Foragers, Farmers and Fishers: Responses to Environmental Perturbation



This paper proposes an anthropological approach to understanding responses to environmental perturbation, one that is aligned with the humanistic and environmentalist agendas of political ecology while seeking to develop a more generic understanding of processes that shape human action in, as well as on, the worlds that people experience. We outline a comparative model that recognizes and prioritizes the role of prevailing expressions of ethos and sociality in conditioning responses to perturbation and takes variation in those expressions as focal to analysis. The model concerns the complexity of social systems, identifying two dimensions of complexity that we label ‘the involvement of parts’ and ‘the individuation of form’. Drawing on our own ethnographic studies of two, linguistically-defined, societies in Papua New Guinea and two, activity-defined, communities of commercial fishers in Australia we show, first, how differences in sociality and ethos may influence short-term responses to environmental perturbation and, secondly, how environmental perturbation may, in the longer term, influence the emergence of new forms of sociality and ethos. Where new forms do emerge, we argue, the trajectory of change will be strongly influenced by people’s prior understandings of their relations with environment and with each other, with their understandings of the extent to which they themselves were causal agents and, hence, their understandings of the extent to which they may act to ameliorate the likelihood or the effects of similar perturbations in the future.

Keywords: environmental perturbation, social change, myths of nature, blame

How to Cite: Dwyer, P. (2007) “Foragers, Farmers and Fishers: Responses to Environmental Perturbation”, Journal of Political Ecology. 14(1). doi: