Tag Archives: cultural_anthropology

Diagrams of society and nature: A simple, but profound, contrast

Cultural anthropologists Schwarz and Thompson (1990, 4-6) use diagrams to illustrate four worldviews concerning nature and the effect society can have on it (Fig. 1).  This classification and the cultural (“grid-group”) theory that underlies it have been widely invoked in analyses of responses to environmental issues (e.g., Thompson 1984, Rayner 1990, Harrison and Burgess 1994), but in this post I want only to draw attention to the basic character of the diagrammatic representation of society-nature relations.

Figure 1.  Four views of nature (from Schwarz and Thompson 1990).

These diagrams share certain features:  The society-nature system has a point of balance, represented by the position of the balls in the diagrams.  Although this is not shown, it is implied that different forces stimulate the society to exploit its resources and push the system out of its basic condition of balance—the ball would be moved sideways in the diagram.  If the forces diminish, the system may return to its point of balance—as the displaced ball would do under the force of gravity.

The diagrams differ on the return to the point of balance.  Moving clockwise from the bottom left in Fig. 1, the return happens either: a) readily and reliably; b) slowly, perhaps so slowly that the system appears to have no preferred state; c) contingently, provided the system has not been disturbed beyond some threshold; or d) rarely, because almost any disturbance pushes the system over the threshold.  These differences notwithstanding, the common formulation of society-nature relations depicted in these diagrams is of society disturbing a system whose basic dynamics are set by biological and physical conditions, not by society, that is, Nature is something external to society, and the nature of this nature determines the range of acceptable human “disturbances.”

A contrast between this formulation and another view of society-nature relations is represented in a diagram by resource economist Raúl García-Barrios (pers. comm..; Fig. 2).  García-Barrios wants to highlight that in many places the environment or natural resources, for example, topsoils, rainforests, bodies of water, have already been deeply transformed by people.  A local threshold has been reached and surpassed, but this socially conditioned environment (ball 1) is prevented from “rolling down the hill” into a situation of degradation by various social conservative forces (e.g., when agricultural terraces are maintained by well disciplined labour; see the next section).  If this social-natural system degrades, the reason is not that a natural balance has been disturbed by social forces beyond nature’s basin of resilience (ball 2).  Instead, one has to inquire into how the social conservative forces have been eroded (see Taylor and García-Barrios 1997).  Even in the case of extreme temperature and rainfall or drought (i.e., situations where it might seem that nature has become less benign or tolerant), the timing and form of environmental degradation must depend on the character of the socially conditioned environment.  This contrasting formulation motivates a contrasting theme: Natural and social are inseparable in social and environmental dynamics.

Figure 2.  Environmental degradation prevented by social forces (1) vs. Society as a disruption of nature’s balance (2) (after García-Barrios, pers. comm.).

García-Barrios’s diagram is simple.  It points only to the existence of processes that are simultaneously social and natural; it leaves undeveloped how one engages with particular cases and how to analyze the “forces” pictured in Fig. 2’s arrow.  Nevertheless, the simple contrast motivates an important question:  What are people doing when they represent nature and society as separate, albeit interacting, realms?

Extracted from Taylor, P. J.,  “Exploring themes about social agency through interpretation of diagrams of nature and society,” pp. 235-260 in How Nature Speaks: The Dynamics of the Human Ecological Condition , ed. Y. Haila and C. Dyke. Durham, NC, Duke University Press, 2006.


Harrison, Carolyn M. and Jacquelin Burgess.  (1994). Social constructions of nature: A case study of conflicts over the development of Rainham Marshes. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 19, 291-310.

Rayner, Steve. (1990). A Cultural Perspective on the Structure and Implementation of Global Environmental Agreements.  Oak Ridge, TN: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Schwarz, Michiel and Michael Thompson. (1990). Divided We Stand: Redefining Politics, Technology, and Social Choice. London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Taylor, Peter J. and Raúl García-Barrios. (1997). The dynamics and rhetorics of socio-environmental change: Critical perspectives on the limits of neo-Malthusian environmentalism. In Advances in Human Ecology, ed. L. Freese, pp. 257-292.  Greenwich, CT: JAI.

Thompson, Michael.  (1984). Among the energy tribes:  A cultural framework for the analysis and design of energy policy. Policy Sciences, 17, 321-339.