When Culture Meets Nature

Originally published in Section Culture: Newsletter of the ASA Culture Section. Summer 2019. Vol. 31 Issue 1.

When Culture Meets Nature

Hillary Angelo
UC Santa Cruz

Stefan Bargheer
UC Los Angeles

Nature is a topic that stands at once at the center and at the margins of cultural sociology. From its inception in the late 1980s until it gained the (somewhat short-lived) status as the ASA’s largest section about twenty years later, cultural sociology has tried to demonstrate the importance of culture as an independent field of inquiry, one that shapes social life and individual actions in ways that cannot be reduced to other phenomena. 

One of the most potent ways to argue for the independence of cultural sociology was to show that nature, too, is a cultural phenomenon. The field’s early studies of nature were informed by cultural anthropologists such as Claude Levi-Strauss, Mary Douglas, and last but not least Clifford Geertz. For each of these scholars nature served as a rich symbolic repertoire through which to decipher the structure of social life, rather than as a phenomenon with its own internal complexity and independent causal significance. Culture was perceived as a text and nature appeared as the otherwise empty blackboard on which this text was written. 

The approach had the additional advantage of endowing the field with a pedigree of classical social theory, since it went back all the way to Durkheim’s theory of totemism. In this theory, nature (i.e. the totem species, whether animal or plant) is a symbol for the social group. While this approach to culture and nature has produced fascinating results and is far from exhausted, it certainly leaves many avenues for inquiry unexplored. The approach generalizes what is only a special case, i.e. the singular totem species that has no importance other than serving as a group symbol, to nature at large, with its myriad ways of relating to social life.

Cultural sociology was certainly not alone in attributing a rather derivative status to nature. When William Catton and Riley Dunlap called in 1978 for a “New Environmental Paradigm” with a focus on environment-society interactions, it was seen by the authors as a fundamental transformation of the entire discipline, not just the prelude for the creation of another subfield. The very scale of the ambition might have been among the reasons was this call was not really taken up by mainstream sociology. Sociology—perhaps until very recently—remained a field engaged in a fairly anthropocentric study of the environment, rather than the paradigm-blasting study of environment-society interactions Catton and Dunlap called for. 

Today, things appear to be changing. Research on nature and the environment is proliferating in anthropology, geography, and interdisciplinary fields such as urban and environmental studies. The nature-as-totem perspective is being declared insufficient in sociology as in scholarly work more generally, as the environment is foregrounded as agent, force, and resource—in each case being set in relationship to the social in new ways. Climate change, of course, has created a real urgency around these questions of nature’s relationship to society and culture. As several essays in this collection attest, cities and infrastructural systems once taken to be testaments to humans’ domination of nature are under threat, and their vulnerability highlights nature’s real, material power, the complexity of its interactions with the social world, and the relative narrowness of American sociology’s past engagement with these questions. 

What of the sociology of culture in this context? The essays in this special roundtable outline new departures for the study of nature within cultural sociology: conceptually, methodologically, and empirically. They show what can be gained by moving the topic of nature into the foreground of cultural analysis in new and different ways, while also highlighting what is at stake when it gets ignored. Several take contemporary environmental conditions as the warrant for this research, whether dealing with ‘real’ ecological nature or its produced, symbolic landscapes. 

Mukerji employs the powerful image of the receding shoreline on the Pacific coast caused by rising sea levels, infringing on roads and housing, to exemplify the way the taken-for-granted boundary between nature and culture can come into flux. To what extent one perceives this development predominantly as a symbol for our shared future or as a material reality with practical consequences for the here and now pretty much depends on how close one lives to the edge. Joining semiotics with a study of materiality that derives from science and technology studies, she proposes a sociology of vulnerability to look not only at potential loss, but also at the practices, technologies, and infrastructures that can be mobilized to prevent it. 

Hernandez and Auyero show in their ethnography of a barrio in the coastal city of Esmeraldas, Ecuador what effect it can have to live at the edge, i.e. what it means for communities to be exposed to environmental hazards. For local residents, exposure to risk and the expectation of the exceptional becomes normal and finds its way into the routines of everyday life. People there are aware of the surrounding toxic risks caused by hazardous industries, but are calm and seem not to worry. The study shows how organizational forms and daily routines shape risk perceptions and turn the barrio into a place worth fighting for.  

Loughran shows us in the same vein the material components of cultural perceptions of nature at work in the city, which urban sociology famously ignored in its early studies. The experience of nature as a place of contemplation and leisure, i.e. as a form of symbolic gratification, is structured along the lines of class and race and inscribed into space. Through the example of urban parks from the nineteenth century to the present, he demonstrates how natural landscapes are not static objects. The initial establishment of urban parks as sites of white privilege needed ongoing maintenance: parks, if left uncultivated, might revert to an unkempt form of nature; white privileges, if undefended, might diminish.

Norgaard shows that the legacy of settler colonialism in the United States and the erasure of indigenous people is one of the reasons why the juxtaposition between nature and culture resonated with the emerging discipline of sociology in this country. There is a racial hierarchy built into the dualism between nature and culture and the maintenance of this conceptual boundary accordingly reproduces the hierarchy that excludes the voices of those who are subsumed under the rubric of nature. She concludes by showing us that many environmental common senses of the world today—e.g. seeing climate change as an inevitable outgrowth of human activity, and the difficulty in seeing alternatives—are themselves products of “indigenous erasure,” highlighting the existential stakes of these analytical questions.