Human Ecology

Written by Alana Jolley

May 27, 2017

Using Human Ecology for Genealogy

Human Ecology

The term, Human Ecology, is an interesting genre pioneered by Professor Robert Ezra Park.  This term is one, which is closely associated with anthropology.  Read on to see how “human ecology” concepts can be applied to the fast-growing hobby of genealogy world-wide.

Robert Ezra Park

Journalist, Educator, Civil Rights Activist

Anthropology has long been associated with the study of less complicated societies, living hundreds or thousands of years ago as hunter-gatherers, and/or those few cultures still living today using their skills and long-held subsistence practices to survive. In the case of genealogy, Human Ecology may be determined to be anthropologically related to the study of human beings living in urban societies today.

In Chicago, during the first half of the 20th century, Professor Park encouraged researchers to study the various minority groups, which made up what he called the “quasi-biological systems” of many cities.  Park and his assistants studied ethnic populations within the cities of Chicago, Boston, and New York. The urban populations studied were African-Americans, Jewish communities, Italian Americans, and other ethnic groups.

How can we apply those early studies of urban societies to genealogy research?  Within our genealogy findings, we should explore more than surnames, dates, and locations.  The simple definition of cultural anthropology is the study of of everyday lives.  Therefore, we should apply anthropological methods to learn about not only who our ancestors were, but what their everyday lives were like.  This is what human ecology is all about.  In other words we should try to put our ancestors into their own historical context.  In this way, we can actually get to know them.

In 1925, in his introductory essay of The City: Suggestions for the Investigation of Human Behavior in the Urban Environment,  Professor Park wrote:

  • Anthropology, the science of man, has been mainly concerned up to the present with the study of primitive peoples.  But civilized man is quite as interesting an object of investigation, and at the same time his life is more open to observation and study.  Urban life and culture are more varied, subtle, and complicated, but the fundamental motives are in both instances the same.  The same patient methods of observation which anthropologists like Boas and Lowie have expended on the study of the life and manners of the North American Indian might be even more fruitfully employed in the investigation of the customs, beliefs, social practices, and general conceptions of life prevalent in Little Italy on the lower North Side in Chicago, or in recording the more sophisticated folkways of the inhabitants of Greenwich Village and the neighborhood of Washington Square, New York.

If you have further interest in reading the entirety of this extraordinary, and before its time essay, you can visit Google Books at the following website:

Census Questions

Studying our ancestors in the way Park suggests helps us to grasp an understanding of how we have arrived in our own globalized world with a rampant consumer culture.  A great way to gain a perspective of human ecology is to study census records.  For instance, a study of several censuses, taken in the early 20th century in the United States, will reveal many aspects of daily lives.

Each census has different questions, but some common questions found on census records might be: 1) Address of the head of household? 2) Number of persons in the household? 3) Is the person’s home owned or rented? 4) Marriage status? 5) Is the person literate? 6) Parents’ place of birth? 6) Language spoken in the home? 7) Year of immigration into the United States? 8) Occupation or profession? 9) Employer or wage earner? 10) Whether a Veteran?  These are just a few examples of the questions that might be answered on a census record.

Cultural Findings

What do the answers to such questions tell us about our ancestor’s daily life?  The address is going to give us an idea of their economic situation, whether rural or urban for the first thing.  The number of persons in a household might tell us how many are dependents and how many may be contributing to the economy of the household.  Whether the home is owned or rented; and whether the head of the household is male or female or married or single gives us more insight into their daily lives.  If the person can read and write, then we know they have had some education.  The place of birth of parents and the language spoken gives us clues to whether the head of household and/or the children may be immigrants or whether born in the United States.  Occupation or profession may let us in further to their daily lives; or if the head of household is an employer or employee makes a big difference in their economic status.  If the head of household is a Veteran, it will tell us which war he or she participated in.

Where to Locate Census Records

Follow these links to locate United States Census records for genealogy research:

Tips for Locating Census and other Records

  1.  Begin with the most current census year available and work backwards.  With the 72-year restriction on access tot he Census, the most current year available is 1940.

Learn how to apply anthropological methods to enhance your genealogy and family history research, Explore More! and find ancestral Global Village.

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