What is Ethnobiology?

What is Ethnobiology? Ethnobiology is the scientific study of dynamic relationships among peoples, biota, and environments. As a multidisciplinary field, ethnobiology integrates archaeology, geography, systematics, population biology, ecology, mathematical biology, cultural anthropology, ethnography, pharmacology, nutrition, conservation, and sustainable development.  The diversity of perspectives in ethnobiology is our greatest strength.  It allows us to examine complex, dynamic interactions between human and natural systems, and enhances our intellectual merit and broader impacts.

What are the research objectives of ethnobiology? In the past, many ethnobiologists concentrated on cataloging long lists of plants and animals with their associated preparations and uses. More recently our research objectives have become more process-oriented. For example, we now study how species are domesticated and the origins and development of agriculture;  the management of useful plant and animal populations;  and process of traditional knowledge acquisition and organization.

What are the central priorities and concerns of ethnobiology? Ethnobiology is a rapidly growing field of research, gaining professional, student, and public interest within North America and internationally. There is a need in Ethnobiology to explore modern methodology appropriate for studying people-biota-environment interactions; to quantitatively analyze our multidisciplinary data based on hypotheses; to integrate diverse lines of evidence for documenting ethnobiological knowledge and practices; to develop interdisciplinary education programs to train students and practitioners of Ethnobiology; and to obtain academic funding sources. 

What kinds of methods do ethnobiologists use?  Methodologies in Ethnobiology are varied and depend on the area of study. Participant observation and informant query are often coupled with techniques and data from archaeology, molecular, population, autecological, community, and ecosystem biology. Indigenous people are becoming increasingly empowered within Ethnobiology to define research, development, and conservation priorities and to participate in the research and education efforts associated with Ethnobiology.

Ethics and ethnobiology. The Code of Ethics from the International Society of Ethnobiology (ISE) was officially adopted by the Society of Ethnobiology board. The ISE Code of Ethics has its origins in the Declaration of Belém, agreed upon in 1988 at the founding of the International Society of Ethnobiology (in Belém, Brazil). Members of SoE are urged to read the code of ethics and incorporate these practices in their ethnobiological research methods. See more information on our Ethics page.

*Text based in part on the 2002 NSF Biocomplexity Workshop Report: “Intellectual Imperatives in Ethnobiology”, Missouri Botanical Garden, St. Louis, MO, excerpted with permission by Jan Salick.