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Mutually Constructed Nature of Human Thought and the Social and Natural Environment

Implicit in this question is the assumption that the structure and organization of individual thought serves to adapt humans to their social-ecological surroundings. This assumption has been an emphasis since the origins of psychology and, more recently, a particular focus of evolutionary psychology. Schwartz (2006) proposed, for example, that value orientations serve to guide people in a cultural group in how to maintain the individual-group relationship, how to act to preserve the social fabric, and how to manage relationships with the natural world. As another illustration, Fredrickson and Branigan (2001) argued that while negative emotions have served to support basic survival, positive emotions are believed to have fostered exploration, expansion and pioneering among humans. A final example is research by Uskul et al. (2008) who showed different ecological niches occupied by humans affect economic activities, which, in turn, produce different cognitive styles that help adapt human activities to the niche.

What is generally missing in this literature is the feedback effect that human adaptation has on the environment, an essential aspect of SES modeling. The criticism that ecology has not looked at the reciprocal effects of humans and the environment can be applied equally to the social sciences. This is one of the critical challenges for the future recognized by Oishi and Graham (2010) who introduce “socio-ecological psychology”, which would examine “how mind and behavior are shaped in part by their natural and social habitats and how natural and social habitats are in turn shaped partly by mind and behavior [emphasis added]” (p. 356).

A better understanding of reciprocal effects will be difficult to obtain without research taking on an expanded time frame that might be achieved by: (1) the integration of ethnographic and historical perspectives with traditional social psychological approaches (e.g., Haggerty and Travis 2006), and/or (2) the increased use of longitudinal research (e.g., Boone and Galvin, Chap. 9, this volume). A classic example of the former is Rappaport's (1968) Pigs for the Ancestors: Ritual in the Ecology of a New Guinea People. Rappaport based the book on his ethnographic work with the Tsembaga, a group of Maring speakers living in the highlands of Australian New Guinea (now Papua New Guinea). He presented a systems approach that proposed beliefs about religion and the resultant rituals served as the regulatory mechanism creating a homeostasis among the Tsembaga, other human groups, and the environment. The rituals served to maintain biotic communities, limit warfare among groups, provide a basis for establishing allies, and distribute protein (from a ritual involving the widespread slaughter of pig populations) throughout the local population at the time of greatest need. While Rappaport's work was criticized on a number of counts, the simplicity and elegance of his account led to it becoming a classic. It provided a compelling story of humans in a social-ecological system with ideology serving a central, adaptive role.

At present, there is little emphasis on the dynamic interplay of human thought and the social-ecological context. Far more abundant when it comes to research on the social aspects of SES is literature that: (1) is normative, with an emphasis on ways to increase collaborative approaches to governance; (2) includes individuallevel variables that give token representations of human influences in a system; and (3) consists of broad-based conceptual and structural models that depict broad categories of individual-level variables and feedbacks, with sparse articulation of specific effects. More uncommon, but emerging, are approaches that predict how people will behave when given new information or a particular set of circumstances, which in turn creates a myriad of social, policy and ecological outcomes (see Boone and Gavin, Chap. 9, this volume; Fischer et al. 2013). Approaches to SES that adequately represent the mutual construction of society, individuals, and the environment are arguably one of the most important goals for the future.

 
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