The Ecological Approach to the Study of the Human Community

The Ecological Approach to the Study of the Human Community
R.D. McKenzie (1924)

R.D. McKenzie's "The Ecological Approach to the Study of the Human Community" suggests that the spatial and temporal distribution of human society can be understood by analyzing it like scientists analyze plant and animal ecology - that is to say systematically and scientifically. Ecology, as defined in 1924, only about 60 years after the term was first coined, was "that phase of biology that considers plants and animals as they exist in nature, and studies their interdependence, and the relations of each kind and individual to its environment." McKenzie expands this definition when dealing with human ecology to "the study of the spatial and temporal relations of human beings affected by the selective, distributive and accomodative forces of the environment." McKenzie says, human communities are not purely the result of designed environments, but are subject to natural needs of man. To explain this point, McKenzie describes how the human community is predicated on people's natural needs, including community in the form of other individuals, the house, the road, and water.

What I found most interesting about this reading was how for McKenzie "the wider ecological process" which influences the growth, size and limits of communities is the process of production and distribution of commodities but he addresses the issue from a very removed position. While the terms he sets up for his discussion seem as though he could dive into a Marxist account of how communities are driven by ceaseless production, or die because they are no longer viable to the economy, he instead sets up a sort of production-food chain, which describes how different physical agglomerations relate to one another and how physical site and connections between them shape the different types of community. For example, he says the commercial community, which exists to trade raw resources from the primary production towns, has limits determined by its site location. While a small wholesaling town in Iowa might trade only agricultural products and therefore support only a relative few, a port city like New York could be connected to cities across the continent and across the oceans, and in drawing more resources, be able to support millions. I do wonder if anyone was writing in critical Marxist, or materialist terms, at this time, or with a more localized view of these processes. Even in comparing London and New York at this time, there were many differences in the incorporation of similar businesses or port activities into the fabric of city life.

McKenzie, also says that cycles of growth and decline are fed by the advent and change of "modern conditions of communication and transportation", and indicates these technologies increase the rapidity with which communities cycle through growth and decline, but he presents all these complicated ideas as simple observations. In taking on the mantle of the social scientist, one who examines human communities "scientifically," he really gives only a glancing view of the many engines that drive society. Even if ecology is a byword for economy here, McKenzie strips words like production and distribution of their extremely charged meanings. Upon first reading it is almost too easy to agree with McKenzie because the picture he presents is so tidy. Of course cities grow according to how economically diverse they are. Of course cities with more connections, by transportation or communication, attract more people. And of course there is a status quo in each community which can be upset by inputs...But why? Why? Why? Even excusing the year of publication, which may not be an excuse at all, I think this ecological framing is an almost dangerous approach to understanding human community.

I found the most frustrating part of the article to be McKenzie's list of reasons for invasions - first of all the word is so fantastically charged in all sorts of ways - ecological, political, cultural, militaristic - and the idea of acceptance or rejection based on existing solidarity seems so complicated, but McKenzie does not address how racial or economic issues influence the fluctuations of the community. His approach might seem compelling because it presents a clean way of understanding how communities materialize but I think in missing the social, cultural, racial, and other seemingly minute trends, as well as a critical understanding of the economic forces, the paper actually obscures how these complicated forces interact. I think the naturalizing of these trends ossifies our understanding of them and leaves an impression that however communities develop must have been meant to be according to their "ecology."