environmental conditions and "constraints": reply to Read

Mike Lieber (U28550@UICVM.BITNET)
Sat, 15 Oct 1994 14:08:50 CDT

I agree with Read's several points about being careful about inferences from
environmental conditions, e.g., comparing NWC and early Scotland. I would
tweak his analysis in a couple ways. The presence or absence of cedar forests
may be less important than the sort of relationship that people have with
the sort of ecosystem one finds in a cedar forest. If another sort of forest
still made possible or necessary a similar relationship, cedar/non-cedar is
no longer a barrier to comparison. Remember Steward's comparison of Fuegians
with Shoshone with Bushmen with Pygmies etc.? Different animals in different
environmental conditions, all of these differences being less important than
the fact that the animals hunted all had the same properties--non-herding,

I would also like to tweak the idea of constraints just a bit. We could
distinguish by observation any number of variables that comprise "environmental
conditions." Whether or not these variables constitute constraints, however,
depends on the sort of technology that people use in the situation (as Steard
and others have shown repeatedly) and on whether people recognize or do not
recognize the variable that observer distinguishes. Let me give an example
from fishing in Oceania.

Ward Goodenough, Katharine Luomala, and a few others, have desribed traditional
fishing methods in the Gilberts (now Kiribati), mostly in-shore fishing,
because wood for canoes was so scarce in southern Kiribati. If you compare
these atolls with Kapingamarangi, a Polynesian Atoll south of Pohnpei in
Micronesia, who used many of the same techniques, the situation gets tricky.
There are, for example, certain species of jackfish that can be gotten with
hand lines off a canoe just outside the reef. These same species can also
be gotten with nets when they come inside the reff to feed in the shallows
near lagoon beaches. For the Kapinga, who had access to canoes, angling was
the usual way of getting these jack, and they could be fished year-round.
For the southern Gilbertese (Kiribati), netting was the usual way of getting
these jack. Thus, for the Kapingamarangi fishermen, the major environmental
constraints on capturing these jack were the availability of bait and wind
strength and direction. For the Kiribati fishermen, however, the major
environmental constraints were monthly tide patterns and windy vs. calm
season, which determine when and where the fish are likely to be found and
whether or not the water is clear enough to find and chase them. One can
push this back a bit and point out that the plant growth on each atoll
shapes which set of techniques are available, i.e., the availability of trees
that produce wood suitable for canoes. That's true. So then you need to make
a distinction between environmental conditions that constrain technological
production and those that constrain the deployment of the technological
repertoire. In my case, Kapingamarangi, religion constrained both of these
classes of environmental constraint. Like I said, it gets tricky.

The notion of "constraint" needs to be handled with care. There are at least
two orders to be considered--those of the observer and those of the locals.
It needs to be made very clear by the ethnographer which order he/she is
talking about, both in the description and in the analysis. We do tend to
slither back and forth between the two and then call it "objective
Mike Lieber