The role of culture in land system science

Related GLP Member: Yann le Polain de Waroux, Rachael Garrett, Mollie Chapman, Cecilie Friis, Kelly Hopping, Dr. Julie Zähringer


Land system science (LSS) has substantially advanced understanding of land dynamics throughout the world. However, studies that explicitly address the causative role of culture in land systems have been fairly limited relative to those examining other structural dimensions (e.g. markets, policies, climate). In this paper, we aim to start a discussion on how to better include culture in LSS. Through four examples, we show how aspects of culture influence land systems in myriad ways. Building on existing causal land system models, we propose a conceptual framework for the role of culture in land use and summarize promising methodological innovations for exploring it further. We conclude with some thoughts on how the study of culture and its integration through reflexive, locally grounded approaches, while challenging, provides new opportunities for the development of LSS.

1. Introduction

Land systems are at the heart of many global sustainability challenges, from carbon emissions to biodiversity loss and wealth inequality (Foley et al., 2005). These challenges have been a core concern of land system science (hereafter LSS), an interdisciplinary field of research that examines ‘(1) why, how, where human activity, locally to globally, affects the terrestrial surface and (2) the consequences of the impacts, especially for sustainability issues,’ and which aims ‘to assist (3) in projecting land-use and -cover changes and their consequences in the near-term future’ (Turner et al., 2021, p. 1).

LSS has made substantial theoretical and methodological advances in its three decades of existence, and is now considered a maturing field (Meyfroidt et al., 2018). For example, we are able to monitor and model land system change at an increasingly fine spatial and temporal resolution, and have deepened the understanding of the indirect effects, land-use displacements and trade-offs associated with such change (Friis & Nielsen, 2019; Meyfroidt et al., 2018). There has also been increased focus on the importance of human agency, local context, and actor diversity, reflected in a growing number of in-depth case study analyses (e.g. Chowdhury & Turner, 2006; Zaehringer et al., 2018) and agent-based modeling studies (ABM) (e.g. Dressler et al., 2019). These recent advances have allowed land systems researchers to start looking beyond homogeneous structural determinants and aggregate dynamics of land use to reveal more complex and differentiated factors, patterns, and drivers of land-use change. This increasingly fine-grained understanding has been key to developing more accurate modelling and better theory of land-use change.

Here we aim to advance discussions on why and how human activity affects land systems by highlighting the important role of ‘culture’. Culture can be understood as a symbolic system or a ‘web of meaning’ that is shared and passed on among groups and is used to interpret the world and guide behavior (Geertz, 1973; Kroeber & Parsons, 1958). For the purposes of LSS, it can be useful to think of culture as beliefs, knowledge, norms, and values organized into shared mental models that allow members of a group to ‘interpret observations, generate novel inferences, and solve problems’ (Kempton et al., 1996, p. 10). Cultural features are often expressed through informal institutions, rather than formally codified (Ostrom, 1990). These aspects can be largely invisible to outsiders, but nevertheless guide the ways that people interact with and manage the local environment (Colding & Folke, 2001).

This paper, which is an outcome of a session called ‘The role of culture in land-use change’ at the Global Land Program’s bi-annual Open Science Meeting in Bern, Switzerland in 2019, aims to start a discussion within the LSS community on how to open the ‘black box’ of culture. First, we review the current treatment of culture relative to other structural factors in LSS. Next, we provide four examples based on the authors’ work to illustrate some ways in which culture influences land use throughout the world. Building on these cases and additional literature, we propose a conceptual framework for how to better incorporate culture as a causal influence in LSS and highlight promising methods to account for culture. We conclude by discussing the benefits associated with paying more attention to the role of culture in land systems.