SOCIOLOGY AND ‘NATURE’

(published in A. Konttinen (ed.), Green Moves, Political Stalemates. Annales Universitatis Turkuensis, B 215, 1996, 16-24)


What is ‘nature’ in sociology? The answer is problematic, first of all because, as Ari Haavio points out, the concept of nature is unclear. It has had different meanings through the history. Evernden (1992, xi), e.g., makes a difference between ‘nature’, which is used “when referring to the great amorphous mass of otherness that encloaks the planet“, and 'Nature' “referring specifically to the system or model of nature which arose in the West several centuries ago" (Evernden 1992, xi). I do not, however, adopt this convention here. Another problem is, of course, how to define ‘sociology’. Here it is defined rather narrowly, concentrating almost exclusively on the classical writers and on later academic sociologists.


Auguste Comte, who proposed the concept of ‘sociology’, believed that the different phases of human history are characterized by people's way of thinking, and the present and final stage will be marked by the universal triumph of positive thought. Looking at the society of his day, Comte saw that a certain type of society was dying and another being born. The dying medieval society was characterized by theological thinking, but the thinking typical of the modern age is that of scientists. Just as the scientists were replacing the priests, the industrialists were replacing the warriors. At the same time, according to Comte, the chief activity of collectivities ceases to be the war of man against man and becomes the struggle of man against nature, the systematic exploitation of natural resources (Aron 1965, 60).

The study of nature was, for Comte, "intended to furnish us with the true rational basis for acting upon nature." By knowing the laws of phenomena man is able to make these phenomena modify one another and profit from it. Comte did not find any problems in the changing of nature by man but lamented that

"Our direct natural power of acting upon our environment is extremely feeble and wholly disproportioned to our needs" (Comte 1988, 38).

Neither Comte nor another ‘early sociologist’, Herbert Spencer, strictly defined the sphere of sociology. Both pondered problems which later main stream sociology were to find obsolete: how climate and other natural conditions influence human society, the impact of human nature and the human race etc. Spencer's main focus, however, was on the evolutionary growth of social structures and institutions. In Spencer’s view, the evolution of humanity and society only constituted a special instance of a universal law. He even believed that sociology can be a science only when it is understood that social order conforms to natural law.

When comparing the social organism (society) and the individual organism Spencer admits that the parts of the former are more diverse than those of the latter, but there is a smaller contrast than a cursory glance shows. According to Spencer, someone might argue that “as, in the individual organism, we include with the fully living parts, the less living and not living parts which co-operate in the total activities; so, in the social organism, we must include not only those most highly vitalized units, the human beings ... but also the various kinds of domestic animals, lower in the scale of life, which, under the control of man, co-operate with him, and even those far inferior structures, the plants, which, propagated by human agency, supply materials for animal and human activities.“ This is because these “lower classes of organisms“ affect the structures and activities of the societies (the traits of the pastoral type depend on the natures of the creatures reared, etc.). This being the case, “these lower forms cannot rightly be excluded from the conception of the social organism“ (Spencer 1966, 445-447). In a rather peculiar manner, Spencer makes clear that he does not himself necessarily subscribe to this view, however.

Emile Durkheim criticized Comte and Spencer precisely because they accepted non-social factors as explanatory in sociology. In Durkheim’s view, "the science can justify its existence only when it has for its subject matter an order of facts which the other sciences do not study" (Durkheim 1966, 145-6). Durkheim defined ‘social facts’ as the domain of sociology, and tried to show that other disciplines (psychology, history, philosophy, natural sciences) do not cover this area. In his dissertation on Montesquieu, Durkheim distinguished sociology from the tradition of practical philosophy, arguing that the task of the new science of society is to investigate social facts, like all other things in nature, as having characteristics that can be described and explained scientifically. In this way he, as Benhabib notes, took the modern, mechanistic conception of nature for granted (Benhabib 1986, 1-2). In his later work, Durkheim adopts a more culturalist standpoint as he argues, e.g., that “Far from it being the case ... that the social relations of men are based on logical relations between things, in reality it is the former which have provided the prototype for the latter. ... Things were thought to be integral parts of society, and it was their place in society which determined their place in nature“ (Durkheim & Mauss 1970, 81-85). In this way, culture provides the instruments, or the “spectacles“, for viewing nature. Durkheim remained, however, firm in his belief in objective science, and so his ‘constructionism’ had clear limits (cf. also Durkheim 1976; Järvikoski 1996).

This relative social constructionism is the major contribution Durkheim has given to environmental sociology. Otherwise, his writings have also contributed to the omission of this domain in sociological research.

Karl Marx, on the other hand, emphasized strongly the close connection between human beings and nature. Nature is, in his view, man’s inorganic body, and so it is misleading to talk about the so-called antagonism between man and nature. Man’s relation to nature does not begin by philosophising but by eating, drinking and doing, by satisfying needs. Marx understood nature also (but not only) as a social category. Physical nature does not emerge into world history as such, but through human and social activity, and formed by it. Marx noted, e.g., that such plants as the potato, or the cherry tree are not ‘natural’ to modern Europeans, because they had been brought to Europe just a few hundred years previously. The relation between human society and nature is always changing, and Marx pointed out the keen connection between this change and material production (cf. e.g. Järvikoski 1996).

It seems that while academic sociology became more established, only research on problems defined as central was appreciated, and such 'peripheral' problems as human-caused natural changes were neglected. Some classical writers, most notably Durkheim, could be used to support such an approach. On the other hand, also 'Marxist' scholars - who seldom were academic sociologists - usually emphasized other aspects in Marx's work than the dialectics of society and nature. Marx was also often misinterpreted. For example, in the Soviet Union (under Stalin) labour was considered as the source of all material wealth, although Marx in a couple of occasions clearly rejects such a view by noting, e.g., that "There are two main sources of all wealth, the soil, and labour power. If man wants to prosper, these two also have to prosper" (Marx 1959, 475). It is worth noting that Lenin seems to have shared Marx's position in this matter.


The 'human ecology' school, which originated in Chicago in the 1920s, was greatly influenced by plant and animal ecology. One of the founding fathers of the school, Robert Ezra Park, liked to talk about the web of life which connects all living organisms. Park considered that although the conditions which affect and control the movements and numbers of populations are more complex in human societies than in plant and animal societies, they nevertheless exhibit extraordinary similarities. Accordingly, he did not hesitate to draw an analogy between the spreading of the boll weevil and "the Boers of Cape Colony, South Africa, trekking out into the high veldt of the central South African plateau and filling it, within a period of one hundred years, with a population of their own descendants" (Park 1961, 24-26).

Park theorized on the peculiarity of human society, arguing that it is organized on two levels. On the biotic level there is a symbiotic society based on competition and on the cultural level a (cultural) society based on communication and consensus. In fact the two societies are merely different aspects of one society, the symbiotic "substructure" forming the basis for the cultural "superstructure". On the biotic level, competition is relatively unrestricted, but on the cultural level it is restricted by conventions, understandings, and law.

In Park’s view, human ecology was to be an attempt to investigate the processes by which the biotic balance and the social equilibrium (1) are maintained once they are achieved and (2) the processes by which, when the biotic balance and the social equilibrium are disturbed, the transition is made from one relatively stable order to another. (Park 1961, 23-29). Rather paradoxically, however, human ecologists tended to forget their starting points in actual research.

“Taking their clue from the processes in plant and animal colonies, the ecologists discover common elements between these and the human community and try to delimit this simpler aspect of behavior. At the same time however, they find that the presence of 'group economy', which defines a plant or an animal colony, is in human community so highly evolved and so intrinsically a part of other social phenomena that the analogy becomes worthless and the ecologists are forced to define the very concepts intended to describe this organic aspect of life in terms of the assumed social psychological concept 'society'. Consequently, what is said to be unsocial in one instance is asserted to be social in another“ (Alihan 1961, 94). Human ecology became urban sociology, or sociology of space, reminding of its origins by using terms like ‘natural area’, which meant, however, “an area of more or less uniform physical composition, particularly in regard to type, congestion, and degree of deterioration of buildings: sometimes such factors as location, altitude, and street pattern are also included“ (Hawley 1950, 89-90).

This contradiction between theoretical work and empirical research work prevailed during several decades in human ecology. The central theorist in the post-war generation, Amos H. Hawley, agreed with Park in that "Man ... is inextricably involved in the web of life. (...) The multiplication of human wants and of techniques for their satisfaction ... have served to implicate man more thoroughly than ever in the natural environment. (...) Thus wherever found man is an integral part of a biotic community" (Hawley 1950, 55). Hawley even warned that "When man by nature of his culture-producing capacity is regarded as an entirely unique type of organism the distinction has reached a point of overemphasis (ibid., 69).

On the other hand, “Human ecology may be defined,“ according to Hawley (1950, 68), “as the study of the form and the development of the community in human population", and his general theoretical schema do not seem very important anymore as he starts describing empirical studies on spatial and temporal aspects of human communities, migration, etc. Neither Hawley nor other human ecologists seem to have been really interested in the human changing of nature and its consequences. In sum, the merits of the human ecology school in problematizing and investigating such questions are not striking, although the merits of some rural studies should be acknowledged (cf. Firey 1990).


The school of human ecology was by no means the only theoretical school which flirted with the ideas concerning society and nature. The problem of the relation between society and nature is so basic that no social theorist can totally ignore it. For instance Alfred Schütz saw “universal Nature“ constituting itself in intersubjectivity and chances for intercultural understanding. He emphasized that Nature as a constitutive element of life world is something quite different from Nature as the object of the natural sciences, because the former has its share in the mental sphere and “it constitutes itself in our everyday meaningful experience as this experience develops in our historically determined being" (Schütz 1978, 128-129).

Hans Kelsen even wrote a book called Society and Nature (1946), in which he drew on, e.g., Mauss and Malinowski. He argued that primitive men behave towards nature - animals and plants - according to the principle of retribution, which means that an advantage as well as a disadvantage must be requited. Accordingly, nature appeared - for primitives - to be a part of society. With the emancipation of causality from retribution and of the law of nature from the social norm, nature and society proved to be two entirely different systems (Kelsen 1946, 264-266).

Respectively, we can find comments on society and nature from several other social theorists, but it is generally true that few theorists were deeply interested in such questions, and perhaps most typically nature was viewed as a general condition for social life, which is not particularly important for sociologists. This is the case with, e.g., Talcott Parsons (cf., however, also Dickens 1992; Parsons 1978).

This is why the contribution of social psychologist Serge Moscovici seems particularly important, although it has not been too widely acknowledged among environmental sociologists. His book Essai sur l’histoire humaine de la nature was published in 1968 (Moscovici 1984). Moscovici’s standpoint was simply that man is part of nature: nature is man plus matter, as he concluded. In his terminology “natural states“ change according to the level of human’s knowledge and skills. He makes a difference between organic, mechanic and cybernetic natural states. As we can see, Moscovici is interested in the cognitive construction of nature (Eder, 1988), but in close connection with the actual changing of nature by man. Moscovici used the concept of “natural category“ to indicate a human group, which has definite cognitions and skills in relation to nature. In brief, Moscovici’s view may be labelled as a certain kind of social constructionism, and he has been influenced by both Marx and Durkheim. In another book Moscovici compared human and ‘pre-human’ communities (Moscovici 1976). It seems that the environmental sociology of today has not sufficiently acknowledged and exploited the insights developed by Moscovici more than 25 years ago.


The environmental sociologists of today have usually started to describe the development of environmental sociology from the turn of the sixties and seventies. It is interesting to compare the views of an American scholar, Riley Dunlap (1994), and a Finnish colleague, Ilmo Massa (1991), on this development. Both tend to emphasize the novelty of “modern environmental sociology", and do not actively try to find predecessors. The result is that, e.g., the books by Moscovici are ignored by both writers.

In the early 1970s, according to Dunlap, “a small number of sociologists were studying the emergence of environment as a social problem, especially the nature and activities of the environmental movement, public opinion toward environmental issues, and governmental policy-making.“ These efforts implied no theoretical challenge towards mainstream sociology, and therefore they have been termed in the U.S. as “the sociology of environmental issues“. The energy crisis of 1973-74 and some other factors “gradually led some sociologists to examine the interrelations between human societies and their physical environments: how societies affect their environments and, in turn, are affected by changing environmental conditions. This concern with societal-environmental interactions represented the arrival of a true 'environmental sociology', and by the late 1970s it had become a small but vigorous area of inquiry“ (Dunlap 1994). In Massa’s view, environmental sociology was initiated in the beginning of the seventies with several studies from the world of environmental threats. Most writers were not in fact social scientists, but activists and reformists who, from different standpoints attempted to conceive the new crisis. Towards the end of the 1970’s, a new wave emerged, critical of the dominant paradigm (cf. Dunlap & Catton 1979). This wave, depicted by Massa, corresponds quite accurately with the actual emergence of environmental sociology in Dunlap’s account (though Dunlap dates it a little earlier) (Massa 1991, 73).

Environmental sociology lost momentum during the Reagan era in the U.S., but the field nevertheless persisted, and towards the end of the eighties new problems such as climate change and ozone depletion sparked renewed interest in environmental sociology (Dunlap 1994). Massa, on the other hand, finds a new, essentially European ‘wave’ in the latter half of the eighties, and he coins it “the wave of risk society“. It indicates the discussion aroused by Ulrich Beck’s Risikogesellschaft (1986) and some other books which made ‘risk’ a rather popular new theme in sociology. It is characteristic to the American point of view that Dunlap merely mentions studies of risk perceptions, but makes no reference to Beck or other European social theorists.

In sum, these two narratives about the emergence of environmental sociology are not really contradictory but complementary. As the environmental sociology gradually seems to establish itself as a branch of sociology, probably many stories like those reviewed will be written in the future. It might be interesting to question whether so-called “environmental crisis“ is such an exclusive starting point for the narration. Furthermore, both Dunlap and Massa ignore or reject social constructionism (Dunlap has also attacked strict social constructionism in another article, cf. Dunlap & Catton 1994). Strict social constructionism might make environmental social studies useless, but social constructions of nature always shape human action towards natural environment (cf., e.g., Järvikoski 1995), and so they must form one major area in the research domain of environmental sociology. As for this problem area, environmental sociologists need to learn from classical sociology as well as from modern social theory.


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