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environmental perception

  The process whereby individuals and groups base their actions upon how they perceive their environment. As Brookfield (1969) put it, \'Decision-makers operating in an environment base their decisions on the environment as they perceive it, not as it is. The action resulting from decision, on the other hand, is played out in a real environment.\' This contrast between the environment as perceived and as it is indicates the importance of actors\' often idiosyncratic understandings of their surroundings in motivating their actions. Accordingly, the study of environmental perception in geography has long been important. Although the term suggests otherwise, environmental perception is not simply perception of the natural environment but includes built environments, other people, values, cognition and aesthetics.

Perception studies in geography can be traced back to several traditions. Drawing upon environmental psychology, authors like Thomas Saarinen working on geographical study of environmental hazards in the 1960s and 1970s sought to complicate the notion of the \'rational economic actor\' inherited from neo-classical economic models (cf. rational choice theory). Apparently \'irrational\' behaviour (e.g. occupying floodplains) could thus be seen as a response by occupants to the perceived opportunities and constraints of their environment. A second stream of research developed in historical geography and the study of geographical thought (cf. geography, history of). Here David Lowenthal, John K. Wright and others uncovered the variety of human perceptions of the environment as well as the importance of geographical ideas in explaining past human behaviour. Third, inspired by Kevin Lynch\'s (1960) The image of the city, urban and economic geographers developed a behavioural geography in which the study of environmental perception was central and in which topics like migration, commuting, place perception and mental maps became important foci of research. Finally, the geographical study of cultural ecology has long involved examining indigenous and folk perceptions of their environments. This cultural ecology was in part influenced by cross-cultural work by anthropologists on environmental cognition (cf. Berkeley School).

Environmental perception studies have made an important contribution to geographical knowledge. For instance, behavioural geographers, who drew heavily upon environmental psychology and cognition, developed an elaborate array of general categories which can describe and explain environmental perception in a variety of contexts. This was part of their commitment to making geography a spatial science, but it also paved the way for less analytical investigations into human perception and into hermeneutics which are associated with humanistic geography. Criticisms of perception studies have been methodological, empirical and theoretical. Methodological worries have been expressed about the reliability of techniques designed to elicit accurate representations of actors\' perceptions and how those perceptions link to actual behaviour. Empirically, it has been shown that much perception research is overly focused on individuals, over-estimates their free agency and underplays the wider social structures which constrain behaviour, as in Watts\' (1983) critique of hazard perception studies. This has led, thirdly, to calls for theoretical reconstructions of perception studies in order to integrate them with an appreciation of the structuration of everyday thought and behaviour. (NC)

References Brookfield, H. 1969: On the environment as perceived. Progress in Geography 1: 51-80. Lynch, K. 1960: The image of the city. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Watts. M. 1983: On the poverty of theory: natural hazards research in context. In K. Hewitt, ed., Interpretations of a calamity. Boston: Allen and Unwin, 231-60.

Suggested Reading Aitken, S.C., Cutter, S.L., Foote, K.E. and Sell, J.L. 1989: Environmental perception and behavioural geography. In G.L. Gaile and C.J. Wilmott, eds, Geography in America. Columbus: Merrill, 218-38.



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