Colleen Slebzak

Anthropological Review

Oral Environments

The environment plays a leading role in shaping a society’s culture, political organization, and formal and informal social sanctions. It represents the identities of those whom inhabit an area; and the folklore of the environment with in these communities (or societies), provides valuable insights of an individual’s attitude toward, and their identification with, their environment or place.#

Individuals identify with their natural surroundings; so much so, that the natural environment could be viewed as the center of their culture. The environment is the center of oral histories, traditions and festivals, culture, and even shapes the identity of the individuals that inhabit an area. In Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage, edited by Mary Hufford, Setha M. Low was highlighted. Low said, “ the environment is valued and encodes important elements of our biophysical, social, and cultural history. Place is space made culturally meaningful, and in this sense it provides the context and symbolic cues for our behavior” (Low 1997:67). For example, many coastal communities in New England base their culture around marine life; fishing, boating, and various other attachments to their environment, or in this case, the sea. Place shapes the informal and formal social sanctions set in place in any culture. One would not expect anything less than a fishing (and lobster-catching) economically based community in Bar Harbor, Maine, would they? This form of environmental influence also dictates one’s behavior, actions, and beliefs within a society- shaping culture and traditions associated with their heritage.

A person’s place in their society holds much more than just a place to reside. An individuals self-worth is associated with their identification of their place. Low provided a great example of how individuals identify with their place, and how a loss of place has severe consequences on an individual‘s or community‘s well-being. Low said,

Try to picture Pueblo cultural life without the richness of Pueblo landscape and architecture or the difficulty of socializing your children without a home. The concept of place signifies this embeddedness of person, space, and action. Place-making, the symbolic appropriation of space, is an ongoing human activity that is fundamental to human well-being. Not having a “place” in society, at least in the United States, has resulted in legions of homeless people whose sense of social identity and personhood has been radically altered by the loss of a home, where basic place-making activities most often occur. [1997:66-67]

An individual’s home is where they feel they are most comfortable (usually). A loss of place may result in a loss of identity for individuals (and in the case of gentrification, entire communities). Low also said, “a person’s home in a particular place provides access to friends, school, workplace, and shops; and a home has emotional and symbolic meanings and connections that characterize place attachment. Within the home, social relations are maintained and reproduced through everyday patterns of activities, feelings, and preferences. The disruption of place, then, does more than destroy the sites of labor reproduction; it also limits people’s ability to reproduce their social world and everyday lives”, personifying the impacts of displacement (1997:67). The displacement of individuals results in severe alterations in one’s psychological well-being. A loss of place could result in a loss of social identity, a loss of cultural traditions, and a loss of the oral histories tied to that place (and environment).
In Pauleena MacDougall’s PowerPoint presentation, titled Sense of Place, MacDougall said, “there are both environmental and social factors that make up a sense of place[,]…A consciousness of one’s physical surroundings is a fundamental human experience[, and]…folklore reveals much about regional senses of place” (BlackBoard, University of Maine 2013). MacDougall raised a good point in her presentation; “environmental conditions in a region can have a profound effect on human culture” (BlackBoard, University of Maine 2013). That is to say, one’s environment shapes a culture, a society’s social sanctions and identity, has the capabilities to organize infrastructure, and even has the capabilities to shape formal sanctions with in a society- land use, policies, laws, economical structure, and infrastructure. In Sense of Place, by Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, the authors referred to Karen L. Blu’s essay, and highlighted her ethnography that centered around one’s sense of place. Feld and Basso said,

In Robeson County, groups of Lumbee Indians, African Americans, and Whites all stake claims for a “home place,” for group identities tied to particular towns and landscapes. These resilient identities—and the locales to which they are attached—are more than a little complex, having been shaped by shared yet separate histories, unequal access to economic and political power, and different degrees of involvement in local, county, and national events. Blu takes us up and around the roads of a place thick with impacts, a region whose inhabitants live deeply immersed in personifications, ambiences, and memories. She reveals how struggles and uprooted moments are endlessly countered with actions meant to ensure a sense of home. [2000:101]

This supports the notion of how something as subjective as location, has such a immense impact on a society’s lifestyle, culture, economics, political organization, power relations, infrastructure, and the influence it has on the individual themselves- regarding identity, traditions, culture, and social sanctions. This passage also shows the strong ties individuals have with their place; willing to fight for their home, traditions, and culture.
Feld and Basso said, senses of place could be tied to “…the relation of sensation to emplacement; the experiential and expressive ways places are known, imagined, yearned for, held, remembered, voiced, lived, con-tested, and struggled over; and the multiple ways places are metonymically and metaphorically tied to identities” (2000:111). This shows the importance of folklore in a community- to personify the societies culture, identity, heritage, and most importantly, to explain to what lengths a society will go to keep their home and culture in tact.#

Folklore also has the potential to provide excellent data on how individuals view their society; and in turn, how they view their environment. The insights folklore provides hold value in that they help ’outsiders’ implement policies regarding the environment in the community’s favor, they help to preserve the social identity and culture a society shares, and they also help to give insight into the inner workings of the human mind.
In a report by the Association of American Geographers, by Hong-Key Yoon and Edmunds V. Bunkse, titled, Folklore and the Study of Environmental Attitudes, the authors said, “folklore is a valuable data source, because it reveals, by definition, deep and shared views and attitudes…If one understands that folklore can exist in contemporary society and can still reflect people’s views and attitudes, one could also point out, as logical corollary, that folklore can be an excellent source for the study of contemporary environmental attitudes as well as those of the past… folklore holds a great future in the study of man-environment relationships, especially in the study of environmental attitudes, because folklore is a living tradition reflecting the natural insights and perceptions of people” (2008:636). A perfect example of the importance of folklore and a societies attitudes towards their surroundings, and how these stories could be studied in various contexts to gain valuable insights into human-environmental relationships and the connectedness individuals in a society share.

Individuals identify with their natural surroundings. The natural environment could be viewed as the center of any society’s culture for that matter. When a loss of place occurs, an individual or community losses much more that their place to reside.
The environment also influences the folklore a society shares. The folklore of a group has the potential to provide excellent data on how individuals view their society; and in turn, how they view their environment.


Blu, Karen L.
2000  Sense of Place, Cited in Steven Feld and Keith H. Basso, PDF. Accessed on University of Maine BlackBoard. Accessed, December 18th, 2013.

Hufford, Mary and Setha M. Low
1997  Conserving Culture: A New Discourse on Heritage, ed. by Mary Hufford, PDF. PowerPoint. Accessed on University of Maine BlackBoard. Accessed, December 18th, 2013.

MacDougall, Pauleena
2013  Sense of Place, Lecture, PowerPoint. Accessed on University of Maine BlackBoard. Accessed, December 18th, 2013.

Yoon, Hong-Key and Edmunds V. Bunkse
2008  Folklore and the Study of Environmental Attitudes, in Association of American Geographers, PDF. Accessed on University of Maine BlackBoard. Accessed, December 18th, 2013.


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This entry was posted on March 22, 2014 by in Uncategorized.
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