Nature and Society

“Nature and Society Geography” is a field of geography concerned with the relationships between people and the environment. The field is broad and includes geography’s two centuries of emphasis on humankind’s interaction with and modifications of natural systems, as well as newer interests in conflicts over natural resources and environmental change, assessments of the sustainability and equity of primary production systems, and critical analyses of the meanings of taken-for-granted concepts like “nature,” “natural resources,” and “degradation.”

The Nature and Society Geography subfield in geography and the UC Davis geography program occupies a middle ground between human and physical geography. Nature and society geographers rely on both qualitative and quantitative methods, including GIS and cartographic design. In this way, overlap among the subfields is intentional, and our faculty work across fields (e.g., teach courses in human geography and nature and society geography).

The subfields of Nature and Society Geography at UC Davis that are particularly strong include: agricultural geography; cultural and political ecology; environmental hazards; environmental justice and conflict; and historical nature and society geography.

Agricultural geography
UC Davis, as one of the nation’s leading research universities focused on agriculture, offers great potential for Nature and Society Geography students interested in the intersection of agriculture, environment, and society. The areas of sustainable agriculture, agricultural development, and agricultural policy and models are particularly strong in UC Davis geography. The new Agricultural Sustainability Institute offers Nature and Society Geography students engagement with cutting-edge work on organic, transitional, and local food and farming systems.

Cultural and political ecology
Central to Nature and Society Geography is the subfield of cultural ecology and political ecology. Cultural ecology, a subfield in geography and anthropology, has a long history at UC Davis with current faculty members including David Boyd, Stephen Brush, Benjamin Orlove, and emeritus faculty Jack Ives. Cultural ecologists use ethnographic and other methods to understand indigenous resource management and the iterative relationship between culture and environment. In the late 1970s, cultural ecology was expanded to political ecology, which emphasizes extra-local political and economic forces that cause environmental change and degradation. UC Davis has one of the top ranked ecology graduate programs in the country, giving Nature and Society Geography graduate students ample opportunity to engage and collaborate with ecologists.

Environmental hazards
Floods, extreme weather events, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes have important ramifications for society. Dating back to the work of Gilbert White in the mid-20th century, Nature and Society Geography has a tradition of informing policy by emphasizing that environmental hazards are invariably strongly influenced by social relationships.

Environmental justice and conflict
Environmental justice is the principle that all people and communities have a right to live in a healthy environment and to have equitable access to sufficient resources to maintain a good quality of life. Geographers and others from allied disciplines highlight uneven distribution of costs and benefits of environmental modifications along the lines of race, ethnicity, gender, and class. Additionally, environmental justice examines conflicts over the lived environment and the successes of the environmental justice movements. UC Davis houses the Environmental Justice Project through the John Muir Institute for the Environment, the lead faculty of which often collaborate interdisciplinarily with faculty and researchers associated with the Center for the Study of Regional Change, as well as faculty in Environmental Science and Policy, Plant Ecology, and other departments and disciplines.

Historical nature and society geography
Key to elucidating nature and society relations is an understanding of the processes that have shaped those interactions over time. An historical perspective offers multiple temporal scales of analysis, allows an examination of the ways different nature-society relations are constructed over time, and reminds researchers that environmental change is multidirectional and multifaceted.