The following essay is a summary and analysis of a small-scale sociological research project I performed as part of my medical sociology course this semester (Fall 2016). If this topic interests you, check out this awesome article by National Geographic: http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/call-to-wild-text.
And then get outside today :)
The human mind and body are designed to thrive in the natural world. From biomechanics to intelligence, spirituality to disease risk, Nature exerts its powers on our species. Industrialization and the digital age have removed humans from our optimal environment; it is now an environment of visitation, not residence. But human evolution unfolds more gradually than the technological advances of civilization, leaving a vast discrepancy between the design and use of our minds and bodies. It is no wonder that the modern human thrives when returned to nature, be it for a micro-dose, a window view, or a prolonged excursion. For this reason, leisure time in Nature can be considered a health-promoting behavior. Medical sociology aims to understand sociological trends in health and health behaviors. This sociological research examines the sociology of Nature-seeking behaviors in order to better understand sociological trends among the groups of people who reap the health-promoting rewards of time spent in Nature.
Pierre Bourdieu was a French sociologist, philosopher, and anthropologist whose work was primarily focused the origins and power of habitus in individuals and societies. Habitus consists of theories on the influence of class, cultural, generational, and field over habit formation. Great thinkers, as long ago as Aristotle, have analyzed habitus but Pierre Bourdieu is credited with bringing habitus into modern sociological attention. Specifically, Pierre Bourdieu and modern sociologists often study the effects of socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, age, gender, and field on habitus. Habitus includes facets of behavior such as dress, posture, dialect, attitudes and perspectives, interests, and, most relevant to this study, leisure time activities. The amount and type of leisure varies greatly depending upon socioeconomic factors such as income, family structure, field, education level, race and ethnicity, age, gender, etc. For example, a high-earning career with benefits, paid vacation, and disposable income certainly enables more leisure time and pursuit of hobbies than does a career comprised of several low-wage, part-time jobs. Similarly, those living in areas that foster a sense of security and safety will be more likely to spend leisure time outdoors than those in crime-ridden regions. Socialization and one’s field of social interaction also influence the habitus around leisure time. For example, one who identifies as an athlete and socializes with other athletes is more likely to play sports or be otherwise active during his or her leisure time than someone whose field of socialization is writers or musicians. Generational values also have power in the habitus that surrounds leisure time. For example, those of the millennial generation are more likely to spend leisure time on social media or playing video games than someone of the baby boom generation due to the differences in the available leisure time activities during their habitus formation as children and young adults. Evidently, there are countless sociological factors that influence habit-formation as it pertains to leisure time; this study aims to understand how sociological factors relate to the habitus of Nature-seeking behaviors.
This study consisted of a qualitative research in the form of interviews. Interviews were conducted with individuals partaking in Nature-based leisure activities between the tenth of October and the eleventh of November 2016. Six men and six women participated in a total of twelve qualitative surveys. Participants were approached randomly; their active participation in a Nature-seeking behavior and willingness to participate in the study were the only provisions for participation. In order to reduce regional bias, interviews were conducted in a variety of locations including Foster Falls, Tennessee, Rumbling Bald, North Carolina, Guana River State Park, Florida, Kathryn Hanna Abbey Park, Florida, and Ocala National Forest, Florida. The regions vary greatly and therefore attract a people for a wide variety of activities. Interviews were conducted orally and voice recorded via iPhone. Each participant was asked the following questions:
1. What brings you out into nature today?
2. How many hours per week do you spend in nature?
3. How often do you spend more than 24 consecutive hours immersed in nature?
4. How often do you spend 3 or more consecutive days immersed in nature?
5. What is your outdoor activity/activities of choice?
6. Who or what inspired this outdoor activity? When did this develop?
7. Briefly compare and contrast your physical activity that takes place in nature with your other modes of physical activity (cardio machines, weight lifting, organized sports, calisthenics, etc.). Consider physical, emotional, spiritual, intellectual, and social aspects as they apply.
8. Do you believe that your time in nature affects your stress levels and mood? If so, please describe.
9. Do you believe that your time in nature impacts your physical health? If so, please describe. 10. What is your main reason for continuing to seek time in nature?
11. Optional information: age, gender, race, and profession.
Hiking, camping, rock climbing, trail running, bird watching, creative writing, and Nature photography were among the leisure activities identified as drawing the participants into Nature. Eight hours was the mean amount of time per week reported as leisure spent in nature. Only three of the twelve (25%) of participants reported spending twenty-four consecutive hours in Nature with any regularity and only one out of twelve (~8%) reported spending three or more consecutive days in Nature. This question was inspired by Dr. David Strayer’s hypothesis of a “three-day effect” to improve mental acuity and creative problem solving skills (Williams, 2015). In support of Dr. Strayer’s hypothesis on the three day effect, a study of Outward Bound participants resulted in students performing fifty percent better on creative problem solving tasks after three days of Wilderness backpacking compared to a baseline test (Williams, 2015). Clearly, eleven of the twelve participants in my qualitative research are not reaping the benefits of this “three day effect.” Most of them reported a desire for lengthier stays in Nature but a job and/or family responsibilities inhibited their ability to do so. Participants recorded their motivation for seeking leisure time in Nature as stress reduction, physical exercise, spirituality and meditation, and creative inspiration. Their motives are scientifically supported in the literature about Nature’s effect on the human mind and body. Everything from cognitive acuity, emotional health, healing rates, to natural movement patterns have been found to be significantly impacted by exposure to Nature. The apparent health-promoting effects of Nature deem time in Nature as a health-promoting behavior and it is a main goal of medical sociology to understand the sociology of such behaviors.
The participants were selected at random and varied greatly in several categories. Fortunately, all twelve of the participants provided the information deemed as “optional,” providing their age, gender, race, and occupation. The average participant age was thirty-five years. The youngest was twenty-one years and the oldest was seventy-five years. Six males and six females participated. Eleven of the twelve participants reported their race as Caucasian and one out of twelve as Hispanic. This is suggestive of a correlation between race and leisure time spent in Nature. Occupations varied and included nurse, chemical engineer, businessman, plumber, construction, college student, fitness trainer, author, high school teacher, mechanic, accountant, and retirees. The variety of occupations and the average incomes associated with these occupations were not suggestive of an economic trend in Nature-seeking habitus, but evidently, they all had secure enough jobs to enable leisure time.
Pierre Bourdieu and earlier analysts of habitus suggested the strength of familial influence during childhood in the formation of lifelong habits and value of leisure time. To gain further insight on this subject, I posed the question: “Who or what inspired your participation in outdoor activity? When did this develop?” The responses to this question provide great insight on the power of the sociological situation during the genesis of the habit. From the responses gathered, Nature-seeking habitus appears to be driven more by socioeconomic status of the family in which one grows up than by his or her current socioeconomic status. Consider the following quotes from interviewees:
“I started trail running in high school for health and fitness reasons.”
“As a child, my friends and I often played in a creek that ran through the woods behind my house.”
“I grew up with six kids in the family, it was the only time I felt peaceful.”
“From a young age, it was instilled in me that nature is sacred; we have to protect it.”
“Nature is and always has been my home away from home.”
“I started running because my Dad ran.”
“I grew up next to a state forest; I spent my childhood in nature.”
Several of these quotes are suggestive of a childhood that took place in in a safe neighborhood with a yard large enough to play in. This setting is limited to those who can afford it, mainly middle and upper class families. This implies a correlation between a family’s socioeconomic status and Nature-seeking habitus formation of the children that grow up within that family. Additionally, some of these quotes indicate present, influential parents (specifically quotes 1, 4, and 6). Again, this suggests that parents worked normal hours, earned middle to high income salaries, and had comfortable enough jobs to be awarded leisure time. When parents spent this leisure time engaging in Wilderness activities with their children, it appears to develop Nature-seeking habitus in these children. As the participants demonstrate, habitus developed in childhood can persist for a lifetime.
Undeniably, the human mind and body are designed to thrive in the natural world. From body movement to cognitive ability, spirituality to health determinants, Nature exerts its powers on our species. Industrialization and the digital age have removed humans from our optimal environment; Nature is now an environment of leisure and visitation, not of residence. The modern human thrives when returned to nature, be it for a short walk, a window view, or a prolonged adventure. For this reason, leisure time in Nature is considered a health-promoting behavior. This research used Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of habitus in its approach to understanding sociological trends of Nature-seeking, as a health-promoting behavior. The findings suggest that family socioeconomic status is a strong determinant of whether or not Nature-seeking habitus develops.
Williams, F. (2015, December 8). This Is Your Brain on Nature. Retrieved November 16, 2016, from http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2016/01/call-to-wild-text