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Culture, Weather and Climate: Anthropology's Contributions to Understanding our World
by Heather Lazrus*

Two of the fundamental things that all humans have in common are culture and our experiences of the atmospheric variations known as weather and climate. Humans are intrinsically connected to and affected by the weather and climate in spite of the technologies we have developed to buffer ourselves from their impacts. How does culture influence our experiences of weather and climate? How do those experiences in turn influence culture?

As an anthropologist concerned with these questions, I am following in the footsteps of one of my discipline's finest practitioners. Margaret Mead is most well known for her controversial work on adolescence in Samoa (Mead 1928) but her research there was just one example of her encompassing concern with how people live in our world, transforming and being transformed by their social and natural environments. She was also interested in how atmospheric hazards are differentially experienced by different people including how we create those hazards and mitigate their impacts. Three years before her death, Mead wrote a preface to a compilation of proceedings from a conference she helped to convene with top atmospheric specialists from around the world. The focus of the preface was on the interactions between humans and the Earth's atmosphere, as reflected in the title "The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering" (Mead 1980).

When I read Mead's words, I was amazed how relevant they still are over 30 years later: "We are facing a period when society must make decisions on a planetary scale…. Today's natural catastrophes and environmental interventions affect the whole of human society – interconnected as it is in reality though not yet politically capable of acting in concert" (1980:xvii). Mead's call to action for a safer world is all the more urgent, for in spite of our significant progress we are still striving for a safer and more informed society when it comes to the impacts of weather and climate. While Mead evoked a planetary scale of concern, her insight reverberates across scales and has been born out not just in global climate negotiations, but also numerous local levels with the treatment of hazardous weather.

Weather forecasting and climate prediction have advanced remarkably, yet we still see loss of property and lives. Clearly, there are remaining questions about how weather and climate affect peoples' lives and how we respond to them. All human behaviors, including actions regarding weather and climate, are shaped by cultural and social contexts including technological, political and economic factors. For example, we communicate about weather using shared language and meaning, and we respond to impacts in ways that are politically and economically feasible. Anthropologists are concerned with the details of the context that shape our interactions with weather and climate. Anthropology is just one of several social science disciplines (also including geography, economics, communication, sociology, and others [1]) that provides a toolkit of theory and methods to address questions about hazardous weather and climate impacts as well as the more routine role of weather in everyday life.

anthropology comic stripI haven't always known what I wanted as a career. Instead, I found a discipline that let me ask and answer the questions that most interest me. I have always been interested in how people make sense of their world and how they deal with hazards. As a child, I started collecting newspaper articles about earthquakes and other hazards. Through the process of studying anthropology and receiving my doctorate in environmental anthropology from the University of Washington in 2009, I have learned the "tools of the trade" and think that anthropology has a great deal to offer in our pursuit of understanding the intersection between society, weather, and climate. A lot of people don't know what anthropology is, as the cartoon above demonstrates. This is not a comprehensive introduction to the discipline, but I hope I can offer some insight into what anthropology is, what anthropologists do, and why anthropology is relevant to understanding weather and climate.

Incidentally, even though the discipline has nothing to do with ants (that would be myrmecology, a branch of entomology), to be honest I do feel badly about what I did to ants as a child! There was just one instance of ant abuse. It occurred on an insanely hot afternoon during the summer heat wave of 1988. My family was driving from Colorado to Pennsylvania and we had stopped in Lincoln, Nebraska to refill my mother's coffee thermos. Very uncharacteristically, I took my childish frustration from the heat and long hours in the car out on a colony of ants, stepping on them as they tried to make their way through cracks in the sidewalk. There is a connection between weather and ants in my story, but I do not believe it is causally related to my chosen field.

What is Anthropology?
Anthropology is the study (from the Greek "logia") of humans (from the Greek "anthropos"), both past and present. Anthropologists are primarily concerned with culture. Culture is a broad term that can be understood as the learned, shared, symbolic system of values, beliefs and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior. In the United States there are typically four subfields within the discipline of anthropology, including cultural anthropology, archaeology, linguistic anthropology, and physical or biological anthropology. A growing area of inquiry called environmental anthropology spans all of these subfields and involves combining expertise in environmental sciences with the tools for understanding the social and cultural dynamics of communities affected by environmental impacts and policy decisions (Townsend 2000). Environmental anthropologists and others across the subfields of anthropology are often interested in interactions between humans and weather and climate because of their centrality in our lives – for example, the role of weather and climate in the production and reproduction of culture, how they have influenced past societies, how we speak about them, and how they have influenced us physiologically.

What Do Anthropologists Do?
Anthropologists choose from a very large toolkit of theoretical approaches and methodological techniques. We span the gamut from very positivistic science on one hand, to more relativistic science on the other. Usually our tools produce empirical data based on observations from our field sites - the places and communities we visit to conduct our research. Our observational techniques include qualitative and quantitative surveys and interviews to systematically collect data on core values, areas of cultural consensus, power dynamics, and social networks. We also employ a variety of participatory techniques to understand the lived experiences of the people we study.

Anthropologists select research methods that are appropriate to the research problem and are designed to answer specific questions. Interview questions, for example, are carefully crafted and calibrated to yield particular kinds of information – whether the questions are open-ended or multiple-choice affects the type of information they will elicit, as does the question order and especially how the questions are phrased. Cultural anthropologists often do ethnography (from the Greek "ethnos" meaning people), which involves collecting data through participant observation (observing and participating with the people we study) and interviews to gain insight about how culture informs daily life. Ethnographic data relies on and contributes to theory to understand social processes, structures and meanings. A recent ethnography of some National Weather Service offices demonstrated how different offices may have different "office cultures" that reflect how forecasters perceive themselves, science, and the production of knowledge about the future (Fine 2007).

Anthropology of Weather and Climate
In their introduction to an edited volume on the interactions between weather, climate, and culture, anthropologists Strauss and Orlove affirm that "[o]ur complex forms of collective life influence the way that we are affected by weather and climate, creating both forms of vulnerability and capacities to reduce impacts" (2003:3). For this reason, weather and climate have long been within the purview of anthropologists who tend to work with people in communities that are more or less affluent and possibly more or less prone to weather and climate impacts. Mead (1980) may have been one of the first anthropologists to make an explicit link between a desirable and safe future, and the health of the atmosphere and the social vulnerability to atmospheric hazards. Although, others have been noting the mutually constitutive influence between humans and the atmosphere as long as the discipline has been around. For example, nearly a century ago Malinowski spent time in the Trobriand Islands and observed that a village's supreme chief commands "respect due to his tabooed or holy character, and by his possession of the dreaded weather magic through which he can make or mar the prosperity of the whole country" (1929).

More recently, weather and climate have emerged as a legitimate primary focus for anthropologists. Two examples are Strauss and Orove's edited volume on Weather, Climate, Culture (2003) and Crate and Nuttall's compilation entitled Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions (2009). Anthropologists study the cultural, economic, and political realities of people's lives – these are the contexts within which people receive information about the weather (whether via environmental signals interpreted through traditional knowledge or from forecasts transmitted across new technologies). Anthropologists argue: "the cognitive and symbolic aspects of weather and climate deserve as much attention as the responses to specific weather events or conditions, since these two are ultimately inseparable" (Strauss and Orlove 2003:6). It is important to understand the cultural (e.g, myths, tradition), economic (e.g., poverty, affluence), and political (e.g., marginalized from power, decision-maker) contexts to know how people will perceive, understand, make decisions, and act when faced with weather or climate impacts.

In general, there are three broad and overlapping areas in which anthropologists have engaged with weather and climate in their research. One is the study of people's specialized knowledge about weather and climate that is not necessarily informed by Western science and may have developed over thousands of years of inhabiting and observing one's natural environment. This is a segment of a field of research on people's local, indigenous or traditional knowledge about the natural world and is sometimes called "ethnometeorology" or "ethnoclimatology." This knowledge is local, situational, and embedded in a cultural context (e.g., Berkes 1999). An interesting example of ethnometeorology comes from an interdisciplinary team of anthropologists and meteorologists who learned that the traditional technique used by Peruvian potato farmers in the Andes to forecast rainfall and crop yield relied on the influence of El Nino on the visibility of the Pleiades during the festival of San Juan in late June (Orlove et al. 2002).

Another area of research is on risk perception. Risk is perceived according to cultural values and beliefs. For example, short-term forecasts can be used strategically in the context of uncertainty to meet organizational, political, or operational goals (Rayner 2003:284). Roncoli et al. (2003) describe how probabilistic seasonal forecasts in Sahel-Sudan Region are interpreted through the lens of farmers' own concerns so that they do not necessarily receive the message intended by the forecasters.

Vulnerability to the adverse impacts of weather and climate constitutes the third research focus in which political economy and environmental issues are foreground. Oliver-Smith describes vulnerability as "the conceptual nexus that links the relationship that people have with their environment to social forces and institutions and the cultural values that sustain or contest them" (Oliver-Smith 2004:10). Vulnerability may be more about the social, political, and economic context than about the impact itself. A recent report from the UN Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator that between 55%-65% of all annual global disasters are weather related, 500 million people are affected annually, and the numbers are increasing [2]. Those who are the most impoverished and least powerful in the global arena are also those who inhabit the most marginal environments and are least able to buffer themselves from the impacts of hazards. My own recent research with people in Nanumea, an atoll in the Pacific island country of Tuvalu, examined local perceptions of risk and responses to vulnerability in the context of global climate change impacts including sea level rise and shifting weather patterns (Lazrus 2009).

Weather-Climate Continuum
From an anthropological point of view – or even a social science perspective in general – the scientific and epistemological distinctions between weather and climate break down. As one non-social scientist, but keen observer of people's experience of the weather, told me: "weather is the climate's delivery system." In other words, from our perspective there is a weather-climate continuum that is experienced daily by the people we study who may not have the scientific finesse to make the distinction between weather and climate. Indeed, the distinction may not be culturally salient or even necessarily useful. Understanding this has implications, for example, for how policy makers introduce climate change initiatives into the public sphere.

Engaged Science for a Safer World
"In reality, the physical sciences need the social sciences more than ever, because people want to know what a changing climate means for themselves, and their families" (Glantz 2008).

Anthropological work can be highly relevant and engage other academic and students from disciplines, professionals, and members of the public. Uncovering the cultural backdrop against which people formulate their worldviews and make decisions, such as whether or not to drive in a snowstorm or evacuate when a hurricane warning is issued, can help scientists and public officials better understand how to provide relevant information and motivate appropriate behavior.

The renowned climate scientist Stephan Schneider was one of the participants in Mead's conference in the mid 1970s. He too recognized the contributions of anthropology and other social science disciplines to human safety and wellbeing in a world dominated by weather and climate, saying: "Let's discover our differing value systems, and then look for a foundation of shared values where we might find a way to live together" (Nuzzo 2005).

*Heather Lazrus ( is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Oklahoma (OU) and deputy director of the Social Science Woven into Meteorology Program in the National Weather Center on the OU campus.


[1] See Lazo (2009) for a broad view of social science disciplines and their contributions to understanding human interactions with weather and climate.

[2] 'Press Conference by United Nations Deputy Emergency Relief Coordinator on Recent Floods in South Asia', United Nations Press Conference, 9 August 2007.
Accessed 10/9/2008.


Berkes, Fikret. 1999. Sacred Ecology: Traditional ecological knowledge and resource management. Philadelphia: Taylor & Francis.

Crate, Susan and Mark Nuttall. 2009. Anthropology and Climate Change: From Encounters to Actions. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press

Fine, Gary A. 2007. Authors of the Storm: Meteorologist and the Culture of Prediction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Glantz, Michael. 2008. NCAR and NSF: Please, Tear Down This Wall!. Fragilecologies. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010:

Lazo, Jeff. 2009. From the Director: What Are Social Sciences? Weather and Society Watch. 4(1)4-5,12.

Lazrus, Heather. 2009. Weathering the Waves: Climate Change, Politics, and Vulnerability in Tuvalu. Ph.D. Dissertation. Department of Anthropology, University of Washington.

Oliver-Smith, Anthony. 2004. "Theorizing vulnerability in a globalized world: A political ecology perspective," in Mapping vulnerability: Disasters, development, and people. Edited by G. Bankoff, G. Frerks, and D. Hillhorst. London and Sterling: Earthscan.

Orlove, B. S., J. C. H. Chiang, and M. A. Cane. 2002. Ethnoclimatology in the Andes.
American Scientist 90:428-435.

Malinowski, Bronislaw. 1929. The Sexual Life of Savages in North Western Melanisia.
London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Mead, Margaret. 1928. Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilisation. New York: American Museum of Natural History.

-- 1980. Preface. In Margaret Mead and William Kellog (eds.) The Atmosphere: Endangered and Endangering. Kent: Castle House Publications Ltd.

Nuzzo, Regina. 2005. Profile of Stephen Schneider. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America. The National Academy of Sciences. Accessed 1 Nov. 2010:

Rayner, Steve. 2003. Domesticating Nature: Commentary on the Anthropological Study of Weather and Climate. In Sarah Strauss and Benjamin Orlove (eds.). Weather, Climate, Culture. Oxford: Berg, pp 277-290.

Roncoli, Carla, Keith Ingram, Christine Jost and Paul Krishen. 2003. Meteorological Meanings: Farmers' Interpretations of Seasonal Rain Forecasts in Burkina Faso. In Sarah Strauss and Benjamin Orlove (eds.). Weather, Climate, Culture. Oxford: Berg, pp 181-202.

Strauss, Sarah, and Benjamin Orlove (eds.). 2003. Weather, Climate, Culture. Oxford: Berg.

Townsend, Patricia T. 2000. Environmental Anthropology: From Pigs to Politics. Long Grove: Waveland Press, Inc.

Figure Information

Figure 1: Becoming an anthropologist (Courtesy of

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