Toward a fusion of two lines of thought: creating convergence between Aldo Leopold and sociology through the community concept


Aldo Leopold made great contributions to our understanding of the interconnections between people and their environments, and community is central to his best-known work. The social dimensions of the land-community concept were not his focus, however, and subsequent research on Leopold has not emphasized such issues. Community was foundational to sociology, and while the concept faded from prominence during the significant social change of the post-war era, some scholars in the field continue to debate its meaning and salience more than 130 years later. They generally do not discuss Leopold, though, and the “fusion” of ecological and sociological thought that he desired remains elusive. I propose a convergence via the integrative landscape interactional field extension of community. The goal is to revitalize the community concept and strengthen the connection between ecological and sociological research, while helping us better understand the reality of humans and their environments—how we live and might live in particular places.

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  1. 1.

    These arguments reflect a Western, and particularly US-based, perspective but will hopefully resonate broadly.

  2. 2.

    From the description to the e-book for Flader SL, Callicott JB (eds) (1991), The River of the Mother of God and Other Essays. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.

  3. 3.

    Unless otherwise noted, all of Leopold’s statements in the remainder of Sect. 2 are from “The Land Ethic” in ASCA.

  4. 4.

    He further elaborates upon this notion in Leopold (1999).

  5. 5.

    It should be noted that the concept of native versus non-native species is a social construction and there is debate about the merits of it (e.g., Gbedomon, Salako, and Schlaepfer 2020).

  6. 6.

    These general ideas were not new, at least to certain philosophical traditions, such as of many Indigenous peoples, including Leopold’s Native American neighbors in Wisconsin. For example, Chief Yellow Thunder of the Ho-Chunk tribe spoke, as did Leopold, at the dedication of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison in 1934. Yellow Thunder lamented, “My people are like the trees—a dying race leaving behind them as their only monument the natural forests and streams of America” (Greenwood 2017, p. 682). Like the Ho-Chunk, the origin story of the nearby Menominee Nation is in Wisconsin, which it has called home for more than 10,000 years. One of the few tribes east of the Mississippi on Indigenous land, their shared way of life remains rooted in the forest, which “is the Menominee people” (Bernard and Young 1997, p. 98, emphasis added). To those alarmed by “silent springs” and other signs of the destruction that “progress” had wrought in the USA by the early 1960s, when the ASCA finally found a substantial audience, though, that nature should be considered within the same circle of moral concern as humans may have seemed like a paradigm shift, helping launch the environmental movement.

  7. 7.

    This is a central tenet of interactional field theory of community, which is elaborated upon in Sect. 4.

  8. 8.

    Goralnik and Nelson (2011) contrast Leopold’s and Muir’s theories of environmental action, the latter theorizing that exposure to nature will cause individual people to want to help preserve it. Claiming that Leopold’s ideas are superior for the modern world, they assert, “if we act as if we are in community, our actions might take a different shape than if we are to act as agents acting on behalf of an ‘other’” (p. 190). This should entail an emphasis on “the relationships that inspire care and empathy…the ‘we’ of the biotic community and less on the intent of single actors” (p. 187). Gabrielson and McGreggor Cawley (2010) argue that attitudes without corresponding actions produce the “milk-and-water” conservation that Leopold criticized. Instead, people must recognize that they are deeply enmeshed in “mixed communities” with the natural world and then act upon it. They contend that for “Leopold, citizenship is not a means to achieving particular social ends narrowly conceived, but a concept that provides individuals with the means to integrate the numerous commitments that both bind and enhance” people’s lives (p. 613).

  9. 9.

    One such piece concludes that the Maori “worldview is very much akin to the land-community envisaged by Leopold’s land ethic” (Jamieson 2010, p. 185). Robin Wall Kimmerer, a prominent Indigenous scientist, has written extensively on the importance of traditional ecological knowledge. While critical of its marginalization, she also sees complementarity with Leopold. Kimmerer (2000) warns against appropriating Indigenous values, but credits Leopold with expressing the need for everyone to learn to act more “indigenous” to where they live, concluding, “As we strive to heal not only the land but also our relationship to it, restoration can be the means by which we regain our roles as members of the community” (p. 9). Kyle Whyte (2017) is more skeptical about the resonance, however, concluding, “Indigenous peoples simply will not be as captivated as non-Indigenous people might be with the land ethic as the Rosetta stone for an inclusive environmentalism.” To him, it would be more productive to have open discussions about the similarities and differences between such traditions.

  10. 10.

    Herman (1999) finds Leopold's community concept problematic for several reasons, including that human membership in Leopold’s land-community requires personal transformation, which to him is unrealistic on a widespread scale, particularly in a world that has by most accounts headed even further “away from, rather than towards, an intense consciousness of land” (ASCA, p. 223). Herman’s solution is shifting to communal egoism, the notion “that when each member of the community pursues his or her own interests or advantage, then the good of the community will be secured” (p. 212), part of a thought-provoking but unconvincing argument. Gunn’s (1998) basic premise is similar to my own argument that “examination of the idea of community is surely crucial to our understanding of our place in the world” (p. 351), yet human community is rarely interrogated in environmental studies. His overall conclusion is quite different, however: “Leopold’s view of humans and their place in nature is largely irrelevant” (p. 343). While useful in some respects, such as its argument that intentionality is central to human community, this piece suffers from an unnecessarily narrow reading of Leopold and limited evidence.

  11. 11.

    Land ownership in the USA has long been laden with both obligations and rights, “including the duty to act in ways at least roughly consistent with communal ideas of good land use” (Freyfogle 1996, p. 640). Particularly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, however, when “the American landscape was transformed in ways that anticipated many of the environmental problems we face today” (Cronon 1991, p. 8), there was a hard shift to “private” largely being seen as the only type of property. Freyfogle (1996) argues that a new ownership model based upon factors such as sensitivity to place, emphasis upon local knowledge, and landscape-level planning is needed.

  12. 12.

    This includes a recent tussle in Rural Sociology (Cope et al. 2016, Theodori et al. 2016, Flaherty and Cope 2016).

  13. 13.

    This book explores social division based in part upon fear of strangers and “others” (from rival political parties, other social categories).

  14. 14.

    The “pure” version of a concept, according to sociologist Max Weber.

  15. 15.

    To elaborate, “meso” is the societal level distinct from the micro (the small-scale realm of personal, face-to-face human interaction) and the macro (the large-scale realm of impersonal, societal institutions and structures, such as those that comprise a national economy). The meso is found in between, in agglomerations of people and organizations at a local or regional scale, where place-based community can form.

  16. 16.

    The first introductory sociology textbook was published by early human ecologists at the University of Chicago in 1894, and in it community was given more attention than any other concept (Lyon and Driskell 2012, p. 8).

  17. 17.

    Morris (2015) argues that this intentional, uncredited appropriation by the Chicago School was done such that they could perpetuate the notion that they were the originators of American sociology and not Du Bois and the Atlanta School.

  18. 18.

    Writing about the lack of community development between white and black people in the Southern USA, Du Bois (2005 [1903]) argues, “despite much physical contact and daily intermingling, there is almost no community of intellectual life or point of transference where the thoughts and feelings of one race can come into direct contact and sympathy with the thoughts and feelings of the other” (p. 228). Similar to Du Bois being acknowledged primarily for being the first major sociologist of color, Mead’s associate Jane Addams, credited as the founder of social work (but also seen as an unheralded founder of sociology by some, e.g., White and White 2019), and Harriet Martineau, known as the first female sociologist, are generally recognized as important to the history of the field primarily because of their gender, also made substantive contributions that could enrich sociological community (ibid., Warren 2008).

  19. 19.

    For example, from symbolic perspectives, community is “an ‘imagined’ phenomenon, where the focus is on the sense of ‘belonging’ rather than on more material social interaction” (Fairbrother et al. 2013, p. 187). The places in which these networks and symbols are experienced, and social capital built and utilized, are largely out of the picture in much of contemporary sociological community theory.

  20. 20.

    I proffer a definition of community stemming from this place-based orientation in Sect. 4.2.5.

  21. 21.

    An exception in the anthropocentric world of sociological community theory is Flora, Flora, and Gasteyer’s (2016) community capitals framework. In essence, the land is its anchor, but while Leopold’s influence is clearly felt, they do not cite him. Further, their conception of the land as natural capital may be seen as contrary to Leopold’s philosophy, and their very general discussion of the community concept includes communities of interest, muddying the water.

  22. 22.

    A search in Rural Sociology for “community” in the title, for example, yielded 711 articles dating back to 1936, and for “conservation” anywhere produced about 715. For pieces mentioning “leopold,” only six actually refer to Aldo Leopold and none discuss his community concept. Similarly, “community” in the title in American Journal of Sociology, the oldest sociology journal in world, produced 620 articles since 1899. Two came up for “aldo leopold” anywhere. Both were reviews, including of Heberlein (2012), one of the few sociologists to meaningfully incorporate Leopold into their work. Finally, Society & Natural Resources (SNR) is arguably the home base for the subfield of natural resource sociology (NRS), of which both community and environment are central concerns. There were 221 articles in SNR with “community” in the title between 1989 and 2019, but only four with “leopold” anywhere, and none focused upon community. Such searches do not capture all relevant material, however. The latter, for example, missed Barham (2001), in which a rural sociologist references the holism problem and debate as to whether ecology is a science or “philosophy of interrelationships” (p. 182). Barham cites Leopold in discussing a watershed basis for defining community boundaries in land-use planning and environmental management.

  23. 23.

    Another contributing factor may have been what is argued to be an internal conundrum stemming from sociology’s historical lack of consensus around a central object of study, as compared to biology, with its theoretical debates focused more on methodological concerns (Malczewski 2015).

  24. 24.

    According to Catton (2008), “A few sociologists (such as Robert E. Park, of the University of Chicago) had quickly begun to apply some of the ideas from Clements and other ecologists in their efforts to understand human experience…(they) came to regard succession in human communities essentially as a process of aggression: Invaders were imagined to be succession’s driving force, pushing out prior occupants who supposedly might otherwise have thrived forever on a given site…(but) among sociologists who called themselves ‘human ecologists’ most seemed oblivious to the important fact that occupants of a site may make it unsuitable for themselves after a time by the use they have made of it” (p. 474, emphases in original).

  25. 25.

    For example, at the end of 2018, the Environmental Sociology section of the American Sociological Association had only the 25th most members of any subfield, and 32% fewer members than Economic Sociology.

  26. 26.

    This arguably has roots in Durkheim’s insistence that sociology study “social facts.”

  27. 27.

    For example, Bell and Ashwood (2016) describe environmental sociology as the study of the “largest community of all” (p. 3) but do not define community or use it as a meaningful concept.

  28. 28.

    To further illustrate the chasm between these two lines of thought, even in a recent history of the conservation movement in the USA, as written by an environmental sociologist, Leopold is referenced on only one page, and not in regard to what others deem his major contributions to conservation (Taylor 2016, p. 370).

  29. 29.

    As discussed earlier, this may stem from the fear of socialism and communism during Leopold’s day and help explain why he conscientiously avoided overbearing group coercion. According to Flader and Callicott (1991), “Increasingly, Leopold began to emphasize the importance of personal stewardship on the part of private landowners, based ultimately upon attitudes and values that resist economic reduction. Indeed, the land ethic cannot be fully comprehended apart from the essentially Jeffersonian reflections on political economy with which it was so closely connected” (pp. 20, 22).

  30. 30.

    Mead’s generalized other explicitly includes nonhumans, a notion that has been utilized in limited fashion in environmental sociology (e.g., Brewster 2011, Bell and Ashwood 2016).

  31. 31.

    For Mathews (1995), relations with particular others (human and nonhuman) shape the identity of the individual, which is built through communication via face-to-face relationships (pp. 74, 79), and “it is the relational self, with its readiness to recognise the subjectivity of others and receive their affirmation in return, that is likely to be open to the possibility of the subjectivity of non-human others” (pp. 79–80). Further, she argues that people–land community is embodied in particular places, consistent with the proposed synthesis I present in Sect. 4. Perhaps due to the continued lack of interdisciplinary fusion, however, while Mathews’s argument is consistent with ideas of both Leopold and Mead, she cites neither.

  32. 32.

    IFT is most fully developed in Wilkinson (1991). It is consistent with Tönnies’s theorization of collective behavior and social movements as emergent, relatively fluid, and built upon interaction with a common focus (Marx 2000).

  33. 33.

    Those that bridge divides based upon social class, race/ethnicity, gender, age, and the like.

  34. 34.

    From the perspective of IFT, members of the in-group in a locale may feel a sense of community in “communities” of fear (Born 2014), and sub-groups (social fields in IFT) stratified along the lines of race, class, gender, religion, and other categories may produce positive (solidarity, privilege, comfort, enhanced property values, etc.) or negative (oppression, conformity, downward-levelling norms, denial of opportunity) (Portes 1998) outcomes. If they restrict unfettered social interaction in that geographical area via exclusionary practices, as Du Bois observed in his early sociological studies, however, they violate the fundamental premise of interactional community (Wilkinson 1991) and would be characterized more accurately as something else. Further, many prevailing approaches to the concept treat it as the aggregate of shared characteristics based upon relatively arbitrary data, assigning “community” as a static entity from the outside (Preveglio et al. 2017), what Du Bois (2000) derided as “car window” sociology, an unsound methodology yielding unsound data (p. 40). Du Bois argued that a deeper understanding of the social world comes from careful and systematic study of people in their surroundings, with which the IFT tradition is consistent (Preveglio et al. 2017).

  35. 35.

    For example, coming from an interactional perspective, Sharp (2018) argues that individuals “and communities benefit from highly satisfied and interactive residents because of the residential stability, social support, and community investment they foster, as well as their positive mental and physical health effects” (p. 615).

  36. 36.

    For reasons such as those discussed in this section, and as alluded to by Wilkinson (1991), I believe it would be fruitful to conceive of community as an ideal type and use a framework of the concept, such as the one proposed herein, to evaluate levels of “community-ness” in particular settings and the corresponding consequences. For example, all residents of a given landscape should have the opportunity for unfettered social interaction, but application of LIFE may help identify that certain potential members are systematically excluded. I elaborate on this in a separate manuscript under development.

  37. 37.

    To Wilkinson (1991), social and “individual well-being cannot be achieved…except in ways that also promote ecological well-being” (p. 75) through shifting from a focus on fulfilling Maslowian lower-order needs toward higher-order ones. Further, he argues that community development provides promise for addressing this disjuncture by giving “focus to human action, thus reducing tendencies to degrade and destroy the ecological structures that support social life” (ibid., p. 113), but details are lacking. The post-materialism (Inglehart 1977) at the core of this vision from IFT is useful for analyzing environmental attitude and concern, but not for reducing degradation in the consumption-driven USA (Princen et al. 2002), owing in part to a pronounced attitude/behavior split (Heberlein 2012, Bell and Ashwood 2016).

  38. 38.

    For example, Wilkinson does assert that variations in “community-ness” can be assessed, including characteristics such as shared meanings that arise in interactions related to place.

  39. 39.

    This section is premised on the notion that IFT is a useful framework for studying community amongst people but falls short in terms of the interrelationships between people and their environments. Therefore, the focus here is in presenting the concept of landscape for the purpose of “extension.” This proposed modification of IFT is consistent with extended case method, which examines “the macro world through the way the latter shapes and is in turn shaped and conditioned by the micro world, the everyday world of face-to-face interaction” (Burawoy 1991, p. 6). It uses in-depth case study analysis to uncover knowledge that can improve useful but incomplete or flawed theory, and “the shortcomings of the theory become grounds for a reconstruction” through “extension” (ibid., p. 9). The ideas for LIFE stemmed from a cross-national comparison of interactions, ideologies, development, and collective action in rural amenity areas of Wisconsin and Norway (see, for example, Van Auken 2010, Van Auken and Rye 2011, Van Auken and Golding 2013) and have been further informed by other projects exploring related terrain (see, for example, Van Auken et al. 2012, Van Auken et al. 2016).

  40. 40.

    Ingold refers to this as the taskscape.

  41. 41.

    This general conception of landscape has been accepted previously in landscape studies (Van Auken and Rye 2011).

  42. 42.

    In the sociological tradition, Hegel and Marx referred to the pre-social, material world as “first nature” (Cronon 1991, pp. 56–57), though it should be stressed that this is also a social construction.

  43. 43.

    Again, it has been argued for some time in sociology that separating the practical from the ideal is problematic and misleading (see, for example, Malczewski 2015), but in sidelining the environment, this separation is reinforced and perpetuated. While the material and ideal are clearly intertwined, for a conceptual framework such as this, breaking down the larger concept of landscape to its component parts—the land, meanings associated with it, and the practices that result—allows each element and their interrelationships to be better understood.

  44. 44.

    The Menominee Nation’s local society, for example, is organized around its commitment to place, which facilitates language, livelihood, and interaction, and greatly influences its governance (Bernard and Young 1997). “Community” without land as a member is illogical there and for other indigenous groups (Whyte 2017), though for many people from historically oppressed populations, forced migration and loss of the language necessary to describe particular relationships to place have fractured human–land relationships (Kimmerer 2011; Savoy and Deming 2011).

  45. 45.

    In another example, suburbia in the USA was built upon land previously valued for agriculture, forest land, or hunting grounds, in part based upon negative meanings associated with cities (e.g., crime, pollution) and positive ones (e.g., safety, clean air, “undeveloped” land) linked to suburbs (Gottdiener and Hutchison 2010). It created vast landscapes conducive to homogeneous settlements that inhibit community by creating stratified local society and limiting unfettered social interaction.

  46. 46.

    Places that are not home nor work, but sites of informal gatherings that form the “heart of community.”

  47. 47.

    In farming areas, for example, practices taking the form of collective action have tended to focus on maintaining agriculture (Bell 2004), but also work to ensure that other elements of local quality of life, such as public education, are in place. Areas dependent upon extraction have tended to have less community agency, based in part on limited engagement by a wide variety of actors in local society, boom/bust economies, and “company town” mentalities (Freudenberg 1992).

  48. 48.

    In urban settings, meanings often change from “inner-city” neighborhoods of families in low-income or working-class housing to up-and-coming areas featuring “historic” homes for young professionals or empty-nesters close to urban amenities; meanings associated with the landscape can be pivoted to encourage new practices.

  49. 49.

    From the Maasai Mara Natural Reserve in Kenya to Yellowstone, the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin (see, for example, Van Auken 2010, Van Auken and Golding 2013) to the newest urban pocket park, such projects bring the three elements of landscape together in ways that are often controversial.

  50. 50.

    Riverside Park was designed by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, who designed Central Park in New York City.

  51. 51.

    The second location is in renovated boat houses in Washington Park, also designed by Olmsted, which had deteriorated after the county zoo moved to the suburbs, and a third location, a revamped former tavern in an industrial area featuring extensive ecological restoration along the Menomonee River, which had been heavily impacted by industrial pollution and degradation of its riparian zone, but now features a new park (Three Bridges) that was created by UEC and local partners. Riverside and Washington parks were designed in the 1890s and helped lay the groundwork for Milwaukee having “one of the nation’s best collection of public parks” (Poon 2019, para. 9), which has an interesting communitarian history, given that Milwaukee’s series of socialist mayors, who served between 1910 and 1960, are often credited for its development (ibid.).

  52. 52.

    This organization is not perfect, of course, and while relatively diverse, UEC’s leadership and staff is predominantly white, in a majority–minority city, but also a highly segregated one that creates a challenging social environment.

  53. 53.

    Given that this is an illustration of the framework focused upon one relatively small organization and these informational exchanges with Vargo were centered more on the organization than his personal perspectives, the passages were incorporated as personal communications, and Vargo gave his express permission to be cited as such.


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I wish to thank the guest editor, Qi Feng Lin, for his detailed, thoughtful suggestions and extensive effort in helping fine-tune this paper, as well as Wei-Ning Xiang, the editor in chief, and anonymous reviewers for their feedback. I benefited from funding for sabbatical from the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh faculty development program, which was instrumental to the development of this paper. Thanks to Tim Vargo for providing his insights about Urban Ecology Center. Finally, thanks to Jerry Stark, Jeremiah Bohr, Nate Grimm, Za Barron, Mads Dahl Gjefsen, David Matarrita-Cascante, Hua Qin, and Jessica Ulrich-Schad for reviewing earlier components of this paper, as well as Joan Brehm, Michael Dougherty, Aaron Pitluck, Chris Wellin, and other sociology and anthropology colleagues at Illinois State University for hosting me for an enjoyable research seminar presentation and providing helpful feedback during the revision stage.

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Van Auken, P. Toward a fusion of two lines of thought: creating convergence between Aldo Leopold and sociology through the community concept. Socio Ecol Pract Res 2, 39–61 (2020).

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  • Aldo Leopold
  • Community
  • Sociology
  • Interaction
  • Materiality
  • Ecology
  • Fusion