Political Ecology is an important theoretical framework for research. It helps break down complicated problems into smaller pieces. This makes it easier to understand how different factors interact. I used this framework a lot in my own research on water contamination. It helped me understand how politics, economics, and culture interacted, influencing people’s decisions. These choices, in turn, affected their own health and that of their family, friends, and neighbors.
So what is Political Ecology?
Political Ecology was developed initially to study environmental issues. Environmental problems don’t exist in isolation. They result from a combination of environmental processes and the choices people make. Political Ecology examines how local, national, and international actions affect local environments. It analyzes both politics and economics. This helps us understand how they shape local practices. These relationships and how they affect the environment are extremely important.
The term “Political Ecology”, first coined by Frank Thorne in 1935, existed for many years. However, it wasn’t considered a field of study until the 1970s and 1980s. It is the focus of many academic disciplines. These include scholars of sociology, economics, anthropology, political science, environmental history, and forestry. You can increasingly find it being used in several other areas of study and research as well.
We all make decisions with environmental consequences
Sometimes we buy consumer products that were made sustainably. Or we make an effort to recycle to minimize what goes into landfills. We make these choices as best as we can. Our decisions are based on our wants, needs, and the options available to us. It is hard to recycle, for example, if there isn’t a local business that handles recycling.
Many times, local decisions are influenced by conditions far away from home. For example, international markets for beef may result in local farmers using their land for raising cattle. Ranching uses the land much differently than planting crops or when the land is used for industry. As a result, it has different potential environmental concerns.
Political policies, such as trade restrictions or environmental regulations, similarly influence local practices. For instance, the cattle farmer may choose to implement measures to protect local water sources. They may do so to take advantage of government incentives. When people’s needs conflict, such as over wages or land use, the issues frequently become political as well as economic.
Political Ecology recognizes differences in power.
Everyone has agency. We all have the ability to make our own decisions. This does not mean we all have access to the same options. Farmers can’t take advantage of international beef markets if they lack the capital to invest in cattle. Nor can they if they don’t have a way to get the beef to those markets. Instead, they try to make the best choice they can for themselves and their family within the options available to them. People with more power, such as economic power and political influence, have more options available to them than those who don’t.
Political ecology is important to both historical and modern cultural research.
It allows scholars to examine how decisions made at the individual, local, national, and international levels combine to shape local experiences of health and disease. By examining economics, politics, local environments, and social and cultural factors scholars study how they interact with each other today and in the past.
We hope that this helps explain Political Ecology for you. Coming soon, we will discuss Political Ecology of Health, something that is becoming more and more important to our future.
The Researcher’s Gateway Team
Links for further study of Political Ecology
- Journal of Political Ecology
- Human Ecology
- Trust relationships and drinking water : drinking water choices in Walkerton, Ontario. – Dr. RoseAnna Downing-Vicklund (Dissertation)