Dr. David Casagrande

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Picture of Dr.David Casagrande

Associate Professor of Anthropology


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STEPS Building, Room 436
Lehigh University
1 West Packer Ave.
Bethlehem, PA 18015

Tel: (610) 758-2672

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'Ethno' refers to human culture and 'ecology' refers to interactions between organisms and the physical environment. Ethnoecology is the cross-cultural study of how people perceive and manipulate their environments. It has traditionally focused on linguistic analyses of terms for plants, animals, habitats, and other ecological phenomena in attempts to reveal underlying structures of the human mind that influence human behavior. We learn about basic human nature by comparing data from many different cultures. This also allows us to appreciate the amazing variety of ways that humans find solutions to environmental challenges. More recently, the field has expanded to include the economic and political dimensions of human volition. Ethnoecology's strength lies in its basic assumption, as outlined by Frake (see below), that it is important to determine first what indigenous people "consider worth attending to" if we are to understand human relations with non-human environments.

Tzeltal, Maya Corn FieldSubsistence corn farming defines the Tzeltal Maya relationship with their landscape (photo D. Casagrande)
Phoeniz, AZ desert scapeThe absence of a subsistence economy, combined with nearly complete human control of water, creates extreme landscape variability in Phoenix, Arizona (photos D. Casagrande)Phoenix, AZ water scape

The early works of Conklin, Frake, Berlin and others (see below) documented rich and detailed indigenous knowledge systems that allow humans to subsist and flourish. These works helped destroy the ethnocentric view that indigenous knowledge was less rigorous than "western" scientific knowledge. Indigenous and western ways of knowing the natural world are different, however. Ethnoecologists have developed methods and databases that allow us to make sense of these differences. As a result, ethnoecology has profound potential for contributing to conservation of cultural and biological diversity in that it serves as a bridge of understanding between cultures.

In my ethnoecological studies, I have attempted to understand the organizational and cognitive relationships that each local culture has with its non-human environment. My research is comparative in that I conduct field work within different types of social organization, ranging from subsistence farming in Chiapas, Mexico to post-industrial cities of the United States. My research is theoretical in that I use these comparisons to elucidate fundamental cognitive and social processes that underlie human interactions with our environments. In particular, I focus on how information is shared by studying patterns of cultural transmission and distribution of knowledge within groups of people (see also Information Ecology). An understanding of how environmental information is distributed and used is important because it is through the evolution of our ability to cooperate socially that we adapt to our environments. On the other hand, the asymmetrical distribution of environmental knowledge, perceptions and values provide a basis for political conflict, and may help explain why more complex societies become less adaptive to changing conditions. My work is experimental. For example, I've used Tzeltal Maya migration as a natural experiment to test how cultural models guide plant selection in new habitats. We manipuled residential landscapes in Phoenix, Arizona to test effects on residents' knowledge and perceptions. We are using ecological restoration of a wetland in New Haven, CT as an experiment by comparing the way humans respond to changes to an un-restored control site. My work is also applied in that I use the information I generate to implement solutions to current problems, such as conservation of biodiversity, water scarcity, or ecological restoration that explicitly includes humans.

Examples of My Work in Ethnoecology:

  • Casagrande, David G.. 2017. Ethnoscientific implications of classification as a socio-cultural process. Pp. 55-68 in Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology. New York: Routledge Press.
  • Casagrande, D.G., and M. Vasquez. 2009. Restoring for cultural-ecological sustainability in Arizona and Connecticut. Pp. 195-209, in Marcus Hall (Ed.), Restoration and History: The Search for a Usable Environmental Past. Routledge Press (Abstract)
  • Larson, K. L., D. G. Casagrande, S. Harlan, and S. Yabiku. 2009. Residents’ yard choices and rationales in a desert city: Social priorities, ecological impacts, and decision tradeoffs. Environmental Management. 44 (5): 921-937. (Abstract)
  • Yabiku, S., D. G. Casagrande and E. Farley-Metzger. 2008. Preferences for landscape choice in a Southwestern desert city. Environment and Behavior. (Abstract)
  • Rands, G., B. Ribbens, D. Casagrande, and H. McIlvaine-Newsad. 2007. Envisioning an ecologically sustainable society: An ideal type and an application. Pp. 22-59, in S. Sharma, M. Starik and B. Husted (Eds.), Organizations and the Sustainability Mosaic: Crafting Long-Term Ecological and Societal Solutions. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar Publishing. (Abstract)
  • Casagrande, D. G., D. Hope, E. Farley-Metzger, W. Cook, and S. Yabiku. 2007. Problem and opportunity: Integrating anthropology, ecology, and policy through adaptive experimentation in the urban American Southwest. Human Organization 66(2):125-139. (Abstract)
  • Hope, D., C. Gries, D. Casagrande, C. L. Redman, N. B. Grimm, and C. Martin. 2006. Drivers of spatial variation in plant diversity across the Central Arizona-Phoenix ecosystem. Society and Natural Resources 19(2):101-116. (Abstract)
  • Casagrande, D. G. 2005. Who Wins? Globalization, migration, and indigenous commodification of medicinal plants in Chiapas, Mexico. Pp. 83-106, in G. Guest (Ed.), Globalization, Health, and the Environment: An Integrated Perspective. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press. (Abstract)
  • Cook, W., D. Casagrande, D. Hope, P. M. Groffman, and S. L. Collins. 2004. Learning to roll with the punches: Adaptive experimentation in human-dominated systems. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 2(9): 467-474. (Abstract)
  • Casagrande, D. G. 2004. Conceptions of primary forest in a Tzeltal Maya community: Implications for conservation. Human Organization 63:189-292. (Abstract)
  • See all publications

A Brief Annotated Bibliography of Ethnoecology:

  • Berlin, Brent. 1992. Ethnobiological Classification: Principles of Categorization of Plants and Animals in Traditional Societies. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. (This work lays the foundations for cognitive approaches to indigenous ecological knowledge.)
  • Casagrande, David G.. 2017. Ethnoscientific implications of classification as a socio-cultural process. Pp. 55-68 in Routledge Handbook of Environmental Anthropology. New York: Routledge Press. (This work proposes methodologies to study the social processes that shape ecological knowledge).)
  • Conklin, Harold. 1967. Some aspects of ethnographic research in Ifugao. Transactions of the New York Academy of Sciences, Series II 30(1):99-121. (This seminal paper brought the concept of ethnoecology to fruition, and laid the foundations of inquiry that still underlie the field.)
  • Fowler, Catherine S. 1977. Ethnoecology. Pp. 215-243, in D. Hardesty (Ed.), Ecological Anthropology. New York: John Wiley & Sons. (A good, brief, and comprehensive explanation of ethnoecology up to 1977.)
  • Frake, Charles O. 1962. Cultural ecology and ethnography. American Anthropologist 64:53-59. (The historical roots of ethnoecology can be traced back to this paper.)
  • Frechione, J.D., D.A. Posey, L.F. da Silva, 1989. The Perception of Ecological Zones and Natural Resources in the Brazilian Amazon: An Ethnoecology of Lake Coari. Advances in Economic Botany. 7:260-282. (A relatively current example of ethnoecology that is both rigorous and applied.)
  • Hunn, E. 1989. Ethnoecology: The Relevance of Cognitive Anthropology for Human Ecology. Pp. 143-160 in M. Freilich (Ed.), The Relevance of Culture. New York: Bergin and Garvey. (Probably the most influential paper that describes the status of ethnoecology today, and recommends research that bridges cognitive and behavioral studies.)
  • Nazarea-Sandoval, Virginia D. 1995. Local knowledge and agricultural decision making in the Philippines: class, gender, and resistance. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (A recent ethnoecological study that includes political and economic dimensions, as well as cognitive.)

"Scientists believe in proof without certainty: most people believe in certainty without proof."

Ashley Montagu