Where does “culture” fit in land system science?

Above: Ranch hands in Paragominas, Pará (Brazilian Amazon). In the “cowboy culture” of the Brazilian Amazon, owning and managing cattle is associated with higher social status. Photo credit: Gabriel Sap.

Editor's note: The following post provides an overview of session 250N at the 4th Open Science Meeting, where presenters considered whether the dominance of the perfectly rational "homo economicus" in land systems science has become a hindrance to advancing theory. You can view the session on our YouTube channel.

This session was motivated by our growing discomfort with the assumption that land use behaviors and resulting outcomes are chiefly the result of a narrow form of perfect rationality - profit-maximization. This assumption underlies many of the frameworks used in the Global Land Programme, from explanations of land-use change based on modifications to the classic bid rent theory of von Thünen to discussions of the Jevons’ paradox and of land-use leakage1. Yet, in our own work we have often noted to each other that these assumptions poorly characterize the conditions we observe among, for example, ranchers in the Brazilian Amazon, or Mennonite colonists in the Gran Chaco. Of course, the field of land system science is far from uniform, and studies that go beyond that model and incorporate other dimensions of behavior do exist, but these still constitute a niche in the community.

The continued dominance of the profit maximization framework in many areas of land system science is somewhat surprising since more nuanced approaches to behavioral science, including bounded rationality and value-belief-norm theory, have taken off in other fields. And the concept of culture is not new to the GLP community. “Culture” was identified as an important underlying cluster of conditions driving land change in the seminal Geist and Lambin 2002 synthesis2 and is frequently included in agent-based models. One of the strengths of the land systems community is that it balances empirical work with a search for generalizable explanations to complex land dynamics. Indeed, the profit maximization assumption has been useful for explaining large scale, aggregate behaviors in places experiencing various types of land change across myriad conditions throughout the globe. In contrast, “culture” is a more nuanced concept and one that is more difficult to generalize. This may explain in part why it has been less of a focus for the GLP.

Yet, we have come to believe that the dominance of the perfectly rational homo economicus in land systems science has become a hindrance to advancing theory. In particular, it seems woefully inadequate for explaining more complex land use dynamics beyond simply change, such as land system diversity, persistence, and resilience. The perfect rationality assumption also leaves us ill-equipped to deal with the heterogeneity in identity, values, and beliefs that exist within populations of land use actors. Its failure in capturing the full range of motivations for land use behaviors can help explain why economically driven policy interventions have so often failed to achieve desired land system outcomes.

Against this critique of the perfect rationality and profit-maximization framings, “culture” was implicitly packaged in our GLP session as all of the “other” objectives that influence behavior. Unsurprisingly, defining something by what it is not, necessarily gave rise to the question, what exactly is “culture”? Even as we acknowledge the lack of consideration of factors that can be called cultural, is this packaging really useful for advancing theory and empirics? Mollie Chapman of University of Zürich, one of the session’s speakers, used a cartoon as a metaphor. In that cartoon, a fish asks another “how’s the water?”. The other fish, bewildered, asks “what the hell is water”? Like water, Mollie suggested, culture is everywhere. How do we then approach something that permeates everything?

Jeff Hoelle of UC Santa Barbara, another speaker in the session, had an answer for this: it’s [a system of meaning that is] learned, shared, and passed on, so it’s not unique – it’s groups”, drawing from Ting-Toomey and Chung 20053. These meaning systems consist of traditions, beliefs, values, norms, and symbols and shape our understanding and interpretation of the world around us. This conception of culture is particularly useful for understanding actors’ perceptions of land system dynamics and how these perceptions shape behaviors, since perceptions might differ substantially from objective characterizations of land systems uncritically assumed within traditional economic paradigms.

Another hard question raised in this session was how we can better account for these dimensions in future land systems studies. It’s probably fair to state that the GLP community loves box and arrow frameworks. Should culture, or values, beliefs, etc., be a box in our frameworks, an arrow, or something else? Should it even be part of these frameworks? Ideas included that culture could be used as a guide for conceptualizing and defining individual utility functions, as well as a constraint or friction on the set of predicted behaviors.

Returning back to the aspect of generalizability, the session participants then discussed whether or not anything cultural could or should ever play a role in a more universal middle-range theory. As Cecilie Friis from Humboldt University argued out in her presentation, the homo economicus is essentially universal and de-contextualized, while the norms, values, beliefs and other elements that constitute culture are deeply contextual, and ever-changing. Attempts to draw generalized relationships in the context of nature-culture relations have not always led us to down productive paths – think of environmentally deterministic claims in early North American geography that climate shapes “civilization”. How do we, in our attempts to better represent it, avoid essentializing culture, and ascribing certain cultural traits to land users based on nationality, ethnicity or race, for example? Finally, as another participant pointed out, the value system of profit-maximization itself is not universal, but also cultural.

Ultimately, the session brought up more questions than answers. It would be easy to conclude that culture is just too complex or fraught an object to really be integrated with the types of frameworks land systems scientists mostly use. Yet in a sense we can’t afford to ignore it, as we all agreed. The good thing is, we’re not operating in a vacuum. There are multiple fields of research that have been dealing with some aspects of culture and its influence on decision-making and we can learn from these. We are now preparing a paper that builds on these discussions, looking at what our engagement with culture has been, and examining the ways that we might be able to better account for it in future land systems research. We hope this will provide some food for thought for the land systems community.


  1. Meyfroidt, P. et al. Middle-range theories of land system change. Glob. Environ. Change 53, 52–67 (2018).
  2. Geist, H. J. & Lambin, E. F. Proximate Causes and Underlying Driving Forces of Tropical Deforestation. BioScience 52, 143 (2002).
  3. Ting-Toomey, S. & Chung, L. C. Understanding intercultural communication. (Oxford University Press New York, 2005).