Society and Nature

Dickens, Peter
Polity Press, Cambridge
0745627951 / 074562796X

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Cover of book In Society and Nature, Peter Dickens (based at the University of Cambridge) gives the most interesting account in the field of sociology of the environment that I have read so far, perhaps with the exception of Piet Strydom's Risk, Environment and Society (Open University Press, 2002), which was reviewed in Sociological Research Online (Laberge 2003). This fourth book by Dickens could be used in any undergraduate course in sociology, but it will be instructive for most scholars as well. Its central question is formulated in these terms: "How, as society transforms its environment, are people's own natures being transformed?" (p. viii). In order to bring answers this initial problem, Dickens identifies five core concepts: industry, community, evolution, risk (p. 21) and, consequently, knowledge (p. 94).

Taking from the philosophy of the Enlightenment but also referring to the ideas of Michel Foucault and Bruno Latour, the first parts brings historical hints and conceptual elements in order to understand how nature can evolve with our perceptions, culture, ideologies, into debates (p. 17). Chapter 1 revisits the evolutionary thought since Darwin, Spencer, Sumner and Durkheim (p. 30), while Chapter 2 concentrates on the massive human exploitation of the nature through work, industry, and consumption, in a complex dynamic that is labelled as "humanity's metabolism with nature" (p. 59).

In the third chapter ("Commodifying the environment"), we understand that nature, animals, food, even scientific knowledge are commodified into a wide mass-consumption system (p. 115). Emerging issues can reveal antagonistic perspectives and new ethical attitudes that are now becoming familiar. In fact, more and more persons seem to worry about transgenic activity (p. 112); others would have a special concern for the quest of biodiversity (p. 117), some will promote alternative attitudes like the "green consuming" (p. 120). These trends are bringing new communities (like the "Virtual community", p. 162), and people become aware of the "risk society" in which we are (p. 172). All these issues are described here in sociological terms. But these new questions and "buzz words" contribute to change our perceptions and judgements, as Dickens points out: "Underpinning these developments has been the reorganization of knowledge", for instance the genetic knowledge, explains Dickens (p. 115). Nowadays, "the environment" is not just an external system of relations that we can observe around us: it also has many implications inside of us, as in the new reproductive technologies (chap. 6). These are some examples of what Dickens identifies as "the ways in which society is actually transforming human biology" (p. 175).

I was fully satisfied with my reading of the first six chapters of Dickens' Society and Nature, and at some point, I thought the book was really worth reading. Then came chapter seven on "Society, Nature and Citizenship", which was even more original! In the last two chapters, Dickens argues that the development of rights have lead to a renewed issue: a citizenship awareness that gives power to the "ordinary citizens" in a social structure that can be seen as a parallel to the industries (which do nothing less than "manufacturing risks", p. 115 and p. 236), enabling the emergence of some alternative networks and new social movements (chap. 8; p. 239).

As I was going through the first chapters of Society and Nature: Changing our Environment, Changing Ourselves, I already thought that it was one of the best books in English related to the sociology of environment: well documented, clear, timely, interdisciplinary. Concepts are always clearly defined; most bibliographical references at the end of each chapter are usefully commented. Here, Peter Dickens proves to be an exceptional scholar and an excellent communicator; he gathers notions, data, ideas, accurate analysis, and draws many possible avenues for reflection. I strongly recommend that fine book for every student in sociology of environment, citizenship studies and environmental education, or for scholars working on globalisation; it would be instructive as well for geographers, social scientists (and specially those in political science and industrial relations). Most of all, this book should be read by those who have the power to exploit or protect the environment: scientists, politicians, advisers and people in the business, i.e. those who take the decisions that have consequences for the whole society.


LABERGE, Y. (2003) Book review: P. Strydom (2002) Risk, Environment and Society Ongoing Debates,Current Issues and Future Prospects, Open University Press: Buckingham, Sociological Research Online 8 (4) see;

Yves Laberge
Institut québécois des hautes études internationales, Québec