Geography Nature-Society Theory
Alex Loftus, Camilla Royle
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0154


Geography, meaning “earth writing,” has been centrally concerned with how humans and their environments relate to each other. Many of the most important disputes within the discipline can be traced back to different understandings of this relationship, and the history of the discipline of geography can be written as a struggle over different interpretations of nature and society. It is also argued that geography is uniquely able to address questions of society and nature as the discipline draws on a wide range of influences from the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences. In the late 19th century, as geography increasingly sought to gain a place as a formal academic discipline within the university system of Western Europe, geography came to be allied to a colonial project that charted the different ways in which nature and society came to be related in different parts of the world. During this period, several of the most prominent geographers framed the relationship as one in which nature determined society. Environmental determinism came to provide a convenient unifying framework for the discipline: human geography and physical geography could be brought together in a shared project. More radical traditions also flourished during this period as anarchist geographers sought to understand how mutual aid came to flourish in particular contexts and how such a framework enabled a fundamentally different societal distribution of resources. By the 1920s, criticisms of environmental determinism gathered pace with several of the most important contributions beginning to reframe the relationship between nature and society as a more mutually codetermining one. In France, Paul Vidal de la Blache and the Annales School developed more nuanced understandings of the lifestyles that emerged in particular places, and in the United States, Carl Sauer developed an understanding of cultural landscapes as the particular products to emerge out of the relationship between nature and society and to become the focus of geographical study. For the latter half of the 20th century, with the flourishing of radical movements that have questioned the naturalization of categories such as gender and “race,” a skepticism has grown toward claims to “nature.” Nature, for many, is seen to be a social construction. Within geography, the influence of Marxist approaches has been profound, and here nature-society theorists have been able to draw on a particularly vibrant set of debates over the ways in which historically and geographically specific sets of social relations are implicated in the transformation of particular environments. If, as Raymond Williams argues, nature is perhaps the most complex word in the English language, then nature-society theory now embraces this complexity and in so doing has opened up some of the most important and innovative understandings of our current predicament. From critical readings of the Anthropocene to postcolonial critiques of the new materialisms, nature-society debates are at the cutting edge of contemporary geographical thought.

General Overviews

The entry on “nature” in Williams 1976, where Williams refers to nature as the most complex word in the English language, remains a useful starting point for geographers aiming to get to grips with the divergent ways in which nature is understood. Castree 2004 draws attention to the ways in which the concept of nature continues to inform lay understandings of the world. Soper 1995 also addresses the ways in which nature is mobilized by members of the public and in political activism. Soper draws attention to the potential divisions between those adopting a “nature endorsing” approach, such as environmentalists who want to save nature, and the more “nature skeptical” viewpoints common in feminist and queer theory where there can be some suspicion surrounding claims about what is natural. There is now a wide range of publications addressing nature-society debates specific to geography. Castree 2005 gives a useful overview of the history of the discipline’s engagement with nature as well as outlines contemporary approaches. Several works, including Whatmore 2009 and Hinchliffe 2008, stress the political prominence of discussions of nature particularly due to increasing public concern around environmental problems such as climate change. Authors of these works argue that nature matters perhaps now more than ever.

  • Braun, Bruce. “Nature.” In A Companion to Environmental Geography. Edited by Noel Castree, David Demeritt, Diana Liverman, and Bruce Rhoads, 19–36. Oxford: Blackwell, 2009.

    Overview of the key debates around nature and society in geography. The chapter covers specifically the history of dualistic understandings of nature and society and of attempts in geography to overcome them, Marxist approaches including the production of nature, and new materialist approaches and those emphasizing nature’s agency and neo-vitalism. Concludes by reflecting on the political implications of adopting different ontologies.

  • Castree, Noel. “Nature Is Dead! Long Live Nature!” Environment and Planning A 36.2 (2004): 191–194.

    DOI: 10.1068/a36209

    Short editorial pointing out that, while it had been common among left-leaning geographers to question nature-society dichotomies, nature remains a powerful concept informing lay understandings. Although sympathetic toward social constructionist approaches (see Social Construction of Nature), Castree suggests here that advocates of such approaches should qualify their skepticism toward claims over nature.

  • Castree, Noel. Nature. London and New York: Routledge, 2005.

    A short book aimed at third-year undergraduates that provides a useful historical overview of the different ways in which geographers have engaged with questions of nature. Castree argues that the interaction between society and nature became less popular as a topic for research during the 1960s and 1970s as divisions between physical and human geographers sharpened, but that there has been a renewed interest in such concerns.

  • Glacken, Clarence. Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 1967.

    This crucial work in environmental history traces the different conceptions of the environment that have emerged from ancient times to the end of the 18th century. The three most fundamental conceptions identified are the idea of nature as divinely determined, the notion of environment determining peoples, and the idea of humans influencing the environment. Glacken traces the routes to each conception and provides a rich contextualization of environmental thought.

  • Hinchliffe, Steve. Geographies of Nature: Societies, Environments, Ecologies. Los Angeles: SAGE, 2008.

    Hinchliffe presents a variety of different perspective on how nature-society relations have been framed—paying particular attention to the development of hybrid understandings and notions of coproduction, while also emphasizing why all this matters for environmental policy, politics, and activism.

  • Robbins, Paul. Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction. Oxford: Wiley, 2011.

    A guide to the subdiscipline of political ecology aimed at undergraduate students. Political ecology draws on diverse insights, including from political economy, environmental history, and the natural sciences. It differs from apolitical ecology in that ecological relations are seen as unavoidably political rather than being treated as distinct from human activity and in its emphasis on global forces such as changing commodity markets as explanatory factors in resource depletion or wildlife habitat loss.

  • Soper, Kate. What Is Nature? Oxford: Blackwell, 1995.

    In this book, Kate Soper explores both the way in which environmental claims appear to endorse a separate nature and the ways in which constructionist understandings have sought to understand the dualisms that appear to separate nature and society into discrete categories. The book ranges across politics, anthropology, philosophy, and social theory to question the ways in which nature comes to be mobilized and deconstructed.

  • Whatmore, Sarah. “Nature.” In The Dictionary of Human Geography. 5th ed. Edited by Derek Gregory, Ron Johnston, Geraldine Pratt, Michael J. Watts, and Sarah Whatmore, 492–494. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009.

    Short dictionary entry discussing the different interpretations of nature in geography. Whatmore suggests that contemporary environmental issues from climate change to mad cow disease necessitate a turn toward “exploring the intricate and dynamic ways in which people, technologies, organisms and geophysical processes are woven together in the making and remaking of spaces, places and landscapes” (p. 494).

  • Whatmore, Sarah. Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures, Spaces. London: SAGE, 2013.

    Whatmore uses wide-ranging case studies—wild animals in ancient Roman public spectacles, elephants in modern zoos, disputes over plant genetic resources—to develop an approach that involves multiple human and nonhuman actors. As her title suggests, the book takes as its starting point the notion that the world is fundamentally hybrid rather than divisible into preestablished categories as nature and culture that then come to relate to each other.

  • Williams, Raymond. “Nature.” In Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. By Raymond Williams, 219–224. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.

    Williams charts the complex, shifting, and contradictory meanings of the word “nature.” Williams charts three main uses: nature as essence, nature as directive force (of humans or nonhumans), and nature as the material world (which may include or exclude humans). He then provides a deeper understanding of these different meanings through literature, science, and politics, emphasizing the crucial importance of the processes to which the word refers.

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