scientific analysis of human communities was the scope of the human ecology of that time. The general assumption was that both human behavior and the institutional order of a community were relative to time and space, i.e., that the development of a community had a spatial dimension and processual character. The development of human communities in general and differences between various human communities were explained on the basis of ecological concepts.
Next to the concept of community, concepts like dominance, succession, cooperation, competition, natural areas, and centralization/decentralization were adopted from the theory of evolution. They as well were ecological concepts now used to explain processes of human development and the structure of societies. Roderick McKenzie therefore defines human ecology as the “study of the spatial and temporal relations of human beings as affected by selective, distributive and accommodative forces of the environment” (McKenzie, 1925: p. 63f.).
Ecological Concepts and Their Transfer to Social and Behavioral Sciences
When transferring theoretical concepts from plant and animal ecology to human ecology, the life course of a plant or an animal was used as analogy to describe the development of a human community. The German ecologist Ernst Haeckel described the life course of an individual as consisting of three phases (Haeckel, 1866: pp. 76–81): youth/adolescence, adulthood/ maturity, and age/decline. In the first phase, the young organism grows until maturity is reached. In this second phase, the organism is highly differentiated. In the following third phase, decline begins that ultimately leads to the death of the organism.
Translating these phases to human communities was used as a tool to explain the communities’ development both in temporal and in spatial terms: during a first phase of development, a community extends in growth, both in numbers and in spatial terms, until reaching a point of equilibrium that corresponds to the human phase of maturity. In this second phase of development, the individuals in the community live in a defined area. After the equilibrium is exceeded, the community tends to decline in growth, again both in terms of numbers and its spatial spread.
The process of growth–stability–decline affects the forces at work in the community: during the first phase, the species of the community stand in competition to each other, each striving for dominance. In the second phase, the equilibrium is accompanied by an established social order where the species cooperate rather than compete in order to survive in the best way possible. In addition, the principle of dominance is at work: a fixed power relation is established that implies a social order in which one group dominates the others. During the third and last phase, the phase of decline, competition increases as the equilibrium is disturbed and social forces are released. Social disorder and economic destabilization are the results.
Main Ecological Concepts Used in the Social and Behavioral Sciences
The main topic of ecology is the analysis of communities – this is true for plant and animal ecology and for human ecology. In the nineteenth century, ecologists studied plant and animal communities to understand the “complex relations of all animals and plants to each other” (Darwin, 1937: p. 79), also called the “web of life” (Thomson, 1914: p. 263). The basic finding was that the species in a community, understood as the community’s units, each have a specific role and are interrelated to the other species in the environment.
This concept of a community whose members share the same physical environment and interact in a specific way was then transferred to human communities (see, e.g., Park, 1915; McKenzie, 1925). Robert Park, one of the representatives of social ecology in sociology and a central figure of the Chicago School of Sociology, differentiates between biotic and cultural communities to describe the different elements of human communities. According to him, human societies vary from plant and animal societies in one respect: on top of an ecological order that builds the fundament of a human community, there exist three further orders: an economic, a political, and a moral order (Park, 1936: p. 14). All three account for the existence of what Park calls “cultural community” (Park, 1936: p. 9), and are the distinctive feature of human societies.
This understanding of human societies as comprising two forms of sociality relates to Ferdinand Tönnies (1991) differentiation of ‘Gemeinschaft’ and ‘Gesellschaft’. The biotic community, a “Gemeinschaft”, forms the basis for “the cultural superstructure” (Park, 1936: p. 13), i.e., the cultural community or ‘Gesellschaft’, in which complex forms of social control, moral norms, and institutions are responsible for stability, but also social change. By including the ecological concepts of competition and cooperation as characterizing forms of interaction in his model, Park stresses the fact that the human biotic community is, analogous to plant and animal communities, characterized by competition, whereas the cultural community is based on “custom and consensus” (Park, 1936: p. 13). With these differentiations, Park formulates the peculiarities of a decidedly ‘human’ ecology in contrast to ‘plant/animal’ ecology.
By conceptualizing the physical environment of the communities as constitutive feature of their formation, Park, like his colleagues, integrates another important element of ecological theory, the role of the habitat, in the concept of the biotic and cultural communities. The development of communities leads to the formation of rather homogeneous sociospatial areas, in ecological terms ‘natural areas’ (e.g., Wirth, 1945: p. 485). Natural areas were originally thought of as the physical location of plant and animal communities, and this idea was adopted by human ecologists to describe the living environment of human communities. Natural areas are then understood as areas that are naturally grown environments of a community. In the context of human ecology, ‘natural’ does not have a biologistic meaning, but the natural areas of communities are natural in that sense that they appear to be natural, but are shaped by human interaction. Within these areas, specific norms, values, codes of acting, and institutions are cultivated. Examples for natural areas within a city are segregated areas of specific communities; prominent descriptions of, for example, gangs (Thrasher, 1927), Jewish communities (Wirth, 1928), and Black communities (Frazier, 1932) were done for Chicago by the Chicago School of Sociology.
Competition and Cooperation
Two central ecological concepts, competition and cooperation, were already mentioned in the above description of the structure of communities. Robert E. Park explicitly refers to Charles Darwin to trace the principle of “competitive cooperation” (Park, 1936: p. 3) as a guiding principle of human life – a principle that, according to Park, is per se sociological (Park and Burgess, 1921: p. 194; Park, 1936: p. 2f.) and was used by Darwin (1937: p. 85) to describe the mutual dependency of species in plant and animal communities.
According to human ecologists, competition and cooperation are features of both plant and animal communities and human communities. Competition is understood as a principle that characterizes the simultaneous existence of species. Species compete for the best position in a given environment, both in terms of food and reproduction. Transferred to the analysis of human communities, competition is mainly understood in economic terms: each individual within a community strives for the best possible economic position.
But as plant and animal ecologists observed, it is not only competition that characterizes communities. In order to survive in the best possible way in a given physical environment, species were thought of as cooperating with other species around them. By cooperating, species were able to improve their position within the community. For human communities, cooperation becomes manifest, e.g., in functional differentiation and economic specialization.
The relation of the species within a community is additionally characterized by the principle of dominance. Ecologists assumed that in each natural area there exists one species of dominance. This assumption includes the concept of a hierarchy of species in a given environment: one species dominates the others and is thus the head of a specific order, the other species being subordinate to the dominating species in the respective community. Using the principle of dominance, human ecologists describe the social structure of a community. Transferring the main aspects of the principle of dominance to human communities, Roderick McKenzie argues that each community has its own social order and a dominating form of occupation: in communities of hunters and gatherers, communities tend to be small and of temporary character. In agricultural communities, the communities’ character is more permanent. In communities with trade and commerce as dominant form of occupation, they are even more permanent and concentrate at transportation hubs like streams, railroads, etc. (McKenzie, 1968: p. 5).
Another principle formulated by plant and animal ecologists is that of succession. If the principle of dominance describes the social structure of a community, the principle of succession describes its temporal-spatial structure. The concept of succession is used by ecologists to explain the growth of plant and animal communities or, in other words, the changes a community goes through in relation to time (change of community) and space (community’s habitat). Human ecologists applied this model to human societies to explain the growth of industrial cities like Chicago at the beginning of the twentieth century and to the related changes in the social structure of the society.
Based on this ecological concept, models of city growth were formulated. One influential model was designed by Ernest W. Burgess (1925) who conceptualized the city as comprising of concentric zones. Burgess used the model to explain the growth of industrial cities by emphasizing the processual character of a city’s development. To Burgess, a city comprises different zones, each zone being the natural area of a specific community and a certain form of land use. The location of a community is a result of the communities’ competition for land use and dependent on the value of land in the respective zone. The growth of population, caused by immigration and a positive birth rate, leads to a spatial expansion of the city over time. This processual development was thought of as being regular and occurring ‘in cyclic fashion’ (McKenzie, 1968: p. 31).
The physical form of the locations of human communities and its development imply processes of centralization and decentralization. The tendency to centralize was understood as characteristic of human communities, resulting from “the tendency of human beings to come together at definite locations for the satisfaction of specific common interests” (McKenzie, 1968: p. 26). In societies of the early twentieth century, the central location was a city’s downtown area with shopping, entertainment, and business facilities. In the course of the development of cities, different zones loose and gain importance, thus leading to a process of centralization and decentralization of the whole city (Burgess, 1925; McKenzie, 1968).
Reasons for Using Social Ecology in the Social and Behavioral Sciences
At the beginning of the twentieth century, ecology and its concepts were an influential factor for the formation of social and behavioral sciences. Social scientists were confronted with social phenomena so far unknown to them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the course of industrialization, both the relationships between different individuals in a society and between individuals and their physical environment changed. A rapid growth of cities and the transformation of the social structure were observable.
The adaptation of ecological concepts for the analysis of human societies proved appropriate because of two reasons: the ecological theories describing the development of animal and plant communities gave an analytic framework to explain the interrelatedness (1) of individuals and groups within a community and (2) of the community and its environment. By using ecological concepts of how communities develop, different phases of this process could be distinguished and a temporal dimension could be added to the analysis of human communities. Thus, it was possible to describe the development of a society as a process and not as a mere sequence of static stages. Additionally, by analyzing the interrelation of a community and its physical environment, the spatial dimension of the development of human societies were taken into account.
Within the social and behavioral sciences, social ecology was most frequently used in sociology, namely, by the Chicago School of Sociology (Park and Burgess, 1921). But it also altered the methods and research topics in economics, geography, anthropology, or psychology. In general, understanding human communities as interrelated with their environment was the substantial change in regard to contents in these disciplines.
In sociology, ecological concepts and metaphors helped the young discipline to develop coherent theories and models of the development of human societies. Roderick McKenzie (1925) emphasized the difference between ecology and human ecology and formulated distinctive characteristics of an ecological analysis of living species: to him, the distinguishing skills of humans were the ability to be mobile and to adjust the habitat according to the own needs – skills that plants do not and animals hardly possess (McKenzie, 1925: p. 64). This ability enables human individuals to adjust the environment according to their needs; this alters the relationship between humans and their environment and marks a central difference to plant and animal communities’ relation to their respective habitat.
The spatial and temporal dimensions of community development were thus the topics of human ecological research as carried out by the Chicago School of Sociology (McKenzie, 1925: p. 64). Phenomena related to urbanization, central for the studies of the Chicago School, were interpreted using ecological concepts. For example, the city’s spatial expansion and its social effects were explained with the help of the concepts of succession and centralization/decentralization.
The forms of using ecological concepts differed: on the one hand, the concepts of ecology were applied to the study of human communities with only slight changes: the community was taken as the basic unit of analysis, and the mutual dependency of the community’s members was researched in its relation to the spatial environment and its temporality. On the other hand, the terms of ecology were used in a metaphorical way to describe the human environment: Burgess speaks about the ‘metabolism of the city’ (Burgess, 1925: p. 48) when describing and explaining the processes of a city’s expansion and the mobility of its population. The metaphor of a metabolism refers to the intrinsic logics of change of a city’s development.
The merit of social ecology as developed by the Chicago School of Sociology was the fact that it provided a terminology and a methodological framework for the analysis of social processes in industrial societies, especially in the context of urbanization. The sociological concept of segregation, until today widely used by social scientists to explain sociospatial phenomena like the spatial distribution of social groups according to economic capital, was developed on the basis of ecological concepts.
In early demography, an important topic of research concerned the distribution of a community’s population within a given environment and during the course of the day. Thus, both the spatial and the temporal distributions of the population were in focus. Understanding the human community as a group that follows the principle of succession within a given environment enabled the researchers to explain mobility in a city: in the course of the development of a community, various social groups compete for land in, e.g., a city. Depending on the social order of the community, each social group is assigned a specific natural area. Parallel to the growth of population, the location of the social groups and their specialization extend. Thus, mobility as phenomenon of community development is bound to demographic developments and economic and social differentiation. Empirical studies researching the spatial patterns of mobility of the city’s inhabitants were part of demographic research.
In the 1920s, ecology also influenced the research carried out in geography, with Harlan H. Barrows (1923) even understanding geography as synonymous with human ecology. Here, ecological concepts were used to explain the interrelation of human communities and their geographical environment. In contrast to sociological analyses, it is not only the spatial dimension of a community that is integrated in the analysis (Park, 1967: pp. 69–84), but the geographical environment with its decidedly geographical peculiarities.
The idea that competition and cooperation are structuring elements of community development made social ecology also applicable in the field of economics (Boulding, 1970). In psychology (Barker, 1968; Proshansky et al., 1970) and anthropology (Steward, 1955), ecological concepts influenced the analysis of social behavior and the disciplines’ methodology. This includes comparative research of communities, in a diachronic as well as in a synchronic perspective, and the identification of stages in the communities’ development patterns.
Besides influencing the theories of the social and behavioral sciences, ecology also altered the methods applied in the respective disciplines. Park describes understanding and comprehending the characteristics of local community culture as the central challenge of community research. Two different approaches to the study of human communities were established with the help of ecological research questions: a quantitative and a qualitative approach.
The quantitative approach comprised methods to analyze spatial patterns of a community’s population. A method used frequently was social area analysis. It was a means to understand phenomena like community patterns and segregation on the basis of census data (e.g., McKenzie, 1923; Shevky and Bell, 1955). In order to improve the results of such studies, Roderick McKenzie even suggested to set up an official statistical office to provide data for research (McKenzie, 1968: Chapter 3).
The qualitative approach was influenced by journalistic practices like on-street-interviewing and study trips to the community in focus. Several empirical studies using fieldwork, observation, and interviews were done at the University of Chicago (Frazier, 1932; McKenzie, 1923; Thrasher, 1927; Wirth, 1928), with this beginning to establish the ethnographic fieldwork as method in the social sciences. Robert Park, working as journalist himself, was an influential figure in establishing methods like participant observation and the usage of field notes as data (e.g., Park, 1967: Chapter 3). In anthropology, a similar change in methods took place: instead of using informants to get data on the phenomenon, researchers started to go to the people themselves.
Generally, there was not a divide between the methods used in human ecological research along the lines of a quantitative vs a qualitative approach. Both sides acknowledged the importance of the respective other set of data and methods used, and often a combination of different methods was proposed.
Reasons for the Loss of Influence
In the course of the twentieth century, social ecology lost influence in the social and behavioral sciences. Four reasons might explain this loss of influence: (1) the approach’s inability to deal with phenomena of decline, (2) conceptual problems when dealing with exogenous factors of growth and externally employed forces to control development, (3) a too strong focus on economic factors to explain developments, and (4) the inability to explain internal, subversive processes that counteract processual (in the sense of linear) developments.
Phenomena of Decline
The transfer of ecological concepts to the study of social communities took place during a phase of industrialization and urbanization. The phenomena observed and studied were all phenomena of growth. Burgess developed his model of city growth as an idealized model of Chicago that only works under the condition of growth. Succession – spatial expansion and population growth – is one of its main features. A decline of the community in terms of numbers and spatial dimension is understood as a result of the community’s cyclical development and causes economic instability and social disorder and unrest. According to social ecology and using the metaphor of an organism’s life cycle, this process is comparable to the death of the organism.
In times of economic and demographic decline and shrinking settlements, observable in many societies in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the basic ecological assumptions can in fact explain phenomena like shrinking cities and the destabilizing effects of deindustrialization and economic decline. But they cannot be used to analyze the complex processes in which humans interfere with the processes of decline in order to cope with the effects of population decrease and deindustrialization: as soon as externally controlling forces like global financial crises, natural disasters, or the like enter the stage, ecological analysis reaches its limits.
External Factors to Control Development
In ecology, growth as central aspect of the development of communities is understood as endogenous, i.e., as an internal factor influencing the process of development. Again taking Burgess’ model as reference, city growth is accompanied by the expansion and segregation of social groups within the physical environment. The tendency to centralize and decentralize is based on economic factors like land value and not on controlling influences by e.g., city planners. In the course of the twentieth century, city planning was an increasingly important task to cope with the effects of urbanization. In order to improve the living conditions in cities, a number of institutions were set up to control and regulate a city’s development.
Ecology used economic arguments to explain the development and the structure of communities: the more economic capital people possess, the farer away from the city’s core they live and the richer the communities in the suburban fringes. Human ecology adopted this argumentation to explain the social and spatial structure of human communities. In the course of disciplinary differentiation, economic explanations were said to be not sufficient any more. The development of human communities and their settlements were increasingly understood as a result of a complex set of economic, social, ecological, political, and cultural factors which made new conceptual approaches necessary.
Forces Counteracting Processual Development
Ecological analysis of communities in general and human ecological analysis in particular understood the structure of communities as homogenous, comprising a fixed hierarchy. Not in focus were the continuous internal struggles for dominance, to be observed in the parallel existence of hegemonic and subversive discourses and in the differing human practices within a community. Thus, neither the various forms of power and counterpower nor the peculiarities of an individual’s everyday practices can be taken into account in ecological analyses, among other things because the community is the unit of analysis and not the single individual.
Follow-Up in the Late twentieth Century: the Successors of Social Ecology
In the course of the twentieth century, social ecology lost influence in the social and behavioral sciences. Although the general idea of social ecology – the interrelatedness of human communities and their spatial environment – was still used as explanatory model, research with an explicitly ecological approach was generally secondary. But it also had successors. The successors can be differentiated into a direct modification of social ecology, personal successors, and thematic successors, exemplifying different forms of influence of social ecology. A prominent personal successor is Herbert Blumer. Based on the works of George Herbert Mead, he developed further the concept of symbolic interactionism and was highly influenced by the two Chicago Schools, those of Sociology and of Philosophy. Prominent thematic successors are the sustainability studies and the subdiscipline of environmental sociology. Both disciplines emerged in the second half of the twentieth century.
Modification of Social Ecology
Later researchers modified social ecology in the social sciences as used at the beginning of the twentieth century. In these later researches, the original concepts of ecology and their adaptation for the study of human societies were criticized as being too simplistic (Hawley, 1944). Additionally, a more macrolevel approach was taken on the analysis of communities within a given environment, emphasizing the collective dimension of communities (Hawley, 1986). Central topics of research were the organization of society, understanding it as a system, and the interrelation of functionally differentiated parts (Duncan et al., 1959).
A different form of follow-up can be seen in the case of symbolic interactionism, embodied by George Herbert Mead and Herbert Blumer. Mead and Blumer, both connected to the Chicago Schools of Sociology and Psychology, developed a theory of human interaction that was later called symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969). In general, Mead’s and Blumer’s interest was in the forms of human interaction within a given environment, a topic not far from the research interests of human ecologists. According to symbolic interactionism, an individual’s personality is formed within society, i.e., a human community. A central characteristic of human communities is interaction, among other things with the help of symbols. By constantly acting and interacting, social norms and values are created. Mead understands gestures as the initials of acting and is with this argument critically referring to, among others, Charles Darwin. Thus, both human ecology and symbolic interactionism share Darwin as intellectual predecessor and a general interest in the interrelation of human individuals in a community and a given environment.
Since the 1990s, sustainability studies are a new field in which a renaissance of social ecology can be noted. Interestingly, an early article by Radhakamal Mukerjee (1932) already stresses the central aspects of sustainability studies, identifying them as topics of ecological research. By referring to plant and animal ecology, Mukerjee stresses the fact that nature has its own cycle of development. If humans interfere too much with this cycle, they tend to exhaust natural resources, which ultimately destroy the basis of human life (Mukerjee, 1932: p. 353). By demanding a ‘bioeconomic cooperation’ (Mukerjee, 1932: p. 353) of humans and nature, he anticipates the sustainability movements of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. By conceptualizing the society as comprising an ecological, an economic, and a social dimension, Park (1936) formulates what will later be the central topic of sustainability studies.
Environmental sociology, thematically related to sustainability studies, is an additional subdiscipline using ecological concepts (Catton and Dunlap, 1978).
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