Social relationships with nature: elements of a framework for socio-ecological structure analysis – Neuer flumen-Artikel zu sozialen Naturbeziehungen

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.