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Issue Date: 19-Jul-2006
Journal: Proceedings of the Conference THE CULTURAL TURN IN GEOGRAPHY, 18-20th of September 2003 - Gorizia Campus
Part II: Landscape Construction and Cultural Identity
Abstract: Nowadays territory and climate are recognized as factors that unquestionably affect social relationships. Many scholars (Crespi, 1992, p. 196) such as Aristotle, Jean Bodin, Charles Tocqueville and the Baron of Montesquieu (1973, p. 97), just to mention a few, have been concerned with this kind of conditioning influence. In particular, Montesquieu claims that there is a straight connection between democratic, republican and despotic forms of government and the spatiality of territory. Tocqueville (1973, p. 97) had attributed the affirmation of American spirit of equality to the wideness of USA territories compared to the extension of smaller nations. One can claim that cultural mediations are bound to the environment because the environment itself is mostly the result of transformations pursued directly by men or through their technological methodologies. This would justify the intersection between sociology and human geography studies that aims at contributing to the study of socialization dynamics based on the analysis of essential elements in the development of the environment. As Mautone (2002, p. 17) states, one of the key questions posed by human geography is establishing whether an individual is passively subjected to the influence of nature or, on the contrary, the individual has a crucial function. The author observes that under the influence of Darwinian theories, a large part of geographers have conceived the man-nature relationship in an univocal way: the physical element prevails on the human element. The turning point was the contribution of Paul Vidal de la Blache1, who claimed that an individual is no longer subjected to nature but he is able to interfere with it through exact decisions that come from culture, technology and history. Lucien Febvre (1966, p. 578) embraces the circular scheme of influences in socio-environmental processes, and he states that: "transformed, adapted and modified by man, the humanized earth undoubtedly reacts on man afterwards; but first of all it is the individual who will wield his power of transformation and adaptation on the earth". Even though Febvre seems to highlight human primateship, it is now self-evident that the relationship between nature and socialized man is not unidirectional. The natural environment to Febvre is a set of possibilities: social actors act towards it selecting it. “Nothing is given nice and ready from nature to man, nothing is imposed to politics from geography: there is simply the adaptation of man to certain possibilities"; however, the sensibility towards the environmental balance is a given fact. An issue of considerable interest is the distinction between complex and simple structures, and the analysis of the environmental factors that give birth to a certain kind of structure, being a structure a relational and diversified set of elements, where every element has a significance that is related to its role in the general context. In the light of this premise, it is necessary to consider environment conditions as something external, whose existence is a given fact, independently from social actors' actions, even if these are interpreted and represented through cultural categories which they belong to. These conditions are in close connection with social forms and at the same time they can be considered as structures: the featuring elements of such structures are the relationships that bind the different factors that constitute it and that acquire a meaning only if they are valued according to their position within the structure. An appropriate distinction is the one existing between natural and social environment conditions and system structures. The latter are born from the will of the social actor on the basis of historical experience; instead, environmental conditions are obviously a fact that is external to the social group it interacts with. Specifically, this paper will analyze how and to what extent the environment and most of the factors that constitute it affect the analysis of social processes and modify the identity of the individual. The entire argumentation will pivot on the crucial relationship of mutual exchange between human geography and sociology; in particular, the discussion will focus on environmental impact and social relationship, and it will aim at giving a possible interpretation to the close bond that links identity problems with globalization: the growing need of identification (localism) and, in extreme situations, the consequent birth of forms of narcissism. Through the observation of a case study on a very small area in Southern Italy, the present study will pinpoint how demographic impoverishment can bring about an identity crisis and even lead to a possible extinction of small communities. As mentioned above, some specific dimensions have a particular position among the environmental structures that act and affect social relationships: Mineral resources are linked to the natural environment because they are produced by the environment and they represent a pivotal element for social organizations. Moreover, the environment becomes at the same time a possibility and a limit for the exploitation of its resources. Environment’s exploitation (Vallega, 1998, p. 66 ff.) for the use of natural resources depends on manifold social factors. As a matter of fact, the demand for a particular resource by a given social group will affect both the appearance that such exploitation would cause and the supply of the resource itself that will tend to drain away more cautiously than others. Indeed, the question of mineral resources involves such elements as the demographic aspect, the social stratification, and the distribution of the population on the territory by sex ad age: this points out that the shortage of a resource determines the result of human intervention on the natural environment. Natural gas, for instance, acquires economic significance when man discovers its potentiality as a resource; but above all, natural gas acquires significance as the object of a change in behavior with respect to reality, as it is linked both to social experience and to the forms of symbolic mediation. The concept of shortage allows a double interpretation: it can be considered as unwanted, i.e. as the result of control problems and imbalance; or it can be regarded as intentional, i.e. caused by political and economic elements. Shortage lacks an absolute and objective principle, therefore it will necessarily have to be related to the problems of labor organization and production cycle. Temporality features all social relationships and the connection of social relationships with material and institutional elements. The concept of time gets different functions and meanings according to the cultural environment that it expresses to the extent that time can become a constitutive factor of the entire social reality to which it makes reference. The notion of time is changeable as it varies according to historical moments and circumstances. Development has certainly accelerated the pace of life that has become faster and faster through the centuries. A time component that seems essential for the creation of a social organization is predictability, which compels to the analysis of both past and future times. The analysis of time structures requires a clarification first of all: man follows given times, which are related to the degree of technological and cultural advance that the human group has achieved; on the other hand, nature itself has its own times, either brief or extremely long, which effectively represent a physical element that cannot be ignored by human structures. Nature and communities may seem to follow two separate histories, each one with a different rhythm, which try to cross one another involving different areas, now a small one, then a very wide area, until they get to involve the whole planet. Temporality can be considered as the result of socially codified expectations. Sociologist Durkheim (1971, p. 628) has coined the concept of 'social time', which he defines as "the pace of social life which lays at the heart of time category". According to the kind of relationship that social actors establish with their environment, time can be conceived as a reversible 157 circular dimension, as in traditional agriculture-based society whose production was bound to the cycle of seasons; or it can be regarded as an irreversible dimension, as in industrial societies whose production is not bound to seasons and it is oriented towards a basically infinite development. Also the theory expressed by Merton (1984, p. 263) is interesting in this respect. Merton's theory on socially expected durations is based on those expectations that feature a wide range of social structures. A simple and immediate example is the amount of time that is necessary for an individual to reach a social status within a group. The position held by any individual within the social structure is linked to the movement in time. As a matter of fact, populations change, the relationship between men and women, between the young and the elderly evolve, and as a consequence an individual's position on the imaginary social ladder changes. In order to tackle the question of time, one should observe how natural factors, even in this case, appear to be connected to the structure of social forms and to cultural expressions, with an intent of mediation towards the experience of temporality itself. How does time actually work on human structures affecting their organization? The following example may explain the question: according to the time in which the different lithosphere layers of a territory were formed, a given type of mineral will be found. At the time in which a social group settles down in an area, it will create the means and the workmanship that can exploit that mineral. Therefore, this will affect the organization of several aspects in the life of that social group, as well as the landscape. In addition to this, the study carried out by Belloni (1986, pp. 72-73) on “time budget” highlights the ways in which time is used in everyday life. Space acquires significance by virtue of the interaction between itself and human activity. Durkheimian concept of social morphology is described by the author in the following way: space is an element that is closely linked to the study of social morphology, and it is also a subject of reflection for social morphology. (Durkheim, 1922, v. II, pp. 541 ff). Within this scope, the role of natural environment in the formation of different kinds of societies is unquestioned. Though, it is difficult to separate the natural elements from the artificial elements that result from the action of social actors. As a matter of fact, the former are perceived within the society, but they are produced by the society as well. The contribution of historical experience is crucial for reaching a result as the analysis cannot ignore past experience. In this respect, the study carried out by Toynbee (1950, pp. 31 ff.) gives a great contribution: the author summarizes man-environment relationship into a sort of challengeresponse relationship. This is based on the situation portrayed by Febvre (1966, p. 578) who suggests a 'possibilist' theory: social actors who face bonds and opportunities offered by the environment choose according their own culture and technology. Therefore, one can state that cultural models condition the structure of spaces. 'Space' in most cases means to man urban space, and surely this is even truer today than in the past. Current studies in the field of urban sociology claim that [Guidicini] it cannot be represented any longer as the prototype of Enlightenment town that considered these as key features: beauty, justice, efficiency and truth. The concept of beauty is limited within well defined spaces and times, while efficiency and justice acquire a merely economic significance with respect to the allocation of resources; truth hands over to science and technology, which rise to absolute values. The discussion will now move on to the observation of the crossing between the birth of an environment such as the urban structure and the actions that social actors perform within the structure. When a town is born it respects the functional necessities that produce social behaviors; within the town a sort of hierarchical order arranges the artificial environmental structures and affects movement, integration and actors' social space. Buildings and their symbolic character represent and strengthen the collective identity and they weigh upon the social structure, therefore they become a dominance structure. Simmel (1995, p. 94) has underlined the ambivalent character of these structures: if on one hand the town offers an increased number of choices and chances of interactions between individuals, on the other hand, the town fosters such human relationship that may provoke loneliness and alienation.
ISBN: 88-8303-180-6
Rights: © Copyright 2003 Edizioni Università di Trieste - EUT
Appears in Collections:The cultural turn in geography

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