Billie Lee Turner, II

Billie Lee Turner, II

Winner of the 2001 Robert McC. Netting Award

Billie Lee Turner II, Milton P. & Alice C. Higgins Professor of Environment and Society at Clark University, is the recipient of the 2001 RobertMcC. Netting award from the The Cultural Ecology Specialty Group of the Association of American Geographers. The award is made in recognition of distinguished research and professional activities that bridge Geography and Anthropology. The Netting award’s intent is to recognize scholars who have distinguished themselves through involvement with interdisciplinary geographical and anthropological projects, have published extensively in both anthropological and geographical journals, whose work is read and appreciated by practitioners in both fields, and whose service to both disciplines is meritorious. It is abundantly clear that Turner’s substantial and significant interdisciplinary scholarship reflects the goals and intent of this recognition. Turner is the sixth recipient of the award, joining the distinguished geographers Philip W. Porter, Harold C. Brookfield, William M. Denevan, Karl Butzer, and Barney Nietschmann (deceased).

It is my pleasant duty to announce the award and to briefly elaborate on Billie’s career and scholarship. Son of a distinguished botanist at theUniversity of Texas with the same West Texas name, Billie Lee was long familiar with Latin America and fieldwork from trips with his father toMexico as a child. As he puts it “as a child, weekends and vacations were spent plant collecting with my father in the Sonoran and Chihuahuandeserts of Mexico and the American Southwest. My charge was to keep tabs on ‘where’ the collection was taking place. With one eye glued to the map and the other to the landscape, I became fascinated with two elements of a Geography of which I was then unaware.” Perhaps in part it is those experiences that led to his interest in Cultural Ecology, Latin America , and the more general issues of use and change of the human environment.Whatever the source of inspiration, Billie went on to get three Geography degrees (all with Anthropology minors), a BA and MA at the University ofTexas at Austin and a PhD under the direction of Bill Denevan at the University of Wisconsin in 1974.

Over the past 25 years Billie has received numerous international awards and honors including election to both the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the National Academy of Sciences, Research Honors from the Association of American Geographers and Conference of LatinAmericanist Geographers, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Fellowship, Fellowship at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences, the Centenary Medal of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, and many others. From his lengthy and broad-reaching CV it is possible to distill three major research contributions relevant to the Netting award. These are all linked to anthropology and archaeology and all are exemplary of interdisciplinary research in the best traditions of Cultural Ecology (in the broadest sense of that oft abused term). While it is possible to distill a few overarching themes and to note them more-or-less chronologically, Billie’s myriad research interests have progressed in concert – he has never completely abandoned one for another.

The first of these contributions; his early research on intensive Maya agriculture, boldly announced in a seminal article in Science, led to the new ‘orthodoxy’ of Maya human-environment relationships. This body of work was undertaken in close collaboration with notable archaeologists including R. E. W. Adams, Gordon Willey, Peter Harrison, Norman Hammond, Don Rice, and others. These archaeological associations helped advance ideas about Maya subsistence, agricultural land use, and settlement. Several important publications stem from Billie’s productive collaborations including: Once Beneath the Forest: Prehistoric Terracing in the Rio Bec Region of the Maya Lowlands; Pulltrouser Swamp: Ancient Maya Habitat, Agriculture, and Settlement in Northern Belize; and the watershed book, Pre-Hispanic Maya Agriculture. Journal publications on these themes show his strong interdisciplinary inclinations. These include pieces in American AntiquityThe Geographical Review, BioticaYaxhin,ScienceEstudios de Cultura Maya, and Economic Botany among others. His Mayan interests have carried over to a general interest in pre-Columbian agriculture in Mesoamerica and especially in wetlands fields.

Related to his interest in Maya agriculture, Billie’s second contribution to Cultural Ecology is in the realm of agricultural change theory. Developed over more than a decade, the theory of ‘induced intensification’ challenged existing assumptions regarding smallholder agriculture as being either purely subsistence- or purely market-oriented. In fact, most smallholder farmers are hybrids of the two. This work began in tandem with the anthropologist, Stephen Brush, in Comparative Farming Systems. Over time, Billie, his colleagues, and students developed hybrid behavior models of farm management that addressed the role of population, environment, and other constraining and enabling variables in agricultural intensification. Throughout, this body of work involved discussions with anthropologists including Netting who acknowledges the theoretical contributions made by Billie and his collaborators, and who cites a large body of this work in his book, Smallholders, Householders: Farm Families and the Ecology of Intensive, Sustainable Agriculture. Important publications in this research path include those with W. E. Doolittle in theProfessional Geographer; with R.Q. Hanham and A.V. Portararo in the Annals of the Association of American Geographers; with G. Hyden and R. W. Kates in Population Growth and Agricultural Change in Africa; and with A. M. S. Ali in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Beginning in the late 1980s and emerging importantly in the 1990s with the publication of the influential co-authored book The Earth as Transformed by Human Action, Billie has turned his attention to the emerging realm of Land Use and Cover Change studies (LUCC). He has been active in establishing an international program of study linking social and natural sciences and advancing within it what he calls ‘integrated land-change science’ in which qualitative and quantitative methods, including remote sensing and GIS, are used to address LUCC and spatially explicit assessments of it. Perhaps more than in his earlier work, this effort is broadly interdisciplinary and is published in and cited by scholars in a very wide range of academic and applied disciplines. This reach, including links to Emilio Moran and other anthropologists, is evidenced by his presence on numerous international committees concerning land and environmental change, such as the Committee on Grand Challenges in Environmental Sciences for the National Research Council; Ad-Hoc Futures Committee, International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme; and the Board on Earth Sciences and Resources, National Research Council; among many others. But equally importantly, it has moved him back to real-world Latin American research, in this case a six-year NASA-sponsored project addressing deforestation and land change in the southern Yucatánpeninsular region. This large highly interdisciplinary project links some 25 researchers in forest ecology, remote sensing-GIS, econometrics, and geography from Harvard Forest, University of Virginia, El Colegio de la Frontera Sur (Mexico), and Clark.

Part of Billie’s legacy in cultural ecology and to anthropology is evident in his students. He has been the model of professionalism in advising students, has always required excellence, and has managed to extract it from most of us – even if we may not have appreciated it at the time! A testament to this is the fact that virtually all his 24 current and former doctoral students have been supported in their dissertations by major grants from prestigious sources including the National Science Foundation, the Fulbright Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, NASA, the Social Science Research Council, the National Geographic Society, and many others. Much if not most of the work done by his students falls within the landscape of cultural-ecological research, and thus has relevance for anthropology as well. While many of Billie’s students deal with topics in the Americas, his students have done dissertations in Bangladesh, Zimbabwe, Madagascar, Tanzania, South Africa, Mali, and Siberia as well.

Perhaps it was due to his early exposure to a more confrontational culture within anthropology and archaeology (and now, ecology), but for many people a signature characteristic of Billie’s personality and scholarship has been his advocacy and even his (good-natured) combativeness. Never one to hold his tongue if he disagrees, he relishes intellectual exchange and this characteristic has made his contributions stronger – because they have been forged in an atmosphere of true, if heated, intellectual discourse. Accordingly, considering the importance, variety, and volume of his contributions to cultural ecology and anthropology more generally, it is fitting for the The Cultural Ecology Specialty Group to award Billie Lee Turner II the 2001 Robert McC. Netting Award.

– Tom Whitmore, 2001.


Billie, in typical style, lists “Entertaining graduate students” as one of his interests on his web site. The sense of camaraderie and a shared mission (and shared poverty) was quite extraordinary among the grads at Clark in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Billie has sufficient personality – and developed enough exciting joint research endeavors – to hold the Graduate School together through some of its ups and downs and to provide many lasting memories. Yes, we were entertained by Billie (country and western songs at the Earth Transformed conference in 1987…high-volume singing and ritual insults when passing the Turner office…discussing the performance of the Dallas Cowboys with wide-eyed New England undergrads) but we also were pushed – sometimes gently, sometimes with great force – to write, think, research, do fieldwork, and “become famous (god dammit!)”. For the latter we received masses of help whether we made it or not, often well beyond the call of duty.  And his support as an ambassador for the discipline in North America, and in high-level scientific fora, has been hugely important. Ed. (Simon Batterbury, 2001)

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