Have you ever been travelling to a new place and thought about how different it looks to home?
But what makes a place home? Is it a country, your neighbourhood, or maybe your house itself? In this article, I want to discuss how the environment creates ‘home’ and what it means to belong to a place.
First, what is meant by a sense of place? Namely, at what point does it stop being a recognisable place to you? Where do the boundaries lie? Are there boundaries at all?
These are questions made perhaps more relevant by the turmoil of our current global politics. What we are discussing here can be about ethnicity, nationality or however you make the decision to call something home. But the most important fact is your connection — regardless of how others might categorise where you belong.
That is because, while our connection with a place may be highly socialised, in the end, it is our link with the environment that establishes our grounded experience of ‘place’. This is, of course, not to say that place and belonging isn’t a contested topic. The idea of place can be incredibly politicised and mediated by factors outside our own experience.
We might think of boundaries as degrees of alterity. Alterity describes a state of being different or other to both places and people. Otherness, according to Simone de Beauvoir "is a basic category of human thought." By this, she informs the idea that once a concept enters the realm of what is, what lies outside this construction must be other. In this sense, demarcating boundaries on what is other, also becomes a way of reifying the sphere of what we know as our place.
Rob Efird elaborates on this idea by looking at how individuals come to form a relationship with the environment. He takes the position that relatedness, the degree to which we form a connection to the environment, rests upon how much we perceive the similarities between us and the other. But how exactly do we form a relatedness to our environment?
Efird argues that childhood experience characterises our later attitude to place. If we create meaningful and empathetic relationships with our environment, as adults, we are more likely to adopt caring attitudes towards it. However, drawing from Chawla he notes, it is not enough to "know the experiences that people had, but how significance becomes constructed." This begs the question of how exactly significance and meaning are made.
It is no doubt beyond the scope of this article to answer this question in its entirety. Nevertheless, we might look at some real-world examples that could give us some clues. For instance, anthropologist Celeste Ray explores how sacred well sites in Ireland form the basis of contested places of meaning and significance.
Her study shows how wells have become enduring sites to "affirm group membership and identity." She follows the practices of Catholic and Pagan practitioners in their joint uses of these sites. Despite the varying cosmologies of these groups, through historical and reconstructive heritage, they both undertake spiritual journeys to these sites. The wells became both culturally and politically symbolic of place-making and relatedness.
Well practices for the Catholics represented a historical battle to express Irish identity under Protestant rule. Whereas, in the case of Pagan ritualization of these spaces, it represented a broader move to reclaim Celtic identity before the coming of Christianity to Ireland.
In both examples, the wells became contested sites of meaning and significance. Underpinning their claims, a battle between otherness and belonging. Individuals and groups attempted to conceptualise the well as part of their related worlds. In doing so, they create a sense of belonging to that place, whilst excluding others. When we talk of exclusion here, it is not necessarily in the physical sense, though it can be. I use it here to describe the process of mentally and socially demarcated boundaries. Meaning, what is part of the group and/or identity and what is not.
For instance, in Le Febre's studies of the Negev Bedouin in Southern Israel, groups used historical artefacts as tools “in attempts to augment limited cultural capital in the Negev.” That is to say, these artefacts became a mechanism to establish the legitimacy of their identity. And often, make claims to resources owned by their community. Likewise, in the Irish example, access to the wells was used to physically structure boundaries for whom a place belonged, and who had the legitimate relatedness to the sites.
Moreover, in terms of othering and relatedness, again in Ireland, there has been a move to reclaim land more generally and recapture Irish identity. This time in opposition to British colonial rule.
In Smith’s Land representation, she brings together a record of place names and sites that were covered by the 19th century British ordnance of Ireland. While the outward purpose of this survey was to map the land and population of Ireland, it also served as a colonial instrument in rewriting “the landscape to make it ‘British space’.”
Names of places were anglicised and areas symbolic of Irish culture were made invisible by this survey. Smith elaborates that “landscapes are fundamental to a person’s or community’s sense of belonging and identity.” Thus through the act of controlling these narratives, colonial rule sought to alter the perception of the landscape. Isolating future generations from the original stories and names of places. In essence, changing the Irish sense of relatedness to the environment itself.
We see similar politically-motivated mechanisms for subjugating dominion over land and place throughout history. In an account of Bolivian llama herders by Margaret Bolton, she describes disputes that occurred in the governmental census of livestock in the Andes. Llama herders who traditionally lived in these regions were reluctant to give truthful accounts of the number of llamas they owned. In part, this stemmed from the historical connection between llamas and the land.
The practice of herding llamas and the llamas themselves were situated in cultural narratives of place and legitimacy. The llamas were a symbol of relatedness, the land was understood through them.
When we create a place, in our minds or otherwise, we have made a commitment to the value and use of that place. However, as discussed, this can be a highly symbolic process. How we create meaning will rely heavily on how it affects us as individuals. It can create and reinforce identity or it can be used as a tool of separation or otherness.
In a final example, I want to demonstrate how this symbolic construction can help us ground our experience and relationship to the environment. In Whitehouse’s study on anxious semiotics, he documents how ecological soundscapes can connote or suggest our connection or disconnection to the environment.
The modern world is filled with sound. According to Whitehouse, we can distinguish this sound in three ways: As physical, biological and human-generated sound. The physical sound might concern the sound of rainfall, thunder or howling wind. Biological sounds come from animals and biological processes. Whereas, in the last case, human-generated sound is the industrial and technological noise that has engulfed our modern world. He notes as human-generated sound dominates our environment, other sounds are relinquished to the background or disappear altogether.
This ecological silence can signal isolation from the natural world and our place within it. It might be said to represent a breakdown of meaning. In other words, the disconnection from our relatedness to the environment. For Whitehouse, sound-making is also a way of "place-making," creating and embodying different human and non-human relations to the environment.
If we put this in an environmentalist context, when we have a nurturing and caring relationship with the environment, we are more likely to be motivated in its preservation. As doing so preserves our own identity and belonging as well. Whereas, in the reverse, a detachment from the environment and isolation from it means the environment comes to be perceived as other from ourselves. The further the degree of alterity we impose on the environment, the less regard we may have for it. Potentially leading to devastating environmental damage.
Without these sounds, stories, names and histories, we are left adrift from our own environment.
We are other, from ourselves and from the world.
1 Duffy, P. (2007). Exploring the history and heritage of Irish landscapes. Dublin: Four Courts Press.
2 Simone De Beauvoir, Borde, C. and Malovany-Chevallier, S. (2010). The second sex. London: Vintage.
3 Chawla, L. (1998). Significant Life Experiences Revisited: a review of research on sources of environmental sensitivity. Environmental Education Research, 4(4), pp.369–382.
4 Kopnina, H. and Shoreman-Ouimet, E. (2017). Routledge handbook of environmental anthropology. Abingdon, Oxon New York, NY Routledge.
5 Ray, C. (2011) The sacred and the body politic at Ireland’s holy wells. International social science journal. [Online] 62 (205-206), 271–285.
6 Le Febvre, E. K. (2016). Contentious Realities: Politics of Creating an Image Archive with the Negev Bedouin in Southern Israel. History and Anthropology 26(4): 480-503.
7 Smith, a. (2003). Landscape representation: place and identity in nineteenth-century ordnance survey maps of Ireland. In: P. Smith and A. Strathern, ed., Landscape, memory and history: Anthropological perspectives. London: Pluto Press, pp.71-88.
8 Bolton, M. (2007) Counting llamas and accounting for people: livestock, land and citizens in southern Bolivia. The Sociological Review (Keele). [Online] 55 (1), 5–21.