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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
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
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
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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