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Advances in Ethnobiological Field Methods

Advances in Ethnobiological Field Methods

John Richard Stepp

University of Florida

This article serves as an introduction for a special issue of Field Methods titled “Field Methods in Ethnobiology.” The contribution of ethnobiological research to the development of methods in the social sciences is explored in a historical perspective. A summary of the articles found in the special issue is presented. Keywords: ethnobiology; ethnobotany; ethnozoology; methods; theory Ethnobiology is the scientific and humanistic study of the complex set of relationships of the biota to present and past human societies. As such, there are many ways the discipline can contribute to research techniques and methods in the social sciences. The field can be divided into three major domains of inquiry: economic (how people use plants and animals), cognitive (how people know and conceptualize plants and animals), and ecological (how people interact with plants and animals, especially in an evolutionary and coevolutionary framework). Ethnobiology can be further parsed into two subdisciplines: ethnobotany and ethnozoology. Given the greater importance of plants than animals for most human societies, ethnobotanical studies form the vast majority of research within ethnobiology. Scholarship in all these areas has contributed to methodological advances, although contributions from cognitively oriented ethnobiology have been most significant for the social sciences.

For many years, Field Methods (and its predecessor Cultural Anthropology Methods) has been publishing articles either directly related to ethnobiological methods on topics such as ethnoentomology (Kendall et al. 1990), home gardens (Wichramasuriya and Pelto 1991; Vogl, Vogl- Lukasser, and Puri 2004), and knowledge of plant use (Reyes-García et al. 2004) or indirectly through innovations in research techniques that are often used by ethnobiologists (e.g., freelisting, triads, pile sorts, and cultural consensus analysis). With a growing interest in the field of ethnobiology as evidenced by a tremendous rise in course offerings and graduate programs, it seems an appropriate time for a special issue devoted to field methods in ethnobiology.

In recent years, many of the methods used by ethnobiologists have been compiled into field manuals, most notably the series titled “People and Plants Conservation Manuals,” developed by the World Wildlife Fund/UNESCO/ Kew Royal Botanic Gardens as part of the People and Plants Initiative (e.g., Martin 1995; Tuxill and Nabhan 1998; Cunningham 2000). Another wellreceived methods manual was developed at the New York Botanical Garden (Alexiades 1996). This collection, then, is the latest contribution devoted to methods in ethnobiology, although it will likely not be the last. The articles contained here are by no means a comprehensive portrait of methodological innovations taking place in the field today. Rather, they represent a broad range of inquiry and development focused on improving methodological rigor and testing new ideas and hypotheses, and they build on many of the techniques described in the volumes noted above.

Field Methods 2005; 17; 211.