Nature and Culture

There is a movement among sociologists and social critics to include the built environment and physical bodies in social analysis, and to think seriously about the ways that locations and creatures (including people) matter to group life. Part of this comes from anthropological leanings in sociology, and the tradition of thick description that includes discussions of chickens and back streets as well as group life. Part of it is motivated by feminist theory, and the determination to keep bodies and gender cultures in social analysis. Not only the settings for social life but also the human form itself is a cultural artifact made from natural materials. Part of the interest in cultures of nature also comes from Foucault. It is clear that power founded in the built environment provides an almost unnoticed but consequential regulatory mechanism.

Sociologists have had a long term interest in describing the physical forms and social effects of cultural relations to the natural world. While relatively few ethnographic sociologists have paid serious attention to the physical settings for social life, those who have done community studies have sometimes illustrated the centrality of cultures of nature to collective life. Kai Erikson in Everything in its Path (1976) describes the social devastation of the Buffalo Creek flood, and how the mining industry, in disposing of its wastes, set up the conditions for the flood. He makes clear that the physical locations where social relations play out matter, and that these are shaped through human hands as well as by natural forces. The book by John Walton (2001) about Carmel, California, again looks at history, environment, and community, showing the enduring value of community studies that focus on cultures of nature and the forms of life they sustain.

Urban sociologists have also written about nature, too – the persistence of natural forces in artificial worlds. Sharon Zukin (1995) describes cities as quasi natures of living creatures and supposedly inanimate structures that nonetheless settle and move. The city may seem to be the opposite of nature, but it is better understood as a culture of nature that seeks its control. Patrick Joyce (2003) looks at the meaning and forms of material control in two British cities, showing how political liberalism developed in the context of highly regulated material life. The compact between liberal, self governing individuals and the regimes of power they inhabit is partly written on the ground in the places they inhabit.

Ecofeminists write quite differently about cultural relations to nature, bringing gender critique to the patterns of seeing and using the physical world. They argue that gender domination has been both symbolically and practically played out on the earth. Carolyn Merchant (1980) describes the masculine gaze in science. She argues that longstanding popular respect for female deities or Mother Nature was undermined by the promotion of objectivity in modern science. The power that was gained this way and through the culture of stewardship helped to erode the quality of human life in spite of the rhetoric of improvement. Donna Haraway (2002), in quite a different move, looks at the companion species that live with human beings, sometimes known as pets, to meditate on domination of nature and the possibility of friendships with non human beings. She asks whether cross species companionship can be a model for human relations to the natural world.

Sociologists of science, after focusing most of their attention for years on epistemological issues, are now asking about cultural formations of nature, their connections to science, and their implications for power. Chandra Mukerji (1997) looks at the role of territoriality in state formation in France, asking not simply about land claims but also about the territorial engineering used to define and defend them. Patrick Carroll (2001) writes about the role of ‘‘engine science’’ or engineering in the British control of Ireland. Like Patrick Joyce (2003), he identifies the exercise of power with control of the built environment. But Carroll sees Ireland as a laboratory for the British to experiment with tools of colonial control that were exported to other parts of the empire.

Prakash (1999) documents some of the results of these British efforts at material domination. In Another Reason, he follows the tools of engineering from Britain to India. There western science confronted local intellectual elites, who tried to find ways to engage it. Some picked up western intellectual styles, and saw the colonial railroad and other engineering projects as ways to modernize India. Others tried to find ways to build intellectual links between traditional forms of Indian culture and the imported ones. British colonial government established its hegemony through the environment, and brought face to face a utilitarian western reason and an indigenous one more deeply rooted in the subcontinent.

What makes work in this subfield so engaging is that it still takes materialism seriously even in this period when Marxist materialism has shown its intellectual failings. Human life remains embedded in the earth, and the landscapes people shape and inhabit. They regulate their bodies through material means, controlling diet, health, and habitations. In this period of globalization, when there are massive efforts to restructure relations to the natural world, this kind of social analysis has continued practical salience. And with the need to define a new materialism for the social sciences, studying the meeting places of nature and culture is intellectually vital as well.


  1. Carroll, P. (2001) Tools, Instruments, and Engines. Social Studies of Science 31(4): 593-625.
  2. Erikson, K. (1976) Everything in its Path. Simon & Schuster, New York.
  3. Haraway, D. (2002) The Companion Species Manifesto. Prickly Paradigm, Chicago.
  4. Joyce, P. (2003) The Rule of Freedom. Verso, London.
  5. Merchant, C. (1980) The Death of Nature. Harper & Row, New York.
  6. Mukerji, C. (1997) Territorial Ambitions and the Gardens of Versailles. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  7. Prakash, G. (1999) Another Reason. Princeton University Press, Princeton.
  8. Walton, J. (2001) Stories Land. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  9. Zukin, S. (1995) The Culture of Cities. Blackwell, Cambridge, MA.

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