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Environmental History

Interdisciplinary Methods

As the preceding discussion indicates, environmental history draws on an array of disciplines for data, research methods, analytical frameworks, and theoretical insight. Like other historians, environmental historians still rely on written evidence for primary source material. But their subject matter, emphasizing the role of nonhuman nature in human history, requires them to look beyond written records, which contribute so much to history, because for many times and places the physical environment is sparsely documented. Those conventional sources that do exist may not readily yield answers to the questions asked of them, compelling researchers to turn to other disciplines for interpretive assistance. Anthropology, ecology, economics, epidemiology, geography, philosophy, political science, religion, sociology, the history of technology, and women's studies all make vital contributions to understanding the history of humans within nature. Environmental history developed out of necessity as a kind of "interdisciplinary discipline," and it remains so at the start of the twenty-first century, albeit with most practitioners identifying themselves as historians.

Some environmental historians initially drew on ecology, in particular, to enhance their work, attracted by its holistic conception of the earth as a web of organic relationships. In practice it has proven difficult to apply concepts derived from the sciences to human history directly, with all its messy indeterminacy, contingency, and unpredictability. Geography probably did more to shape the field by documenting changing patterns of settlement, land use, and alterations in landscape itself. Field scientists, geographers, and anthropologists inspired the strong commitment to field research that distinguishes environmental history from other kinds of history. As R. H. Tawney famously observed, "What historians need is not more documents but stronger boots" (quoted in Hancock, p. 95). His point was more about engaging with the wider world, but some historians responded literally by pulling on boots and exploring the great outdoors.

Anthropology's fieldwork methods, particularly participant observation, increasingly influenced environmental historians, who took up extended residence in the communities and environments they studied and learned how people actually utilized and interacted with nonhuman nature. Such fieldwork, including data from oral interviews with informants, opened new avenues of inquiry, especially in regions like Africa, the Americas, and other places where literacy either developed relatively recently or reflected the experiences of dominant political and economic actors (Jacobs; Moore and Vaughan). The most fruitful approaches combine written sources with the results of community-based fieldwork.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Electrophoresis (cataphoresis) to EphemeralEnvironmental History - Development Of The Field, What Is Environmental History?, Interdisciplinary Methods, Environment And Gender, Genre, Scale, And Narrative