Social relationships with nature: elements of a framework for socio-ecological structure analysis – New article of the flumen team

Dennis Eversberg, Philip Koch, Jana Holz, Lilian Pungas & Anne
Stein (2022): Social relationships with nature: elements of a framework for socio-ecological
structure analysis, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, DOI:


This primarily conceptual contribution introduces a sociological framework for tracing the effects and the sources of stability or instability of societal nature relations to the thoughts, feelings and doings of actually existing people. Drawing on critical debates on societal nature relations, we argue that modern capitalist societalization is inherently expansionary, that the rapid expansion of human economic activity over the past two centuries was only possible based on fossil resources, and that therefore, moving to a post-fossil world will require reinventing the very essence of what “society” is. To investigate the implications of such a fundamental overhaul at the level of how socialized people relate to socialized nature, we build on the relational sociology of Pierre Bourdieu to suggest the framework of a space of social relationships with nature. We describe the iterative process in which we arrived at this conception, moving back and forth between theoretical considerations and hermeneutic analysis of qualitative material from case studies of bio-based economic activities in four European regions. From the iterative process, we synthesize four elementary forms of social relationship with nature (“natural capital”, “nature as partner”, “natural heritage” and nature as “the environment”) and provide an illustrative corner case for each. From the systematic differences that emerge, we then draw out two principal axes of a spatial representation partly homologous with Bourdieu’s social space: a vertical axis indicating the degree of active involvement in and access to the means of abstract-expansionary societalization, and a horizontal representing the form of that involvement, along a continuum from dualist, instrumental and appropriative to holist, mutual or caring relationships with nature. In conclusion, we propose further research to apply and develop this relational framework across local or national contexts and scales as a means to analyze tensions and conflicts around transformations of the societal nature relations.

Lilian Pungas’ new article on human-nature relationships of Estonian dacha gardeners

In her article published on July 12, 2022, our colleague Lilian Pungas examines the nature relations of allotment gardeners in East Estonian dachas.


This article contributes to the understanding of the complexity of human-nature relationships. Through hermeneutic analysis of more than 60 semi-structured in-depth interviews (2019-2021), I identify five prevalent human-nature relationship models within the Food Self-Provisioning (FSP) practice in Eastern Estonia (‘master‘, ‘user‘ and ‘steward of nature‘ as well as ‘partner with’ and ‘participant in nature‘). As an ambiguous model, the ‘stewardship of nature’ merits my particular attention when exploring how gardeners perceive, relate to and act upon nature in general and their own gardening practice in particular. Using a relational sociological approach, I locate the observed relationship models within the so-called ‘space of social relationships with nature’ (see Eversberg et al. 2022 in this Special Issue) which allows me to capture the various ways in which humans mentally and practically relate to nature. The analysis reveals seemingly contrary yet concurrent manifestations of human-nature relationships that can only be explained by exploring their embeddedness in both social power relations and societal nature relations that constitute the individually observed human-nature relationships. Furthermore, I demonstrate how ‘immediate’ engagement with nature results in rather caring and partner-like relationships whereas ‘abstract’ and alienated experiences often feature instrumental logic with implicit or explicit hierarchy.

Lilian Pungas (2022): Who stewards whom? A paradox spectrum of human–nature relationships of Estonian dacha gardeners, Innovation: The European Journal of Social Science Research, DOI: 10.1080/13511610.2022.2095990

Lilian Pungas and Martin Fritz take part in the XIV European Society of Ecological Economics (ESEE) Conference in Pisa, 14-17 June 2022

Our flumen-colleagues Lilian Pungas and Martin Fritz presented their work at the ESEE-Conference. Furthermore, Martin moderated the Special Track “From an aspirational policy framework to a real agent of change?”

Lilian Pungas gave the following two lectures:

Who stewards whom? A paradox spectrum of human-nature relationships when working with the soil

This contribution is of empirical nature and based on more than 60 semi-structured in-depth interviews with people that ‘work with the soil’ and practice Food Self-Provisioning (FSP) in Eastern Estonia. The ‘space of social relationships with nature’ is used here as a relational approach to locate various manifestations of care and stewardship to each other and to explore their embeddedness in social relations of power and in specific societal nature relations. Directly perceived experiences and challenges towards nature (be it soil, insects or weather) within the FSP practice bring about manifestations towards nature that can seem paradox at the first sight, that are diverse, dynamic and context-dependent. This relational complexity needs to be considered if we want to overcome destructive human-nature relation(ship)s, in general, and cultivate more sustainable and caring agri-food systems, in particular.

 Invisible bioeconomies. A framework to assess the ‘blind spots’ of hegemonic bioeconomy models

As one of the latest buzzwords in agri-food system transformation bioeconomy promises jobs, economic growth and decreased environmental pressure. I will explore the hegemonic narratives and political goals articulated within respective bioeconomy strategy papers of EU (2018) and Estonia (2022) with a specific focus on agriculture and agri-food systems. Doing so I will draw on the Bielefeld subsistence approach and on its three-dimensional colonialism-capitalism-patriarchy nexus. I will demonstrate how 1) different geographical regions, 2) environmental externalities, and 3) widespread BE practices that all contribute to, and constitute the very basis of the hegemonic bioeconomy model, remain unrecognised or devalued as ‚blind spots‘. In fact, current BE models are all built on the prerequisite of the exploitation and devaluation of specific spheres of the BE. As such, the currently proposed bioeconomy models serve as just another label for a ‚green growth‘ program, and will additionally perpetuate the very same power relations while avoiding a ‘genuine’ socio-ecological transformation.

Dr. Martin Fritz presented findings from the representative survey of flumen:

Eco-social mentalities and ways of living in the transformation to an eco-social policy – Empirical findings from a representative survey in Germany 2021/22

An important aspect in eco-social transformations are mentalities and practices. While, for example, mentalities oriented at the growth paradigm and fossil practices like frequent flying are obstacles to the political implementation of an eco-social policy, other more ecological mentalities and caring practices may function as drivers. Based on Bourdieu’s theory of practice and concept of habitus this paper investigates the links between people’s social positions, their eco-social mentalities and practices. In the paper the results of a representative multi-mode survey conducted in Germany 2021/22 are presented. We asked people about social and ecological attitudes, preferences and values, collected data about their everyday practices and their social status and position. Applying dimension reduction methods such factor-, correspondence- and cluster analysis we discover the eco-social mentalities and ways of living that currently exist in Germany and plot them into the space of social positions. Implications for social conflicts and inequalities are discussed.

Next Scientific Coffee Human-Forest-Relationships: Maija Halonen (University of Eastern Finland) – “Socio-economic forest relations in Northern peripheries” | 1 June 2022, 1-3 pm (CET)

Scientific Coffee Human-Forest-Relationships presents:

1st June 2022

13-15 CET / 14-16 EEST

Input: Maija Halonen (University of Eastern Finland)
Socio-economic forest relations in Northern peripheries

Maija Halonen is human geographer with background in social policy. Currently she is working as postdoctoral researcher in the University of Eastern Finland and her research interests focus on the socio-economic development of Northern forest peripheries. In her project founded by the Kone Foundation, she approaches the development in the frames of global sustainability transition and through the case studies from the East and North Finland. 

In her presentation, she scrutinises discursive scenarios and frames which analysis is based on the documents and interviews with regional development actors. First, she describes the alternative scenarios for expected development paths and identifies which factors are related to forests. Then she presents the findings of the hegemonic and alternative discourses on forest-related development and constructs the frames which describe the regional forest relations. Based on the results, aspirations and good will describe different phases of the relations than the current reality and therefore forest relations seem to be transforming but very slowly in Northern peripheries. The most striking note call for understanding, appreciation and acknowledgement of forest relations which people in the middle of the specific forests have and have had for generations. 


Meeting-ID: 610 2739 2103
Kenncode: 513063

The “Scientific Coffee” sessions continue our cooperation and exchange on the relations between society, humans and forests that we started with the workshop “Contested Society-Nature-Relations. Forest related Emotions, Practices & Conflicts in Times of Societal Change” in May 2021. They give room for open and relaxed discussions on current research subjects related to human and society relations to forests. The Scientific Coffee sessions take place as often as we find the time to organise another session – but at least one session per semester is planned.

More info on our past workshop:

If you are interested in contributing to the next “Scientific Coffee HFR”, please contact with info on your subject (title and short abstract) and a preferred Wednesday (13-15 CET / 14-16 EEST).

Philip Koch’s field research in Jaén, Southern Spain

Foto: Philip Koch

In April 2022, our doctoral candidate Philip Koch has spent several weeks in Jaén, Andalusia, in order to gain data for his research. He is investigating the (bioeconomic) olive sector of the province: It dominates Jaén aesthetically, economically and culturally. After a first, explorative stay in August of 2021, the focus of this research trip was on interviewing producers of olives.

Among many other aspects, the history, current state and possible future of olive cultivation were central to the investigation. Philip Koch spoke to the farmers about them being part of a bio-based economy and the significance of the olive sector’s domination of the region’s economy. People’s stances of olive cultivation depend on many factors, mostly due to differences in cultivation methods and exploitation size. Therefore, a preliminary result of the field trip is that there are, in fact, possibly conflictive relations among farmers – which will be further elaborated in the context of socio-ecological mentalities during this year.

Foto: Philip Koch

keynote online now | Cara Daggett (Virginia Tech, USA): Desiring Energy: Toxic Fantasies of Fuel, Freedom, and Work

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Energy, work, and power are intertwined, both in the scientific definition of energy (the ability to do work), and in the political manifestation of human-fuel practices. Fossil fuel advocates rely upon the threat of job loss and energy dependency to mobilize affection for oil, coal or gas, but many renewable energy advocates also adopt this framework in calls for a just energy transition. Doing so helps keep modern energy cultures yoked to extractivism. Cara Daggett traced the historical emergence of the relationship between energy and work, focusing upon how work came to be understood and valued as a site of energy transformation. The energy-work ethos informed the emergent fossil fuel culture, wherein technical categories of work and waste intersect with racialized, and gendered, judgments of productivity and sloth. Thinking about energy historically suggests that shifting our fuel cultures will require a corresponding shift in (post)-industrial cultures of work and Western understandings of freedom.

Cara Daggett gave the lecture on 19 May 2022 online as part of the workshop “Mental infrastructures of modern fossil and bio-based societies”. She is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Virginia Tech where she researches feminist political ecology. See more under

Recent publications of her:
Energy and Domination: Contesting the Fossil Myth of Fuel Expansion,” (Environmental Politics
Toward Feminist Energy Systems: Why Adding Women and Solar Panels Isn’t Enough,” with Shannon E. Bell and Christine Labuski (2020, Energy Research & Social Science),
Petro-masculinity: Fossil Fuels and Authoritarian Desire” (2018, Millennium: Journal of International Studies)
Book: The Birth of Energy (Duke 2019)

Dr. Martin Fritz as a guest at Lund University in Sweden

From April 30 to May 14, 2022, Dr. Martin Fritz will be working as a visiting researcher at the School of Social Work at Lund University. During his stay he will work with Prof. Max Koch and other colleagues on various articles on the topic of sustainable welfare without growth and will contribute his expertise in statistical analyses of relational mentalities. Among other things, he will hold a workshop on how correspondence analyses can be used to evaluate social science survey data.

Lund University is one of the most important centers for research on socio-ecological transformation in Europe. Connections to German institutes and projects like our junior research group “flumen” have a long tradition and are important for the international networking of sustainability research.

(Translated with

Lund University (Wikipedia:

Workshop | Mental Infrastructures of Modern Fossil and Bio-based Societies | 19 & 20 May 2022

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The aim of the workshop was to analyze mental infrastructures in modern societies that are both a prerequisite and a determining factor for the character and course of a socio-ecological transformation. We aimed to find answers on how people’s basic mindsets, attitudes, and general perceptions are shaped by fossil-industrial infrastructures, and how they can and must change in the course of transformations toward post-fossil, bio-based economies. As one of the participants, Éric Pineault, put it: “Fossil infrastructures and habitus play an important role in shaping the possible and the impossible.”

Experts from different disciplines from Germany and abroad enriched the workshop. In their presentations they referred to mentalities, value systems, desires, behavioral patterns and cultural aspects and considered societies and social groups. Different framework conditions, such as the politically promoted energy transition or bioeconomy, societal crises or capitalism were also taken into account. Thus, the workshop participants gained many new aspects and approaches for their own research work.

Session 1 “Fossil Mentalities”

Matthias Schmelzer, flumen, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena

One could say we are living in the cement age. Cement is the world’s single most used material enabling the spread of the construction material concrete. With concrete as a material comes a fossil imagery which can be understood through the dream of the printed house formulated by Thomas Edison. Plastic materials like concrete make it possible to shape the world after capital needs – they create landscapes of accumulation.

Tere Vadén, BIOS Research Unit, Tampere University & University of Lapland

Despite their self-perception as modern and enlightened, fossil-capitalist societies have great difficulty recognizing and operationalizing relevant knowledge. These blind spots concern e.g., the life cycle and origin of materials as well as the illusion that we are independent of nature. These knowledge gaps have unintended (negative) consequences like the climate crisis or ubiquitous plastic waste. We lack knowledge about origin and synthesis (syntytieteo): the knowledge of how things (both material and mental) interrelate. With Syntytieteo we would know where plastic in our daily life comes from, which tracks it takes and how we can avoid its negative consequences.

Session 2 “Energy Transitions and Mentality Transformations”

Julia Zilles, Sociological Research Institute Göttingen

Using cleavage theory, Julia Zilles compares collective identities and mentalities of opponents of local energy transition projects on the one hand with participants of Fridays for Future and the global Climate Strike on the other hand. Here, she analyzes how both groups perceive themselves and each other. While contrary in many attitudes, in their self-conception both groups act in the name of science and for the common good – including nature / the environment. Both are disappointed with political leadership.

Alice dal Gobbo, Department of Sociology and Social Research, University of Trento

The neoliberal denial of politics leads to an emphasize of consumer choices as the last sphere of individual control. The neoliberal way of working the problem of sustainability – changing attitudes and behaviour – neglects social structures, accountability, responsibility, and the question of how free consumer choices really are. In ten case studies in Northeast Italy, Alice Dal Gobbo investigated how people redirect and rethink their desires in the light of the Covid-19 crisis. The question “What is it that makes a good life for me?” was found to lead to a reduction in materialist appropriation, an increase in joyful affection and new alternative energy-assemblages.

Keynote „The enduring metabolic structures of fossil capital and the social ecology of the imaginaries advanced capitalism“

Éric Pineault, L’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM

Éric Pineault points out that fossil mentalities are highly influenced by how we view energy and which types, amounts and availability of energy we consider normal. These ideas of and expectations towards energy should adapt to a viable society. Reflecting on transformation he asks: How do we reintroduce practices of subsistence into our lives?

Keynote „Desiring Energy: Toxic Fantasies of Fuel, Freedom, and Work“

Cara Daggett, Virginia Tech, USA

Energy and work/employment are deeply connected – at least according to our fossil-industrial conceptions. As jobs, the meaning of work and social roles are viewed in relation to the availability of energy, modern energy cultures remain ingrained in extractivism.  A historical study of energy suggests that a change in our fuel culture necessitates a change in (post-)industrial working cultures and the Western conception of freedom.

The keynote has been recorded and can be viewed here.

Session 3 “Mentalities and post-fossil transformation in Germany 2022: The BioMentalities study”

Dennis Eversberg und Martin Fritz, flumen, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena

To understand which mentalities exist in Germany and how they correlate with social positions and practices, flumen conducts not only qualitative but also quantitative research. Dennis Eversberg and Martin Fritz present the background, aim and first results of surveys flumen has conducted. Aiming to identify latent dimensions of mental infrastructures, flumen looks for patterns that show how feelings, views and attitudes relate to each other. Overall, approximately 4500 responses to phone, online and postal surveys will be analyzed.

Session 4 “Bio-based practices and cultures”

Lilian Pungas, flumen, Friedrich-Schiller University Jena

Investigating semi-subsistence farming in Estonia, Lilian Pungas shines a light on mentalities and practices in the Dacha culture of the post-soviet country. These practices are mostly invisible in mainstream bioeconomy discourses. Looking at the Russian-speaking minority, Lilian shows how food democracy is achieved in the context of repeated crisis – including resettlement during the USSR period, the social-economic extremes of the 1990s and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Sarah May & Lea Breitsprecher, University Freiburg

In their qualitative research, Sarah May and Lea Breitsprecher investigate bioeconomy as cultural change in innovative enterprises in the wood and packaging sectors. Their finding: bioeconomic innovation begins with organizational structures. Economic and ethical codes are constantly renegotiated. Cultural codes originating in the logic of constant economic growth hamper ethical and bioeconomic codes. Even though new spaces for bioeconomy exist, bioeconomy pioneers are confronted with established markets and fossil mentalities.

Session 5 „Bio-based modernities?”

Philip Koch, flumen, Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena

Looking at olive cultivation in the Spanish province of Jaén, Philip Koch investigates the role of modernity in the producers’ relation to the land and their farming practices. He demonstrates how, without romanticizing or idealizing nature, producers have pragmatically adapted to EU policy in the 1980s making olives the most profitable product to cultivate. While big producers emphasize mechanisation and centralisation, smaller producers aim to increase their products’ quality and appreciation.

Camila Moreno,
Junor Research Group BioMaterialities,
Humboldt University Berlin

The complex of trying to solve the climate crisis through the digital is a new capital strategy of accumulation by decarbonization. The epistemic infrastructure for this is the carbon metric (Application of the metric system for the formulation of decarbonisation as the highest goal and most important measurement for the fight against the climate crisis). In the past, we counted calories even though the calorie tells us nothing about nutrition. Now we are counting carbon. We saw the death of the calorie; do we need the “death of the carbon metric”?

An enriching workshop with wonderful participants in the soothing environment of Villa Rosenthal Jena.

Short description

While it has become common sense that modern societies need a fundamental transformation of their energy and material infrastructures to achieve the decarbonization necessary to avoid climate disaster, we know little about the related transformation of mental infrastructures that this will necessarily entail. In the workshop, we want to analyze this dimension – not only to understand which forms of fossil mentalities hinder the necessary societal changes, but also to better understand how people’s basic mindsets, attitudes, and common imaginations change and need to change in the course of transformations toward post-fossil, bio-based economies. In this regard, it is equally important to take stock of the multiple ways in which the practically unlimited availability and steadily intensifying use of fossil fuels have shaped contemporary subjectivities as it is to discuss what the necessarily greater reliance of a post-fossil, bio- and renewable-based society, and the limits to their potential expansion, might imply for the constitution of an appropriate mental infrastructure.

There is a broad consensus that fossil fuels such as oil, coal and gas will soon become obsolete as energy sources and raw materials for industrial production: Their available stocks are limited and, more gravely, the greenhouse gases that are emitted when burning fossil fuels are a central cause of global warming and catastrophic climate change. One response to this problem is the search for biological and renewable resources that could serve as drivers of an emerging ‘bioeconomy’ and are hoped to make many hitherto fossil-based applications and products much more sustainable in the future. In our research group “flumen: mentalities in flux” at Friedrich-Schiller-University Jena we investigate the social preconditions and consequences of energy and resource transformations in which societies move away from the use of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources and turn towards modes of production and living based on biological materials and renewable forms of energy. This workshop serves to discuss intermediate results with senior experts in the fields of sociology, history and the broader humanities, but also link them to ongoing key research on the questions of the relation between transformations at the material or socio-metabolic level of modern societies and in their mental or cultural dimensions.

Next Scientific Coffee Human-Forest-Relationships: M.Sc. Dominik Menton-Enderlin (FVA): “Basically this is all my forest” | 6 April 2022, 1-3 pm CET

6 April 2022, online

13-15 CET / 14-16 EEST

Input: M.Sc. Dominik Menton-Enderlin (Forest Research Institute Baden-Württemberg (FVA)), “Basically this is all my forest” – qualitative and quantitative research results on psychological ownership among forest visitors in germany

Dominik Menton-Enderlin is an environmental scientist researching human-forest-relationships at the FVA-Department of Societal Change. In his current project, he explores why people feel perceptions of ownership towards forests without legally owning them and how feelings of “my” and “our ” forest influence decision-making and behavior in forests. He further investigates the role these feelings play in current debates on the future of German forests in times of climate change and how they are linked to the rising importance of social or cultural functions of forests. The presented results are based on a mixed-methods approach consisting of a literature study, group discussions, and a representative online survey of German forest users.

The “Scientific Coffee” sessions continue our cooperation and exchange on the relations between society, humans and forests that we started with the workshop “Contested Society-Nature-Relations. Forest related Emotions, Practices & Conflicts in Times of Societal Change” in May 2021. They give room for open and relaxed discussions on current research subjects related to human and society relations to forests. The Scientific Coffee sessions take place as often as we find the time to organise another session – but at least one session per semester is planned.

If you are interested in contributing to the next “Scientific Coffee HFR”, please contact with info on your subject (title and short abstract) and a preferred Wednesday (13-15 CET / 14-16 EEST).

We look forward to seeing you there.

More info on our past workshop:


Meeting-ID: 665 8905 9243

Kenncode: 879775

Jana Holz participates in the Fourth International Forest Policy Meeting, 27-29 April 2022

Our flumen colleague Jana Holz hosts a session and contributes with a presentation at the Fourth International Forest Policy Meeting from 27-29 April 2022 in Bonn (virtual event) hosted by the European Forest Institute (EFI), Wageningen University & Research, and the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences, Vienna (BOKU).

More about the event:

The panel “People and forests – Developing the concepts and methodologies for researching human-forest-relationship and social relationships with nature” on 29th of April will focus on methodological and empirical contributions related to the Finnish forest sector and bioeconomy. In addition to Jana Holz, Tuulikki Halla and Reetta Karhunkorva from the University of Eastern Finland and Sari Pynnönen from the Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) will contribute to the session with up-to-date insights into ongoing research projects.