120: Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia

Yi-Fu Tuan’s Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values argues that because humans are the “ecological dominant,” understanding the environment requires first understanding human behavior in depth, so that we can see how our attitudes, beliefs, passions and values shape and are shaped by the environment.  This claim that human perception and experience is an important component of the environment and a valid geographical topic is in direct response to the scientific reductionism of post-WWII geography; it seeks to bring human culture back into the “practical” study of the environment by putting “topophilia,” or “the affective bond between people and place or setting,” at the center of geographic research.

Although Topophilia intentionally does not have a stated method, it does have a theoretical framework.  Tuan sets out to examine environmental perception and values at the levels of the species, group, and individual; to hold culture (or topophilia) distinct from the environment to show how

they mutually constitute values; to examine the effect on environmental attitudes of replacing the medieval world view with a scientific model; to use a dialectical perspective to examine the search for environment in the city, suburb, countryside, and wilderness; and to separate out different types of environmental experience.  Further, Tuan is also careful to argue that his is an empirical humanism, where individual human interactions with the environment combine with those of other people into a “world-view” that is partly personal, partly social; lived experience, combined with culture and the environment, to creates topophilia.  Throughout the book, which includes studies on sense perception, psychology, ego/ethno (self/collective) centrism, and the relationship between culture and personal experience, he balances the uniqueness of individual topophilia with the construction of ideal types, so that each person’s affective bond for place is at once intensely personal and profoundly universal.

Tuan concludes his study with a brief study of his findings.  He argues that

  • a person is at once “a biological organism, a social being, and a unique individual,” and that each person’s perceptions, attitudes, and values reflect all three of these levels
  • we have surprisingly little information about the “quality and range of experience in different types of physical setting under different conditions,” though we do know that certain types of natural landscapes – forest, seashore, valley, island – with their excesses removed, often serve as dreamworlds
  • literacy, science, and technology have a huge impact on a society’s worldview: “primitive and traditional peoples” lived in a “vertical, rotary, and richly symbolical world,” while “modern man’s world tends to be broad of surface, low of ceiling, nonrotary, aesthetic, and profane.” (Is he mushing together PoMo and the Enlightenment here??)
  • All cities contain “public symbols of some kind that concentrate and enforce (through high visibility) the ideals of power and glory” of humans.  However, big cities also function just like any other environment, as “a given fact irreducible to particular human needs.” Further, studying everyday activities in cities can help us learn how people interact with the urban environment.
  • “Attitudes toward wilderness and the countryside, insofar as they are verbalized and known, are sophisticated responses to environment that have their origins in the city.  They presuppose the existence and recognition of environmental types and a degree of freedom to choose among them.”  All three – wilderness, countryside, city – have been ambivalently interpreted as good or evil, with the suburb occupying an even more ambivalent position.
  • human constructions of the environment change over time, but two recurring oppositional images are the garden of innocence and the cosmos – security versus grandeur.  We move back and forth from these two poles, seeking “a point of equilibrium that is not of this world.”
While Tuan’s search for common or universal types that transcend time and space is a little frustrating, the ways he puts human beings at the center of geographic study – by privileging human experience, representation, imagination, attitudes, memories, etc – as well as his emphasis on empirical study, has had profound influence on cultural geography.  A lot of what he says feels directly connected to Carl Sauer and the Berkeley School, but his theory of the relationship between individuals and culture is far more complex, as is his understanding of the importance of the particular within the universal.
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