Subject Headings for Human ecology and Social ecology

ANSS Subject and Bibliographic Access Committee

Question/Answer on cataloging issues – March 2015

By Wade Kotter, Weber State University

Question: How are the Library of Congress subject headings “Human ecology” and “Social ecology” related and how are they used?

At first glance, one might assume that Human ecology refers to ecology as it relates to humans and Social ecology refers to ecology as it relates to social groups/societies. Based on this, it might appear that Social ecology should be considered a narrower or related term under Human ecology, with the latter referring to humans in general and the former referring to groups of people. In fact, neither of these assumptions is completely accurate. One key to understanding how these headings are related and how they are used is to note how Ecology, the term they share in common, is defined and used as an established subject heading:

Ecology (may subdivide geographically)

Scope Note: “Here are entered works on the interrelationships of organisms and their   environment, including other organisms. Works on the composite of physical, biological, and social sciences concerned with the conditions of the environment and their effects are entered under Environmental sciences. Works on the relationship of humans to the natural environment are entered under Human ecology. Works on the relationship of humans to their sociocultural environment are entered under Social ecology.” (http://lccn.loc.gov/sh85040752)

This may seem clear at first, but the Library of Congress does not provide definitions of “environment,” “natural environment,” or “sociocultural environment;” neither does it include them as established subject headings. So users are expected to know the definitions LC is using for these terms. One way to help clarify, to some extent, their meaning and usage is to look at the scope notes, “used for” terms, related terms, and narrower terms for both Human ecology and Social ecology.

1. Human ecology (may subdivide geographically)

Scope Note: “Here are entered works on the relationship of humans to the natural environment. Works on the relationship of humans to their sociocultural environment are entered under Social ecology. Works on the composite of physical, biological, and social sciences concerned with the conditions of the environment and their effects are entered under Environmental sciences. Works on the interrelationships of organisms and their environment, including other organisms, are entered under Ecology.” (http://lccn.loc.gov/sh85062856)

“Used For” Terms

Ecology – Social aspects
Environment, Human
Human beings – Ecology
Human environment

Related Terms (all may be subdivided geographically):

Ecological engineering
Human beings – Effect of environment on
Human geography
Nature – Effect of human beings on

Narrower Terms (all may be subdivided geographically except as noted):

Bioregionalism
Children and the environment
Climatic changes – Effect of human beings on
Community life
Ecofeminism

Scope Note: “Here are entered works on feminist theory that emphasizes the interdependence of all living things and the relationship between social oppression and ecological domination.”
(http://lccn.loc.gov/sh91001601)

Forest people – Ecology
Hazardous geographic environments
Human settlements
Indigenous peoples – Ecology
Landscape assessment
Organic living
Population (not subdivided geographically)

Scope Note: “Here are entered works on the characteristics of human populations, especially with reference to the size and density, growth, distribution, migration, and vital statistics, and the effect of these on social and economic conditions.” (http://lccn.loc.gov/sh85104910)

Quality of life
Self-reliant living
Social psychology
Sustainability

Scope Note: “Here are entered works on the use of ecosystems and their resources in a manner that satisfies current needs while allowing them to persist for the use of future generations.”
(http://lccn.loc.gov/sh2009000375)

Teenagers and the environment
Weather – Effects of human beings on
Women and the environment

2. Social ecology (may subdivide geographically)

Scope Note: “Here are entered works on the relationship of humans to their sociocultural environment. Works on the relationship of humans to the natural environment are entered under Human ecology. Works on the composite of physical, biological, and social sciences concerned with the conditions of the environment and their effects are entered under Environmental sciences. Works on the interrelationships of organisms and their environment, including other organisms, are entered under Ecology. (http://lccn.loc.gov/sh92004049)

“Used For” Terms

Ecology, Social
Environment, Human
Human ecology (Social sciences)
Human environment

Narrower Terms (all may be subdivided geographically):

Political ecology
Sustainability (see scope note above)
Urban ecology (Sociology)

A few issues stand out in reviewing this material:

1.    Some of the “Used For” terms under each heading seem to add more confusion than clarity to how Human ecology and Social ecology are related and used. “Human environment” and “Environment, Human” are listed under both headings, which certainly doesn’t help clarify the situation. In addition, “Ecology, Social” is listed under Social ecology, which makes sense, but “Ecology – Social aspects” is listed under Human ecology, even though it would seem to make more sense under Social ecology; it does, after all, include the word “social.” Finally, if Human ecology is only used to refer to “the relationship of humans to the natural environment,” why is “Human ecology (Social sciences)” only listed as a “Used For” term under Social ecology? This would seem to imply that the social sciences only study how humans relate to their “sociocultural environment,” which is certainly not true of social science disciplines like anthropology and geography.
2.     The range of narrower headings associated with Human ecology is much richer than that associated with Social ecology, making the meaning and usage of the latter more difficult to determine.
3.    Although the scope notes emphasize the difference between Human ecology and Social ecology, these headings share one narrower term (Sustainability), which suggests that those establishing narrower terms may not have always had that difference clearly in mind. This is also suggested by the fact that one of the “Found in” entries in the authority record for Political ecology, which appears only as a narrower heading under Social ecology, reads “Dict. of political analysis, 1982 (the study of the relationship of a political system to its environment)” (http://lccn.loc.gov/sh98000945). Is this to be interpreted as a reference to the natural environment, the sociocultural environment, or the environment in general? If the later, which seems most likely, then why is Political ecology not also given as a narrower term under Human ecology? These apparent inconsistencies strongly suggest that the Library of Congress should seriously consider providing a clear, unambiguous discussion of the distinction between these two types of environment.
4.     It is not clear why the subdivision Ecology is used for some “people” or “peoples” (Forest people and Indigenous peoples), but apparently not others.
5.     It would be helpful if the Library of Congress provided some indication of how Human ecology and Social ecology relate to free-floating subdivisions such as Environmental aspects and Effects of environment on.

Given the difficulties that arise in determining how Human ecology and Social ecology are used as well as the confusion that appears to exist in the establishment of “Used For” and Narrower Terms for each of these headings, the best strategy is to use both Human ecology and Social ecology when searching for information on the relationship between human beings and their environment.

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