Anthropologists at the All Scientists Meeting of the Long Term Ecological Research Network (Anthropology News)

By Mark Moritz, Michael Paolisso, Courtney Carothers, Sean Downey, Kathleen Galvin, Drew Gerkey, Steven Lansing, Terrence McCabe, Amber Wutich and Rebecca Zarger

March 1st, 2013

"Participants attend a working group session on anthropological sciences, ecology and environment during the 2012 LTER All Scientists Meeting in Estes Park, Colorado. Photo courtesy LTER Network Office"

Participants attend a working group session on anthropological sciences, ecology and environment during the 2012 LTER All Scientists Meeting in Estes Park, Colorado. Photo courtesy LTER Network Office

In September 2012, we participated in the 2012 All Scientists Meeting (ASM) of the Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) Network in Estes Park, Colorado to make the case for integrating more anthropologists into the study of ecosystems. During the ASM’s initial plenary, the presence of embedded anthropologists was announced to all, and we were invited to stand and identify ourselves for the audience. From then on we spent several days immersing ourselves in the activities of the LTER network and engaging with its researchers, a group previously unknown to many of us. We worked to overcome apprehensions (“Why are anthropologists studying us?”), identify areas where our expertise might be useful (“What can anthropologists contribute to ecological research?”), and left with some experiences and ideas that we would like to share with fellow anthropologists who may be interested in pursuing the challenges and opportunities provided by the LTER network.

The LTER Network

The National Science Foundation (NSF) created the LTER Network in 1980 to support long-term research of ecosystems with the understanding that many ecosystem processes can only be studied through long-term research. Sites were selected to represent major ecosystem types or natural biomes across the US (there are now also a few international LTER sites). It is one of the most highly funded NSF programs. The LTER Network is a major component of the LTER program as it allows for integrative cross-site, and network-wide research. The ASM is another critical component of the network as it brings researchers, post-docs, graduate and undergraduate students together every three years to share results, discuss progress, and develop new collaborative research projects. The ASMconsists of an intensive six-day program with workshops, keynote speakers, poster presentations (with free beer) and field trips, which all offer plenty of opportunities to strengthen and develop new connections and opportunities within the network.

Anthropologists at the ASM

Anthropologists (eg, Ted Gragson, Laura Ogden, Charles Redman) have been involved in research at a number of the LTER sites and have written about the integration of social science in the LTER network (Redman et al, Integrating Social Science into the Long-Term Ecological Research [LTER] Network, Ecosystems, 2004), but the theme of this year’s ASM meeting—the Anthropocene—offered a unique opportunity to make the case for greater involvement of anthropologists in LTER projects. And so with support of the cultural anthropology program at NSF, Steve Lansing gave a keynote lecture about his research on complex adaptive systems in Bali, while Michael Agar and Michael Paolisso organized two workshops to identify intellectual and programmatic bridges between ecological and environmental anthropology and LTER projects to strengthen research into ecological and human dimension interactions at multiple spatiotemporal scales. The workshops showcased our research, which represented a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches within ecological anthropology, but all underscored the relevance of anthropological approaches for study of complex social-ecological systems in the Anthropocene. In addition, we participated in workshops, visited the poster sessions, and made connections with LTER researchers. Most researchers at our session were already studying the human dimensions of ecosystems, which is indicative of some the challenges in integrating anthropology.

There is a growing recognition among ecologists that they need to grapple with the human impacts on ecosystems and that the old model of studying isolated and protected reserves to understand ecosystems is no longer valid. This is evidenced by the theme of this year’s ASM meeting and the increasing impact of climate change on ecosystems in the LTER sites. However, there are few ecological models that satisfactorily incorporate human complexity. Ecologists may study ecosystem processes at the micro-scale and then jump to the global macro-scale, eg, measuring the impact of global warming on these processes, thus skipping the local, regional, and national scales at which human activities more directly affect ecosystem processes in myriad ways. This offers opportunities for anthropologists who study complex social-ecological systems using a holistic approach and making linkages across these spatiotemporal scales. Moreover, anthropologists are no strangers to long-term research as many are involved in ethnographic research in one site over multiple decades. Thus, anthropologists can make significant conceptual contributions to LTER projects.


One attraction of research in LTER sites is that anthropologists living close to an LTER site could do research in their own backyard. There are currently 26 sites across the US so there are plenty of opportunities. In addition, it offers the possibility of funding sources other than the NSF Cultural Anthropology program. However, funding processes are complicated and opportunities may be more limited (than they should be). There are some funding restrictions within NSF that limit the integration of social and ecological research. There are no clear guidelines or processes for funding social science research within LTER projects. Senior anthropologists may have to find other sources of funding to support their research at LTER sites. However, we found that there may be many more opportunities for enterprising graduate students to join an LTER team. The advantage for graduate students is that LTER sites have extensive data and an established infrastructure, which relieves them of some of the challenges of finding a new field site and provides ample opportunity to collaborate with other graduate students, more effectively bridging interdisciplinary divides.

The research model of the LTER network—long-term projects, cross-site linkages, and consistent funding—also offers unique opportunities for anthropologists to rethink ways of doing research in unprecedented ways. Whereas long-term ethnographic research often depends on the commitment of individual researchers, research at LTER sites is institutionalized. We could ask, what comprehensive, long-term, high frequency data on social systems could be collected across multiple sites to advance our understanding of the dynamic processes in coupled human and natural systems? That is an exciting question to ponder.


While there are social science activities at almost all LTER sites and the network has a long history of social science engagement, it is often on an ad hoc and inconsistent basis and contingent on funding availability. The greatest challenge in integrating anthropological research in LTER projects may be a general problem of interdisciplinary research. This is manifested in different ways, including the incongruence of conceptual models, theories, methods, scope, and units of analysis in ecology and anthropology. Anthropologists’ primary goal has been describing and explaining cross-cultural variation across all human societies and very long time periods, while LTER research is mainly conducted within the context of the US and over relatively short periods (even though it is long-term research). In addition, the iterative, recursive, abductive approaches of ethnographic research strategies, as described by Michael Agar, are not always understood by ecologists who use more standardized scientific protocols and can be seen as lacking value and validity. Of course, there are many ecologists and anthropologists that have successfully collaborated in interdisciplinary studies of complex social-ecological systems, for example the South Turkana Ecosystem Project, but the number of transdisciplinary studies in which research transcends the disciplines is less common.


Of course, being anthropologists, we could not help ourselves and studied the LTER participants at their ASM. If we want to make the case for integrating more anthropologists in the study of ecosystems, we should at least become familiar with what ecologists think of our research and us. The audience at our workshops consisted primarily of fellow anthropologists, ecology graduate students, and a few PIs of LTER sites, which indicates that among the higher organizational levels of the LTER network and the next generation of ecologists there is a growing interest in anthropological approaches to study anthromes in the Anthropocene. However, there still may be some resistance to the integration of social sciences in ecosystem research as well as stereotypes of anthropologists, and we overheard a senior ecologist describe anthropologists as being lousy scientists with physics envy and no quantitative skills who want a slice of the LTER cake. To be fair, Lansing’s keynote was well-received by the ecologists in the audience, who for the most part were excited to see how topics that interested them were interwoven with topics more familiar to anthropologists, including religion, social relations, economic development, and governance.

In the end, one keynote and two workshops are not sufficient to make the case for anthropology, but it is a necessary first step and we think that an ongoing engagement with LTER research is critical if we want to contribute to a discussion about Earth stewardship.

This essay was a collaboration of Mark Moritz (Ohio State U), Michael Paolisso(UMaryland), Courtney Carothers (U Alaska-Fairbanks), Sean Downey (U Maryland),Kathleen Galvin (Colorado State U), Drew Gerkey (National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center), J Stephen Lansing (U Arizona), Terrence McCabe (U Colorado),Amber Wutich (Arizona State U) and Rebecca Zarger (U South Florida).