Anthropology and Traditional Ecological Knowledge: A Summary of Quantitative Approaches to Traditional Knowledge, Market Participation, and Conservation


  • Dr. Olson is a medical and environmental anthropologist at Allegheny College. Her research includes non-allopathic healing systems, the relationships between humans and environments, sustainable development, health, and ethnobiology in Utah, the Bolivian Amazon, Mexico, and Western Europe.


In this paper, I summarize some of the current trends in quantitative anthropological investigations of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and political–economic systems. I first provide an overview of the quantitative studies of TEK, focusing on the various research methods commonly employed in ethnoecology. Anthropologists use techniques such as freelists, pile sorts, objective tests, and semi-structured interviews with key informants to elicit TEK. Indices or cultural consensus models are constructed from the data to identify patterns of distribution of TEK in cultural groups. Key variables that are associated with the patterns of distribution of TEK include gender, age, social class, and mode of subsistence. Next, I contextualize current understandings of the nature and distribution of TEK in the context of political–economic systems. Ways of studying market participation and market integration of indigenous people are discussed in relationship to explaining patterns in TEK. Finally, I suggest some possible connections between TEK, economic market integration, and biodiversity conservation.