Related Disciplines: The Ecopsychology Umbrella
What counts as ecopsychology?
Page author: Adrian Harris.
For Ralph Metzner, ecopsychology considers “questions traditionally dealt with by philosophers, economists, biologists, theologians, or historians” while John Scull suggests it is concerned with a “range of questions from ecology through religion, anthropology, sociology, and political economy, to the psychology of individuals” (Metzner, R. 1999; Scull, 2008).
Some suggest that ecopsychology isn’t a ‘discipline’ in any conventional sense and eschew any attempt to set boundaries. Robert Greenway puts it well: “‘Ecopsychology’ rushes ahead in many directions, like an amoeba on speed, an unfolding ‘metadiscipline’ … a cauldron of interactive stew, representing great diversity”. Trying to define ecopsychology is like trying to pin down a blob of mercury: it looks solid enough but will all too easily split into half a dozen fragments that dash off in multiple directions. That makes it hard to say what is core to ecopsychology and what counts as a ‘related discipline’, but this is a tentative attempt at mapping the broad outlines.
Similar but different
Several fields are similar – in name at least – but differ from Ecopsychology in some fundamental way:
Environmental psychology is “[t]he branch of Psychology concerned with providing a systematic account of the relationship between a person and the environment” (Russell & Snodgrass, 1987).
The Environmental Psychology Research Group at Surrey explain that environmental psychology “focuses on both the effects of environmental conditions on behaviour and how the individual perceives and acts on the environment”. Environmental psychology differs from ecopsychology in its emphasis on “quantitative research and cognitive-behavioural psychology” (Scull 2008). Ecological psychology variously describes the perceptual and evolutionary theories of James Gibson or the (related) work of Roger G. Barker. For Gibson our perception of the world is active and structured by what he calls “affordances”, which are the opportunities a specific environment affords to any given creature (Gibson, 1979). Barker argued that human behaviour is radically situated (1968). Both thinkers emphasise a complementary relationship between humans and the environment.
John Scull offers a three-dimensional map showing some closely related disciplines: The front to back axis lays out experiential realms, the horizontal plane delineates more theoretical areas and the vertical shows mainly practical approaches.
Scull notes that “[t]he boundaries are fuzzy and Ecopsychology is informed by these neighbouring fields” (Scull, 2008). Scull’s map, used here with permission, is a useful starting point, and he provides a more in depth discussion in his article. However several important related disciplines need to be added: I’ll briefly outline each discipline on this map, making additions where necessary. Because most of these disciples are still emerging I often draw on primary resources where they define themselves.
According to the Journal of Human Ecology, the field is concerned with “the complex ways in which humans shape and in turn are shaped by their environment” and draws on anthropology, biological, life and health sciences, geography, and sociology.
The Environmental Change Institute provides a broader definition of human ecology as “the study of relationships between humans and nature, all intimately connected in a web of interactions” and states that research has begun to explore “values and emotions” by drawing on “perspectives that come from psychology, ethics and theology”.
An academic website on Conservation psychology defines it as “the scientific study of the reciprocal relationships between humans and the rest of nature, with a particular focus on how to encourage conservation of the natural world”.
Environmental education can simply mean teaching and learning about environmental issues and sustainability but also describes approaches to outdoor education in Forest Schools or similar outdoor education centres.
Nature plays a pivotal role in the majority of religious and spiritual traditions, but there is a complex and ongoing debate about their impact on our relationship with the other than human world. Ecopsychology draws on many religious and spiritual traditions and includes shamanistic journeying, dream-work, festivals and seasonal celebrations and mindfulness practices including meditation.
The term ‘Deep Ecology’ can refer to a philosophy, a spiritual approach and a movement. (See The Green Fuse for further discussion). In essence, Deep Ecology seeks to broaden and deepen our sense of self to enable identification with all living beings. Joanna Macy and John Seed drew on Deep Ecology to develop the despair and empowerment work that includes the Council of All Beings.
The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology describes the field as connecting “contemporary educational, scientific, and clinical methods with personal, social, and spiritual understanding. It is concerned with full human awareness, the integration of psychological and spiritual experience, and the transcendence of self”. Significant influences include Maslow, Sutich, Jung, Assagioli and more recently Ken Wilber.
Although in principle any practical activity to bring about positive environmental change can be described as ‘environmental activism’, the term usually refers to campaigning or non-violent direct action.
Ecotherapy and Nature Connecting:
Ecotherapy facilitates our connection with the natural environment as a means of alleviating personal distress: “Through learning to care for the natural environment we learn to care for and nurture ourselves”. Ecotherapy techniques include facilitating communication between humans and the other than human world (especially animals, trees and plants), wilderness retreats and adventure counselling. Michael J. Cohen’s Natural Attraction Ecology “enlists nature’s self-correcting powers to help us acknowledge our denial, remedy our disorders and increase well-being”.
Scull’s map doesn’t include systems theory, perhaps because it’s so fundamental to Ecopsychology. Ludwig von Bertalanffy describes his General System Theory as “a general science of ‘wholeness’ ” (von Bertalanffy, 1968). Instead of focusing on individual elements, systems theory studies complex interactions and feedback mechanisms: a system is more than the sum of its parts and novel new properties emerge from complex interactions.
Ecolinguistics is a new field of linguistics that emerged in the 1990’s. It applies language analyses within a social and ecological context to environmental issues. The Language and Ecology Research Forum is mainly concerned with “the links between discursively constructed social reality, ecological sustainability, and environmental justice”. The Forum publishes the on-line journal Language & Ecology. Also see the Ecolinguistics website.
Some people define Ecopsychology as an intersection of ecology, psychology, and philosophy so perhaps the latter is a core rather than a related discipline. Even so it’s worth noting a few key philosophical influences:
- Ecofeminism explores the connections between the domination of women and the domination of nature. There are numerous crossovers with Deep Ecology and nature spirituality.
- Bioregionalism – as a much a movement as a defined philosophy – enjoins us to live and work within “natural social units determined by ecology rather than economics” (Transition Town Stroud). Bioregional Animism is a recent development that integrates nature spirituality.
- In his book Biophilia Edward O. Wilson argues that “we are human in good part because of the particular way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted” (Wilson, 1984).
- Phenomenology is essentially the study of phenomena – that is things as they appear in our lived experience (Allen, 2005). Phenomenologically “[t]he body is primarily a way of being in the world. It is a form of lived experience which is fluid and ever-shifting. And it is also a way of interacting with one’s environment, of shaping it and being shaped by it” (Cavallaro, 1998). This brings me to my final related discipline: embodiment theory.
‘Embodiment’ means of or related to the human body: humans are always located somewhere and our awareness is profoundly influenced by the fact that we have a body. Embodiment theory draws on the insights of systems theory and can help illuminate all the disciplines outlined above. See Embodiment Resources for an introduction.
Allen, 2005. ‘Phenomenology of Religion’ in Hinnells (ed.), The Routledge Companion to the Study of Religion. Routledge, Oxon.
Barker, R., 1968. Ecological Psychology. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
Cavallaro, 1998. The Body for Beginners. Readers and Writers Publishing Inc. New York.
Esbjorn-Hargens, S., and Zimmerman, M. 2009. Integral Ecology, Integral Books, Boston and London 2009.
Gibson, J.J. (1979). The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception. Houghton Mifflin, Boston.
Metzner, R. 1999. Green psychology: Transforming Our Relationship to the Earth. Park Street, Rochester, VT.
Scull, 2008, ‘Ecopsychology: Where Does It Fit in Psychology in 2009?’ The Trumpeter, Volume 24, Number 3. [http://trumpeter.athabascau.ca/index.php/trumpet/article/view/1100/1429]
von Bertalanffy, L. 1968. General System Theory: Foundations, Developments, Applications. Braziller, New York.
Wilson, E.O., 1984. Biophilia. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
Russell, J.A. & Snodgrass, J., 1987. ‘Emotion and the environment’ in D. Stokols & I. Altman (eds.), Handbook of Environmental Psychology. John Wiley & Sons, Toronto.
The appendix to Integral Ecology (Esbjorn-Hargens and Zimmerman, 2009) offers an encyclopaedic list of related disciplines and is available online.
(1) I use the word ‘shamanistic’ to mean using techniques similar to those used by a Shaman.
(2) I’m deliberately applying the term ‘philosophy’ quite broadly to include bioregionalism and biophilia.