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Ecosociology Sources

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About ecosociology and ecosociologists

The concept of “ecosociology” and ecosociology as a science was formed in the inter-disciplinary area of social and natural sciences. It is closely related to environmentalism, the basic concepts of which were introduced to sociology in the 19th century. In the 20th century, these basic concepts were developed within the framework of the environmental sociological theory. In the 21st century, they became widely accepted in sociology with the emergence of the profession of an ecosociologists.

1992 marked the final institutionalization of environmental sociology in the world as the International Sociological Association established the Research Committee “Environment and Society” (RC-24), which actively worked today and from 2015, started publishing its own international peer-reviewed scientific journal “Environmental Sociology”.

In 1998, the Russian Society of Sociologists formed a Research Committee for “Ecosociology”, which actively participates in thematic sociological events, promotes addressing research and applied scientific tasks, the transfer of eco-sociological knowledge to students and across inter-disciplinary areas.

Environmentalism is simultaneously an ideology and an area of expertise oriented to understanding and studying the interaction between humans and nature, as well as hands-on application of such expertise.

Ecosociology is the science studying the patterns of functioning, development and interaction of the social and natural environments.

Schema: Intersection and combining of natural and social spheres

In Russia, the debate about the “correct” Russian-language title for environmental sociology is still ongoing. The point is that the social and mental attitudes held by environmentalists and ecologists are somewhat different. Environmentalists are sometimes also called deep ecologists, as, in their opinion, the domain of discourse and learning should include the ecology of consciousness, soul and spirit.

In fact, the Russian texts and discourses use as synonyms two notions and scientific discipline titles — social ecology and environmental sociology (eco-sociology, ecosociology). These are now only a step away from becoming independent disciplines. This difference should be clarified and the division process should be ended.

Social ecology, also referred to as human ecology or ecology of human existence, elaborates the scientific foundation for analysis of vital activities and governance of socio-ecological systems, norms and regulations relating to natural resource use, labor protection and human health, sanitation and hygiene, environmental impact assessment, regulations for environmental impact audits, guidance manuals, engineering and technological solutions.

Social ecology is a complex of all areas of expertise shaped to ensure an optimal interaction of the social and natural environments.

Social ecology is the domain of experts specializing in ecology, biology, management, sanitation and hygiene, engineering and so on, as well as sociologists, philosophers, psychologists, pedagogues and other humanitarians. Social ecologists, using the techniques of their profession, identify an efficient method and the shortest way for overcoming risks, harmonization of the social medium and the natural environment.

In the same manner, ecosociology is studied by people representing many professions from diverse fields of science. They address the same task using sociological methods. Therefore, in the scheme suggested, the place of ecosociology can be taken by any discipline prefixed with “eco”.

For ecosociologists, the natural environment is the permanent context of the interpersonal relations being studied. They study practical interaction with nature and discourse relating to nature, environmental awareness and values, environmentalism as a social movement for better quality of environmental conditions and theoretical reflection of a large number of authors from diverse fields of science, politics and production.

Ecosociology is a subdivision within sociology, social ecology and ecology. This understanding is analogous to the structure of the socio-ecological complex. It clearly highlights the difference between ecosociology and social ecology as well as that between ecosociologists and scholars from other fields of science.

If a philosopher or political scientist analyzes data from his field of science, including and verifying conclusions with sociological data obtained by himself or his peers using sociological techniques in the course of sociological research, writes about the interaction between the human and the environment, can we call this person an ecosociologist? On the other hand, take a publication in the international journal Environmental Policy elaborating on interaction between society and nature and coauthored by a geographer, a biologist, an economist, a physician and a publicist who gathered materials for this article using qualitative sociological techniques. Can these publications be placed in the library section titled Ecosociology? Or will it be more appropriate to place them in the Social Ecology section? Does that mean that the boundary between ecosociology and social ecology will remain blurred by their inter-disciplinary nature, combining of professions and co-authorship?

The answer would be: a person is an ecosociologist if he complies with the three principles of identity:

1) In his research, he uses sociological techniques and his analysis relies upon sociological theories. The context of the research relates to the social and natural environment. The object of research are social structures and institutes, organizations and communities, groups and individuals who interact with nature and with each other on the subject of nature. The subject of the research is the social aspects and mechanisms of various participants of this interaction, their causes and consequences, development stages and examples.

2) This person is referred to as an ecosociologist by peers and authors.

3) This person refers to himself / herself as an ecosociologist.


Ecosociology sources are contained in institutional, neo-institutional, post-industrial and modernist theories, which were developing all over the world, including Russia. This found its reflection in the theories of sustainable development and noosphere genesis.

The main source making possible the emergence, establishment and development of ecosociology relates to inter-disciplinary environmental (socio-ecological) theories. They analyze various aspects of interaction between humans and nature, society and the environment.

Schema: Theoretical source of ecosociology

Environmental theories


Environmental theories became the first and most important theoretical source of ecosociology. While these theories are quite diverse, they, as a whole, have shaped environmentalism into a scientific-practical concept and a focal area of public ecological movement. In its evolution, environmentalism was influenced by the emergence and development of naturalism and ecologism, each consisting of many socio-ecological theories and concepts, scientific schools and lines of research.

Sociological naturalism

Naturalism in sociology is inherent to theories that explain social development, interaction and phenomena by various natural factors — geographical and climatic conditions, features of the landscape, flora and fauna, biological and racial aspects of human nature. To explain social phenomena and processes, naturalists used methods of natural sciences. In the mid-19th — early 20th century, naturalism in sociology was devoted into social biologism and social mechanicism.

Social biologism proceeds on the basis that social phenomena and laws of the society’s functioning and development are analogous to biological laws, and that they can be studied using biological sciences and their methods. It comprises the concepts of social evolutionism and social Darwinism, which will be considered in more detail below. Social mechanicism, while sharing this view, prefers using physical sciences and their methods.

Representatives of both schools are correct in their own fashion, as they appeal to nature, its phenomena and laws. However, with the continuing development of sociology and its own methods in the second half of the 20th century and ever since, naturalists have tried to absorb criticism and new empirical data to elaborate two main approaches — ontological and methodological. Both are based on the understanding that science is universal and the world is cognizable.

The supporters of ontological naturalism are positive that things social can be narrowed down to things physical, and that all explanations about the social environment or behavior of an individual can be found within the framework of natural sciences. In the social process, they see only physiological characteristics and physical substances (substantialism). For example, this view is now quite typical for geneticists, biochemists and neurobiologists. In sociology, this trend is represented by behavioral sociology and biosociology.

Those who advocate methodological naturalism are positive that the social sphere has its own, unique features. However, natural-science techniques are sufficient for obtaining knowledge about the social sphere (reductionism) and for linking it with the knowledge about the biotic and abiotic spheres. Among sociological theories, this approach is typical for structural functionalism and neo-evolutionism, theories of system analysis, social exchange and other theories.

Despite the apparent contradiction, one can see that these two approaches in naturalism, as well as modern achievements of natural and social sciences, complement each other. Therefore, we will continue our search for the sources of ecosociology, which is, in fact, inter-disciplinary.

Social evolutionism

Social evolutionism was founded by Herbert Spencer (1820—1903). Spencer proposed and justified the theory of social evolution before the emergence of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution. Spencer was developing sociology as a natural science. His theory of society is based on the evolution theory, in particular, the idea of organic development and struggle for existence. Spencer believed that the organic world developed from the non-organic one, and that humans and society are a product of the organic world (organic school). He proposed his understanding of the universal evolution law — the energy conservation law applying both to nature and to society. He used this law for deriving social development trends.

Albert Eberhard Friedrich Schaffle (1831—1903), who viewed society as an organism, also made a large contribution into further development of the social evolution theory and the organic school. He proposed a structure of social interaction using the examples of production and distribution of collective ownership. The subject matter of sociology is spiritual interaction between humans assembled into social bodies (organisms). The main difference of human communities from an animal organism is the existence of collective consciousness. Social organisms struggle for survival and natural selection, as a result, only the fittest survive.

Rene Worms (1869—1926), comparing society with an organism, believed that they had a lot in common. He described society using the terms and notions of physiologists, anatomists and doctors. Anatomy of a society reveals its form and components — cells (individuals), organs (organizations) and tissues (social structures). Social physiology describes social processes, nourishment (when some organizations, communities, states and cultures are absorbed by others) and reproduction of individuals, social forms and structures.

His classification of societies reflects this vision of things social. He emphasizes that classification should be based on the anatomic structure of societies rather than on their physiological processes. Social anatomy indicates the current stage of society’s development. As for physiological descriptions, they can only apply to specific parts of society.

Considering social pathology, therapy and hygiene, he maintained that a society may be damaged by external influence or from within. The fabric of society may sustain a severe external damage penetrating through all the ways inside. And, vice versa, inner social diseases may leak outside. For example, bloodless parts of the fabric of society are rejected by means of mass migration. Another example would be a war, where contribution claimed by the winner can be compared with someone else’s blood transfused to the fabric of society and causing a disease. As a result, this brings suffering both to the winning and to the losing nations. The same would apply to industrial wars. Another phenomenon that is worth mentioning relates to parasitism when one society “piggy-backs” on another.

Public maladies can be treated by public medication, which, once used, may be called a public therapy. Using the healing forces of society’s nature is better than trying to heal the fabric of society. To prevent a disease, the rules of public hygiene should be complied with.

In the 1950—1970s, evolutionism developed into post-industrial theories, to be considered in more detail in the corresponding chapter. At the same time, evolutionism developed into neo-evolutionism (the socio-cultural evolution theory — an inter-disciplinary area across ethnology, anthropology, paleontology, archeology and historiography) and sociobiology (the sociobiological theory — an inter-disciplinary area across biology, sociology, zoology, archeology and genetics).

Post-industrial theories viewed social development as a single-line or universal evolution. Neo-evolutionists introduced an important aspect, viewing the development history of the global society as a multi-line evolution, with various communities and societies developing in different directions due to the need to adapt to different ecological environments (for example, climate zones or natural and cultural landscapes). The sociobiological theory of human behavior is based on the principle of genetic-cultural evolution, with natural selection going at the individual reproductive and group levels. Therefore, evolution applies both to the individual and to social forms.

Social Darwinism

Thomas Robert Malthus (1766—1834), the author of the book on human population, is considered the predecessor of social Darwinism. In the book, he made a futuristic prediction that uncontrolled growth of human population would lead to food shortages and hunger, saying that the poor would die out from hunger while the rich would survive.

Charles Robert Darwin (1809—1882) and his work about the origin of species made a great influence on the emergence of social Darwinism. However, Darwin emphasized that people were influenced not only by biological laws and conditions of life but by their skills to invent new tools and create new conditions of life. He also said that biological evolution of humans was incomparably slower than the development of technology and culture. In contrast with social Darwinists, Darwin never applied his concept of natural selection to humans, cultures and countries. As for social Darwinists, they use the ideas of Malthus and Darwin to propagate the ideas of militarism, eugenics and racism, which are now universally convicted.

Spenser also made a significant contribution to the development of social Darwinism. He is the author of phrase “survival of the fittest” and published the book titled “Progress: Its law and cause”, where he argues on progress of the universe as a universal law for the stars, human intelligence, and biological organisms, and introduces the notion of social progress.

Social Darwinism became internationally known in the late 19th — early 20th centuries. Its authors, while narrowing the patterns of social development down to objective laws of biological evolution, proclaimed the principles of natural selection, struggle for existence and survival of the fittest as the critical factor of social life. Social evolution justifies social inequality of individuals as well as of countries, cultures, peoples, races and so on.

Social Darwinism was further developed by authors who founded the geographical school in the 19th century. The geographic school ascribes the crucial role in the development of societies and peoples to their geographical location and natural conditions, including access to vital and strategically important natural resources.

For example, Henry Thomas Buckle (1821—1862), studying the history of England and its colonies, described the specifics of physical build, spiritual dimension and culture of various peoples and concluded that were interrelated with their geographical location, landscape, climate, soil and food.


Before moving on to ecologism as a socio-ecological concept and ideology, we need to describe the conditions that promoted its emergence. The context related to the circumstance that, by the mid-19th century, the stock of free land in the United States had been exhausted, setting the limits of economic growth. This became a constraint for the American democracy, which was viewing natural abundancy as a self-evident condition of social development.

The American society, having reached the limits of its expansion as the borders of its state had stabilized, and facing the aggravated social consequences of its external and internal policy, had to appreciate the close link between the social and environmental factors. This motivated its transition from an agrarian to industrial society (industrial growth and urbanization) and predetermined the understanding of the need to move from extensive to intensive use of natural resources. New socio-economic and environmental conditions gave rise to four main social reformist orientations, namely economism, conservationism, environmental movement and ecologism.

The strongest American orientation — economism, an optimistic orientation that implied a natural, spontaneous resolution of ecological problems, was characterized by an anti-reformist mood and a wait-and-see attitude. The supporters of this orientation believed that the existing social institutes were strong enough to cope with the crisis without any serious reforms. In this view, the natural environment was to serve private interest and individual initiative, and satisfaction of individual interests meant satisfaction of collective interest.

Their transcendental argument was the idea that Americans were a God chosen people endowed with inexhaustible natural wealth, both on the domestic and on the planetary-cosmic scale. Therefore, economists were opposed to the reformist projects proposed by environmentalists, who made very different forecasts. Economists pointed out that it was unclear who is interested in and who would carry out the reforms in a society which characterized by pluralistic democracy and liberal capitalism. At that time, environmentalists had no common understanding of barriers, immediate and final goals, the means for achieving them, possible deliverables and drivers for the reforms. However, they did have an understanding that social projects and reforms were needed to preserve the quality of social and natural environment.

The other three main directions represent environmentalism per se. In 1900, some conservationists were appointed to Government and received an opportunity to implement their projects as nationwide reforms. Their legislative and institutional reforms were aimed rational and efficient natural resource use, satisfying the needs of the American people for a long period.

Conservationists formulated the main principles as ensuring constant economic growth, prevention of unreasonable costs as related to natural resource use and an egalitarian distribution of natural resources. They adopted laws which helped to control the United States economy by the federal government to rule out non-productive and short-term use of natural and social resources by private business. According the opinion of conservationists, this was the possibility to move the American society away from the chaos of free market in a liberal capitalist environment and resolve a number of urgent socio-ecological issues.

A typical example of the new ecological legislation would be the adoption of the Lacy law, named after its author, senator from state of Iowa. The law, passed in 1900, regulated protection and legalized import to the United States of birds for hunting, singing and insect-eating birds, introduction and reintroduction of species “useful” for agriculture, preventing introduction of “undesirable” alien species that displace local “useful” ones. In particular, it prohibited the importation from the Old World some species of fruit-eating bats and mongooses, the ordinary sparrow and other species declared “undesirable” by the Ministry of Agriculture United States America.

This law was to strengthen the national legislation as related to fauna protection; in particular, it was aiming to prevent illegal hunting of birds to obtain their plumage used for decoration of women’s bonnets. The law ensured that poachers, as violators of the United States environmental legislation, could be prosecuted nationwide irrespectively of the United States state or foreign country law and from where the fauna items were illegally obtained. Another crucial achievement of the law was the requirement to obtain proper approvals for fauna items (for trade at the interstate level or trade with foreign countries) and proper markings of cargos. So, the law restricted the rights of individual states in these matters, regarding national priorities as being of paramount importance.

Reconciliation between the free entrepreneurship of private business and centralized government control became possible when an intermediate version of the law was passed. The idea was that businessmen were themselves to subsidize the legislative reform proposed by the government, however, the laws were, on the one hand, universal and, on the other hand, they allowed business to make its own decisions, in coordination with the local communities, locally, including in other countries. Generally, conservationism was oriented to perfecting methods for managing the natural resource use rather than to propagation of environmental values and nature protection.

Subsequently, conservationists were blamed for a number of antihuman and antisocial ideas, for example, the idea proclaiming the need to stabilize the planet’s population and even decrease it to one billion or less. In the second half of the 20th century, the corresponding conservationist solutions, ranging from economic stimulation of birth control in China to forced sterilization in India, were made at the national states level. In the beginning of the 21st century, conservationist “greens” push for a ban on industrialization and technical development of third countries (construction of power plants and manufacturing enterprises) and a radical shut-down of the already operating enterprises in the developed countries, paying no attention to the economic conditions and social consequences of their proposals.

The environmental movement, a trend within biocentrism, defended preservation of wild nature, which, in their opinion, has a value of its own irrespectively of its utilitarian use. For example, in 1872, the United States biocentrists established the public organization Sierra Club. Their views were based on a romantic understanding of nature. They introduce the social into Mother Nature, which is viewed as a perfect creation with spiritual qualities that encapsulates all things living and rational.

Biocentrists view the human life in nature as a certain mode of being and type of behavior, when protection of nature and rational use of natural resources may be just an external manifestation of in-depth motives and value-related orientations. Subsequently, the supporters of this ecological public movement have done a lot to preserve wilderness. Together with industry experts and the government, they developed a natural reserve concept, and such reserves were selected and formally established.

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