Nature–Society In Geography Research Paper

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Nature–society or human–environment relationships have been part of geography since antiquity. The modern foundation of their study in geography, however, was established in nineteenth century Germany. The themes of human impact on and adjustment to the physical environment were articulated by German geographers, with various claims that these relationships, broadly interpreted, constituted the identity of the discipline. For a brief period in the early twentieth century, a particular definition of the relationship (environmental determinism) formally dominated geographic education in the USA. The association of determinism with geography relegated nature–society studies to the margins of the discipline. By the middle of the century a spatial–chorological identity for geography was largely unchallenged, despite various alternative nature–society visions to determinism. By the late 1970s, however, nature–society studies had returned to geography in a significant way, building from interests that helped to give rise to cultural ecology and risk-hazard studies as well as several other subfields of study. Entering the twenty-first century, nature–society geography has grown significantly in the number of its practitioners and research influence, exploring the range of perspectives found in the human sciences and humanities. Its rebirth, which coincides with renewed public interests in the nature– society condition, resurrects the various identity issues raised in Germany in the nineteenth century and challenges the discipline to situate its spatial–chorological and nature–society visions equitably.

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1. Roots Of The Theme In Geography

Ancient geography (Greek geographia, meaning writing about the earth) involved descriptions of the earth, serving to compile knowledge of places not experienced in everyday life and as found in travel and exploration. All places contain ‘nature,’ and most are occupied or used in some capacity by our species. It is not surprising, therefore, that ‘complete’ geographies documented the human and environmental character of places, at least as this understanding could be derived from observing places (Glacken 1967). This substantive interest, in various intellectual forms, remains throughout the history of geography, although it continually struggles with other identities of the discipline in the search for its intellectual niche.

2. German Foundations Of Modern Geography

The nineteenth-century organization of knowledge within European academe shaped modern geography. This reshaping took place at time in which the formal study of geography was especially vibrant in Germany, and the competing views expounded by German scholars during that century remain essential, if contested, elements of the discipline’s identity in the twenty-first century.

2.1 The Spatial–Chorological Science

Immanuel Kant (1724–1803) laid the foundation for a spatial or chorological identity: geography provided integrative understanding through a focus on the spatial attributes and relations of phenomena as they were arranged in areas, regions, or space (Tatham 1951, p. 40). This vision was elaborated in three ways by Karl Ritter (1779–1859), Ferdinand von Richthofen (1833–1905), and Alfred Hettner (1859–1941), among others: geography was the science of areal or regional differentiation (and, hence, the need to bound or demarcate areas to inform understanding), the history and particularities of places (chorography), and distribution studies. These various identities, collectively labeled chorology, tended to stress geography as a discipline based largely on a shared approach to study, more so than its substance. This ‘unique’ quality, shared with history, the chronological science according to Kant, marked geography as an exception to the ‘systematic’ disciplines. This status is one with which geography has consistently struggled.

2.2 The Nature–Society Science

Building on the natural histories of Comte de Buffon (1707–88), Johann R. Forster (1729–98), and Johann G. A. Forster (1754–95), an alternative identity of the discipline was championed by other nineteenth-century geographers, if not always explicitly. Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859) set the stage for this vision of geography through such works as Cosmos (Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe), which documented the ‘unity in diversity’ in nature, or how diverse phenomena, including humans, give rise to ordered, functioning landscapes (akin to the modern use of landscape in ecology). Humboldt was not especially interested in defining geography or articulating approaches within it, but he recognized three divisions of knowledge about nature, one of which he called geognosy (earth science) and which dealt with the spatial distribution and relationships of phenomena (Dickinson 1969, p. 24). This recognition and his research approach, which involved bounding the landscape (creating an areal unit) in question, led some to the conclusion that Humboldt’s vision of geography was consistent with chorology. This conclusion, however, trumpets the spatial qualities of his approach over the substance of his interest, landscape order and function.

Unlike Humboldt, Frederich Ratzel (1844–1904) was keenly interested in the identity of geography and championed the view that the discipline should be a systematic science, complete with a phenomenon of study. This phenomenon was the nature–society relationship and constituted the identity of the relationship (Dickinson 1969, p. 65, Tatham 1951, p. 64). In Anthropogeography: Introduction to the Application of Geography to History (1882), Ratzel advanced a science of reciprocal relationships between nature and society in which the distribution of cultures (his students employed ‘cultural area’ before the term emerged in anthropology) was predicated on a Darwinian-influenced notion of the capacity of different societies to adapt to their physical surroundings, also referred to as landscape. Ratzel focused on human adjustments to and manipulation of natural resources and environmental conditions, although subsequently others would reverse this orientation.

Other German geographers of the time followed partially, if not fully, the Ratzelian view. Otto Schluter (1872–1952) found fault with the environmental orientation in the emerging nature–society thought (Dickinson 1969, p. 126), but saw the scope of geography as understanding the ‘visible’ landscape, not as a bounded area but as the nature–society relationships shaping it (Livingstone 1993, p. 264). Albrecht Penck (1858–1945), among others, found merit in this view, favoring a landscape-led geography, and his meaning of landscape appeared to be closer to Schluter’s than to that of an areal unit (Dickinson 1969, p. 110). From this point onwards, landscape would hold different meanings to different geographers. Regardless of the specific definition used, the landscape concept invariably implied a collection of organic and inorganic phenomena whose interrelationships gave rise to some meaningful areal identity on the earth’s surface, be it a coastline, system of cultivation, or urban settlement.

2.3 Ties Between The Two Views

In spite of a nonunified identity for geography, the German founders of the modern discipline linked chorology and nature–society. The nature–society proponents did so by focusing their relationships on landscapes, replete with its various meanings, which required defined areal units. Exemplary of these ties was the Ratzel-influenced French geography of the time. Vidal de la Blache (1845–1918) and, to a lesser extent, his student, Jeans Brunhes (1869–1930), organized the French discipline around the nature–society relationship, emphasizing a ‘possibilist’ position toward it—human choices to environmental settings. The French approach, however, focused on these relationships as they were manifested in small areas and reported on them through regional monographs. In this way the relationship in question was tied to area or region, akin to the landscape. German chorologists, in contrast, invariably called for the examination of nature–society conditions as part of the study of the place, area, or region. Ritter’s own work, Erdkunde, is exemplary, as registered in the subtitle (Earth Science: in Relation to Nature and the History of Man) and in the text: ‘The earth and its inhabitants stand in the closest reciprocal relations, and one cannot be truly presented in all its relationships without the other’ (in Tatham 1951, p. 44).

3. The Geographic Influence Or Geographic Factor

The nature–society position vied for the sole identity of the discipline as it emerged in the USA during the early part of the twentieth century. There, geography’s birth was profoundly influenced by William Morris Davis (1850–1934), a geomorphologist of no small repute, who created a geography program within geology at Harvard and was the force behind the creation of the Association of American Geographers (1904), serving as its President three times. He increasingly came to view geography as the study of inorganic (nature) controls over the organic (society). In his 1905

Presidential Address to the Association of American Geographers, he not only made the case for the study of this relationship as the defining element of geography, but also was totally dismissive of the chorological position, disposing of it in two brief sentences.

There is so little support for this narrow view of the subject [location] to be found in modern geographical books that it need not be further considered [and] … if geography were only the science of distribution, that is, the regional aspect of other subjects, it would be hardly worth while to maintain the study of geography apart from that of the subject whose regional aspect it considers (in Johnson 1954, p. 9).

The strength of Germanic influences on Davis is unclear. He referenced and critiqued German geographers, but his views of geography may have been more strongly affected by the Darwinian and neo-Lamarckian fervor of the time and the search for organic analogy (Livingstone 1993, pp. 203–5). His position was shared, even anticipated, by a number of highly productive geographers who were well versed with the German traditions, none more important than Ellen Churchill Semple (1863–1932) of Clark University and University of Chicago. Mentored by Ratzel, she became enamored with the theme of geographic influence or the geographic factor as articulated in Influences of Geographic Environment (1911). She was joined in this vision in the USA by such luminaries as Ellsworth Huntington (1876–1947) at Yale, a prolific author who sought to understand the history of regions through the lens of climate (e.g., Civilization and Climate, 1915), and abroad by Griffith Taylor (1880–1963), among others, who sought to explicate the controlling constraints of environment on human occupation of different lands (e.g., Australia, a Study of Warm Environments and Their Effect on British Settlement, 1941).

Taken as a whole, this group of geographers paid little, if any, attention to alternative or linked views of the identity of the discipline. Enhanced by the elite private institutions in which they were positioned, their moment of power penetrated the very foundations of American education. The Conference on Geography adopted the Davisian identity of geography, which in turn was accepted by the Committee of Ten of the National Educational Association (1892), whose role it was to define precollege educational programs and college entrance requirements (James and Martin 1981, p. 290). The discipline was thus defined as the study of inorganic controls over the organic, or the geographic influence factor, and its K-12 textbooks were organized accordingly.

While these influences and events propelled nature– society geography to the forefront of the American educational academy, the moment was short lived. The geographic factor narrowed the nature–society relationship to the search for the causal power of nature over society—an extreme form of human adjustment or paucity thereof to nature. Alternative views of the relationship, such as the possibilism of the French geographers or by the American, George Perkins Marsh (Man and Nature or, Physical Geography as Modified by Human Action, 1864) on the environmental impacts of human activity were unheeded. The geographic factor became Environmental determinism which, in its lay forms, not only led to unfounded simplifications about nature’s influence on humankind but also were drawn upon as support for social and political views proposing the superiority of northern environments and peoples over all others.

The extremes of determinism devastated geography and seriously wounded the nature–society position. The stigma attached to the geographic factor was so strong that the nature–society position was relegated to margins of the discipline by the 1940s and was even dismissed by some historians of the field (Livingstone 1992, p. 6). For much of the middle of the twentieth century, the central intellectual debate in the discipline centered on the kind of spatial–chorological science geography should be: a place-based and areal differentiation science (Hartshorne 1961), or a science of spatial relationships (National Research Council (U.S.) 1965). By the 1960s, the latter focus gained intellectual hegemony among the leadership of UK and US geography, remaining in power for two decades before it succumbed to challenges that reinserted the role of the contingencies of place and regions. These challenges notwithstanding, geography’s identity remains linked primarily to the ‘why of where’ question and much of human geography dismisses nature–society studies or sees them as falling outside the ‘human’ domain of the discipline’s study.

4. Alternatives To The Geographic Influence

If the ‘battle’ for the identity of geography were lost by proponents of the geographic influence, strong geographic interest in nature–society themes was not. At least two alternatives to environmental determinism arose before its collapse, each providing the foundation for contemporary nature–society studies in geography. Carl O. Sauer (1889–1975) sketched his alternative vision in his 1925 essay, ‘The Morphology of the Landscape.’ Inspired by German scholarship, Sauer sought to bring the discipline back to the landscape (an area of interrelated phenomenon), whose qualities as a whole (form, structure, and function) constituted a reality not captured by the constituent parts separately (in Leighly 1963, p. 321). The landscape was a nature–society relationship, and the morphology was a method of synthesis, a ‘massing and ordering phenomena as forms … integrated into structures’ (p. 326). He argued that there was ‘a strictly geographic way’ of entertaining these structures, and it was through the material imprints that society made upon area (p. 326). Thus Sauer’s nature– society relationship was the human impact on the ‘physical whole’ which created the landscape.

Whatever Sauer’s views on the ties between nature– society and spatial–chorological geography, he and the research prodigy of the ‘Berkeley school’ produced a large number of works focused on the human use of and impress upon the earth, including Sauer’s own role in Man’s Role in Changing the Face of the Earth (Thomas 1956). Exemplary was Philip Wagner’s The Human Use of Earth: an Examination of the Interactions Between Man and His Physical Environment (1960), which provides only passing references to alternative identities of geography before exploring a discipline devoted to the human-made (artificial) landscape. Such nature–society interests were taken up outside the USA under the rubric of cultural and/or historical and geography (e.g., Darby 1940, Williams 1974).

Harlan Barrows (1877–1960) laid the foundation for the other nature–society theme in his 1922 Presidential Address to Association of American Geographers. He proposed geography as the study of human ecology or the adjustment that humankind makes to the occupied environment (Barrows 1923). Here was an explicit statement that nature–society relationships were the foundation of discipline, and that this foundation need not be deterministic. Barrows’ call had no immediate discernible impacts, but some 30 years later his former student, Gilbert F. White (1911–), returned to Chicago to pioneer riskhazards geography. White was captured by the service role that academic research could provide for solving social problems and was not particularly responsive to academic debates about the discipline’s definition. Nevertheless, the defining quality of his interests and the geographic work he advanced was a form of nature–society relationship, specifically human adjustments to environmental perturbations, articulated in Ian Burton, Robert W. Kates, and Gilbert F. White, The Environment as Hazard (1978).

Thus geography entered the 1960s with two strong clusters of research on nature–society themes: human use and impact on nature, and human responses and adjustment to environmental change and perturbations. Arguably, a large number, perhaps even a majority, of these practitioners were drawn to geography primarily out of its nature–society traditions and the paucity of them in most other disciplines (Kates 1987). For the most part, however, the nature– society practitioners were content to do their work and made minimal attempts to challenge the identity of geography as a chorological science.

5. Contemporary Nature–Society Subfields In Geography

By the 1970s, nature–society research in geography was prospering, but under newly emerging and/or expanding subfields to which geographic organizations were partitioning themselves. These subfields were initially stimulated by systems and ecosystems approaches combined with theory-driven, behavioral analysis (Gaile and Willmott 1989, Turner 1997). The Environmental hazard subfield was in full swing, having taken on virtually every type of environmental perturbation to human occupation and use of the environment, from drought to volcanic eruptions. Research began to expand into non-Western world contexts, and a search for generic templates of human responses to such perturbations was under way. Hazards research spawned risk assessment and technological hazards and, more recently, risk studies have led to vulnerability assessments (e.g., see Environmental Risk and Hazards; Environmental Vulnerability). A complementary subfield, Environmental perception and Behavioral geography, moved towards issues of the bounding the human–environment experience and its meaning for hazard adjustments and landed resource use more generally.

The cultural ecology subfield in geography arose from the cross-fertilization of practitioners whose legacy may be seen in the substantive interests of the landscape but with the goals and aims articulated by Harold C. Brookfield in Australia on household and community behavior and Karl W. Butzer in the USA (via Canada and Germany) on systems (e.g., see Ecology, Cultural). Increasingly, the work of cultural ecologists in geography and anthropology blurred as attested in work by, for example, Philip Porter and Robert McC. Netting or William M. Denevan and Donald Lathorp

By the 1980s, both environmental hazard and cultural ecology were strongly affected by Marxist and critical approaches, and in the 1990s by social theory broadly conceived, with various impacts on the two subfields. Political ecology emerged (Blaikie and Brookfield 1987), directing attention to local nature– society conditions as a product of social differentiation (e.g., power, wealth, class, gender) and of linkages to distant decisions and processes. Many proponents were interested in both the drivers and responses to environmental change and linking the two (Watts 1983), dissolving some of the distinction that existed between cultural ecology and risk-hazard research. In addition, political ecology research in its various renditions broke down the partitions in nature–society research between ‘pure’ and ‘applied’ work (e.g., see Feminist Political Ecology; Ecology, Political).

Contemporary agriculture and rural land use and water resource subfields emerged to tackle contemporary nature–society problems, primarily in the developed world (e.g., see Water Resources). Both experienced similar intellectual influences that gave rise to political ecology. The newest nature–society subfield in geography, the human dimensions of global Environmental change, emerged in the 1990s as a hybrid of the other subfields—one that recognized the new interdisciplinary research efforts on this theme globally and the strong influence of nature–society geographers on the development of this theme. This subfield, if you will, returns to the contemporary versions of the problems registered in the early 1800s by Forster, Humboldt, and Marsh (Turner et al. 1990, O’Riordan 1997).

Mirroring the cacophony of perspectives playing among the human sciences and humanities, nature– society practitioners have explored a wide range of frameworks for understanding (Turner 1997): postpositivistic science to critical and social theory to the search for meaning in the symbolic landscape (e.g., see Cultural Landscape in Environmental Studies). An appreciation for such diversity and the ability to move among the various frameworks have long been hallmarks of geographic work. During these episodes of diverse explorations, however, nature–society geography has tended to lose sight of its substance of study and focus instead on the explanatory form or theory invariably drawn from elsewhere. In such moments, the framework or theory is used, almost uncritically, to explain a nature–society relationship, rather than exploring the insights gained from the relationship to inform and restructure the explanation.

Much nature–society geography has now refocused, informing concepts and problems in the way that its intellectual ancestors might have imagined, if not the kinds of questions and issues addressed. That work, embedded firmly in the social and behavioral sciences, is strongly empirical, and increasingly quantitative and focused on the material relationships between humankind and the physical environment, be it human-induced land degradation or equity in opportunities to respond to it. Explanatory models seek to treat more equitably than before actor-based and structural-based approaches, and consider the roles of idiosyncratic agents and historicity (path dependence). Additionally, the environment as an active force within the relationship has been reinstated (Zimmerer and Young 1998), albeit examined through such themes as complexity and co-evolution. Finally, the former barriers between human use and impact studies and human response and adjustment studies have all but disappeared. Nature–society practitioners must now take care not to build new barriers through the blinders of favored perspectives, but to seize the moment of ‘hybrid explanatory vigor’ to formulate improved understanding of the nature–society relationship.

6. Geography As Nature–Society Science?

Do these trends suggest that geography is poised to redirect its identity to nature–society relationships? Probably not, although Stoddart (1987) came very close to making such an appeal, and Peet (1998) argues for a variant of such a move. To adopt this identity, retain the spatial–chorological one, or, better, unite the two, requires resolution of several intellectual and pragmatic considerations.

6.1 What Other Disciplines Concede

May (1970, p. 186) noted that no other discipline claims the nature–society relationship and most concede the subject to geography. Indeed, three of five texts granted the status as paradigmatic shifts in geographic practice by Harvey and Holly (1981) belong to Ratzel, Vidal, and Sauer, all of which can be interpreted as nature–society visions as much as, if not more so, than spatial–chorological visions. May’s observations, however, ran counter to those by Hartshorne (1961, pp. 124–5) who argued that the other human sciences ‘must’ address nature–society relationships in order ‘… to understand the different social conditions of different lands and places.’ Save for anthropology and the economics of resource use, however, the human sciences have largely ignored these relationships, at least until the recent rise of public and governmental concerns about them. If Hartshorne erred, was May correct? Perhaps, especially considering the strong role that nature– society geographers have played in the creation of interdisciplinary research institutes and international organizations dedicated to environmental studies and, along with physical geographers, the considerable impact that they have had, far out of proportion to their numbers, in defining much of the international agenda dealing with global environmental change, especially its human dimensions. Yet the very interdisciplinary qualities of these activities raises questions about how much the ‘core’ of nature–society studies are embedded in any one discipline.

6.2 Unified Understanding

Does a nature–society identity provide unity to geographical understanding? Again, Hartshorne was adamant that it did not, drawing on Hettner’s argument that the ‘logical unitary structure of geography [is] … destroyed’ [by the dualism inherent in the nature– society position], whereas ‘if the concept of nature and man proceeds from the chorological viewpoint, it is homogeneous in all important points’ (in Hartshorne 1961, p. 123).

Hartshorne provided little support for Hettner’s claim, as if the weight of history were sufficient to prove the point. But this history is not necessarily borne out in contemporary geography in which the divisions between human and physical geography have grown (Stoddart 1987), and frameworks for unification drawn from the spatial–chorological position do not necessarily speak to nature–society interests. Contemporary attempts to articulate the unity of geography through the nature–society position are few (but see below). In principle, however, there is no reason why a focus on the relationship should create the dualism noted, and various reasons why it should lead to more integrative or unified views of humankind and the physical world. Indeed, this last rationale is precisely that used to justify the investment in the many interdisciplinary human–environment programs, centers, and institutes emerging worldwide.

6.3 Nature–Society And Geography As Practiced

What passes for accepted practice in large measure shapes the identity of disciplines. Pattison (1964) identified four traditions or domains of research practiced in geography in the mid-1990s, which are still appropriate in the twenty-first century, allowing for name changes: mapping sciences, physical or environmental geography, space–society studies (human, including regional, geography), and nature– society (or human–environment) studies. Privileging the nature–society domain as the identity of geography encounters problems rationalizing the existence of the other three domains as independent subjects of study. Barrows and other proponents of the nature–society position of yesteryear noted this predicament and dealt with it by dismissing the other domains, save as they were needed to understand nature–society relationships.

More recently, Peet (1998, pp. 1–3) tied a nature– society defined geography to spatial–chorological geography by insisting that nature–society relationships can only be understood in real-world, relational space. In this interpretation, space is the ‘veneer’ of nature–society relationships, such that to examine spatial relationships axiomatically involves nature– society relationships. Alternatively, Sack (1997) explored a way in which nature and society can be reconciled without the reductionism employed by natural science approaches and some social science approaches. This treatment is accomplished by focusing on places because, according to Sack, place (a bounded area) is the instrument that humankind uses to combine nature and society, or the forces and process of each. Without place, understanding privileges nature, society, or a particular explanatory form drawn from one or the other. With place, however, a ‘less privileging’ understanding could be possible. Should this understanding be forthcoming, perhaps the long-standing tensions between the two visions of geography might dissipate.

7. Nature–Society Geography Entering The Twenty-first Century

What is and ought to be humankind’s relationship with nature? This question remains one of the most fundamental and vexing confronting our species. Geography has long claimed much of this question as its own, and perhaps has devoted more attention to its various elements than any other formal discipline of study. This tradition, strongly muted during the mid-twentieth century, had revived significantly by the 1990s, perhaps reflecting geography’s self-imagine vis-a-vis environmental determinism, the rise internationally of multidisciplinary concerns about the human–environment condition, and the emergence of new perspectives and methods for nature–society studies. Rebuilding on its past, nature–society geography may offer the largest number and array of researchers from any discipline experienced in bridging the natural and human science components of these concerns. So reinvigorated, the contributions of the nature–society domain of geography appear to stand on equal footing with those of all other geographic domains of study (National Research Council 1997).


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