Ecology is the scientific study of the interactions that determine the territorial distribution and abundance of organisms. The term was first used scientifically in 1869 by the German biologist Haekel in a study of plant ecology. Darwin's theory of the evolution of species inspired the development of ecology. According to Darwin, evolution is driven by reproduction and inheritance on the one hand, and by natural selection on the other. Natural selection eliminates species least able to survive the struggle for existence because they fail to adapt to changing environments. An important aspect of the latter-alongside factors such as climate and topography-is the presence of other species competing for limited territory or other resources. However, unfettered competition is normally limited, as species are also interdependent, related to each other symbiotically in a ‘web of life’, the result of successful adaptation to each other and to the natural environment (although certain species are dominant). This equilibrium is temporarily upset when newly dominant species emerge. The concepts of invasion, domination, and succession have been used to analyse the stages of this process.
Ecological perspectives have had considerable influence well beyond the biological sciences, for example in medical epidemiology , the psychology of architecture and design, and human geography . Late-twentieth-century concern about the impact of human activities on the environment has resulted in new social and political ecology movements and the growing salience of so-called green issues generally-all of these being topics for sociological research. However, the main influence of ecological concepts on sociological theory occurred between the 1920s and the 1940s in the United States, initially through the development of urban ecology by Chicago sociologists. The ecological perspective was subsequently applied more widely and the terms human or social ecology have often been used in this context. Some human ecologists were critical of the emphasis placed by the early Chicago sociologists on competition between human groups for territorial advantage (based on a rather unidimensional view of Darwinian natural selection) and suggested a broader remit for study, namely, the form and development of different types of human community (not necessarily spatially bounded), with particular reference to the ways in which they adapt to their environments through co-operative and competitive social relationships.
The relationship between ecological theories and sociology has been limited, and is stronger in North America than in Europe, still influencing, for example, some American urban and rural sociology. Indeed, it has been claimed that the ecological perspective transcends any individual social science, as it deals with processes which underlie all these disciplines. Recent sociological theory is scarcely influenced by its particular use of the biological analogy, although the concern with adaption, interdependence, and equilibrium also characterizes structural-functional sociology. See also Darwinism ; ecological competition ; ecological invasion ; ecological succession ; invasion-succession model ; natural area.

Dictionary of sociology. 2013.

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