Utilizing social capital and community conformity to survive short- and long-term change

In our fourth Virtual EHW blog post, Nik Petek offers us an interdisciplinary insight into how communities dealt with environmental stress in East Africa:

While pop culture would make us think that climate change will bring a dystopian future of dispersed groups fighting for survival, past responses by different communities to severe events highlight instances of cooperation and the formation of new identities.

Social capital and community conformity are two of many social forces that shape community responses to both short- and long-term climatic and environmental changes, but they played a particularly important role in the past 200-300 years among East African adaptive strategies and production systems.

Social capital refers to non-material capital that is apparent through social interactions and socially defined gains, including reputation, authority, etc. Community conformity refers to how closely members follow the norms set out by the community. These two forces have helped weather environmental and climatic stresses, which include common droughts, and became especially apparent after a multi-decadal, sub-continental drought from the late 18th to the early 19th century that re-shaped the social landscape of East Africa. They also help bridge the region’s diverse environmental mosaic that promotes production specialisation, such as cattle pastoralism, and help in the formation of distinct identities. The importance of these forces will be shown through the case study of the Ilchamus, a community that lives around Lake Baringo in Kenya’s eastern Rift Valley.

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Lake Baringo, Kenya © Nik Petek

Many parts of East Africa have spatially unequally distributed rains, severe droughts, and seasonally and oftentimes unpredictably available wild resources. To decrease the risk of destitution and the vulnerability to such climatic events, communities invest in social capital to extend their networks and expand their security net within and beyond the immediate community, thus ensuring their social survival by becoming an integral node in a network. This is done by building relationships with other households through marriage, engaging in trade, and being known as a reliable partner. By investing in social capital, people gain access to resources beyond their immediate/personal control and in different environments. Access to other resources and communities is also required in well-off years, as any one area is unlikely to be able to produce all or enough of the required items to fulfil dietary desires and social obligations.

Conformity builds trust between community members by creating commonalities and creating a sense of belonging, making members more willing to cooperate and share resources. In 19th century Kenya, people would commonly aggregate and the success of communities depended on the cooperation of households in production or trade endeavours. Conformity, enforced through the threat of ostracism and the authority of elders, would facilitate the utilisation of ‘economies of scale’, where bigger communities were more efficient users and producers of resources. Social capital and conformity reduced risks and vulnerabilities by allowing destitute people to migrate and resettle, marry off their offspring in times of need, and borrow from acquaintances. Restricted sharing (that is sharing with conditions) and pooling of resources were modelled as two very successful strategies for mitigating droughts.

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Sunlight on Lake Baringo © Nik Petek

The Ilchamus represent a case study where conformity and social capital played a key role in the formation of the community as it is known today. The community started forming during the early 19th century sub-continental drought, which brought together a diverse group of migrants to Lake Baringo. These hunter-gatherers switched to a farming-centred economy after the drought and invested heavily into an irrigation system throughout the 19th century to gain access to livestock, for which grain was commonly exchanged. Livestock, especially cattle, is the lubricant to social and economic transactions, such as marriage, and a necessity to fulfil social obligations. By shifting to an agricultural economy, the community ensured their social survival and built a network, which continued to attract destitute pastoralist throughout the century, while making them a preferred trade partner for both pastoralists and trading caravans. Moreover, the strong pressure exerted by community conformity is exemplified by the fact that Ilchamus and new immigrants either contributed to the agricultural economy and accepted the authority of the elder council or risked being ostracised and forced into destitution. There is also no variation in architecture and the material culture between individuals.

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Boating on Lake Baringo © Nik Petek

The switch from an agricultural to a pastoral economy in the early 20th century brought about by a single warrior generation shows further importance of community conformity and belonging, eventually leading to the formation of an Ilchamus identity. This process, however, was triggered by, among other things, the lack of cattle in the region and the need to fulfil marriage obligations and thus socially survive. As colonial powers eroded the authority of the elder council and the pressure for conformity was reduced, the use of resources became more individualised and resources previously seen as common are now owned, leading to new environmental responses and means of utilization.

Many communities today in the developing world will invest into a specialised economy based on the production of a few items, making them vulnerable to many disturbances. By investing into social capital and building strong, interdependent relationships with other communities, they might be able to reduce the risks they are exposed to and build stronger communities and economies.

You can read more on the topic of community conformity and social capital in Chapter 7 of the book Archaeological Perspectives on Risk and Community Resilience in the Baringo Lowlands, Kenya.


Nik Petek is a PhD student in the Department of Archaeology and Ancient History at the Uppsala University, writing a thesis on the historical ecology of the Lake Baringo Basin in Kenya, and on pastoralism in East Africa. You can find Nik’s University profile here, and his LinkedIn here.

Recreation for Preservation (The Rambling Route)

In the third of our Intersections blog posts, Jamie Hinrichs (University of St. Andrews) discusses walking as both a subject and a method in environmental history. 

Walking is not as pedestrian as it seems, especially when it is made the subject of environmental history.  Actually, it was this presumed unremarkable and timeless nature of walking that immediately drew me in.  Walking, just like nature, often gets left out of history.

While walking is often relegated to the background of history, it is certainly embedded in the foreground of many rural landscapes.  When travelling on foot through rural Britain it is hard to ignore the way in which the land has been marked by footpaths, stiles, kissing gates, sign-posted rights-of-way, or invisible rights to roam.  If the rural landscapes of today are managed for – indeed imprinted by – walking, it’s worth investigating how and when it came to be so.

Walking became my path into environmental history primarily because of the importance it has in all arenas of my life.  Walking is the principal way I immerse myself in the landscape around me (the wilder the better), an experience that awoke in me the aspiration to become a writer who, by telling their history, contributes to the preservation of landscapes.

I began my thesis with a desire to understand walking as a character in the story of rural landscape conservation in Britain.  So far, I’ve been most struck by the connections between the cultural values given to the gesture of walking, and those that are incorporated into the landscape in which the walker walks.

This is central to the research questions shaping the approach to my chapter on hill walking, the idea of which was born three years ago in the Sierra Nevada Mountains while reading by torchlight.  I was poring over My First Summer in the Sierra penned by a Scottish naturalist (born in Dunbar – a place I’d never heard of then) who became a champion of wilderness preservation.  Although this man (John Muir) died some one hundred years before I had pitched my tent in that same range of mountains he worked to protect, his reflections of experiencing the Divine while ‘sauntering’ through mountain wilderness resonated with my personal experiences.

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On the trail in the Cairngorms (Photo Jamie Hinrichs)

When I began considering my chapter topics, I grew curious as to whether the sentiments of this Scotsman in America were shared by his contemporary brethren across-the-pond.  Was this peculiar only to American mountain preservation?  If this occurred in Britain as well, how vital was walking to preservation efforts?  Was the spiritual encounter due mostly to the intrinsic characteristic of the mountain, rendering the gesture of walking a convenient mode of conveyance with no greater import?

As I’ve been working on this chapter I’ve found that I’m reading myself into my primary sources.  This might be deemed dangerous from the perspective of fostering objective historical analysis, but I do not so much mind this interjection of my present into the past, as it helps me better understand the history I’m attempting to unravel.  As with John Muir, the authors of these sources – who I fondly refer to as “My Walkers” – seem to have sought mountain rambles for the same reasons as me.  Namely, walking at alpine heights in the mid-nineteenth to mid-twentieth centuries seemed to have provided a sense of spiritual renewal.  But what caused this need for rejuvenation?  And what was it about walking in mountains, specifically, that satisfied spiritual needs?  Was this all just a continuation of the Romantic adoration of mountains?  If so, could it be argued that spiritual saunters during my period were of any real significance to decisions to preserve mountains?

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On the trail in the Sierra Nevada (Photo Jamie Hinrichs)

The cultural values associated with this unremarkable and timeless gesture might tramp right into our present tactics of managing rural landscapes.  After all, environmental history need not always be a tale of entropy centred on the ways in which humans brought about environmental degradation due to ecological disregard.  Make no mistake – such narratives are vital histories that need telling.  However, environmental history may also be a tale of how anthropocentric means can bring about ecological ends, conveying the ways in which landscape preservation can be achieved through the motivation of recreation.  Indeed, walking might just be one pathway into an ecocentric future.


Jamie Hinrichs is a PhD student at the University of St. Andrews. Her thesis is titled ‘Out for a Walk: Pedestrian Practices & British Landscape Conservation, c.1850 – 1950’, and she blogs at forest odyssey.

Find Jamie on instagram, or at her university profile.

Nature, science and the new kind of husbandry

Our second blog post is from Esben Bøgh Sørensen (Aarhus University), who discusses the intersections between agricultural practice and scientific knowledge in early modern England.

In the 1590s, Hugh Plat (1552-1608), the son of a wealthy London brewer, roamed the countryside conversing with gentlemen landowners and farmers about their best farming practices. Plat was looking for methods that were practically tested and proven the most efficient and profitable. From ‘a Yorkshire Gentleman’ he had received advice on how to use ashes to enrich the ground, while another gentleman ‘dwelling in Surrey’ had told him about his experiments with different ways of setting corn. A third gentleman, described as ‘being very industrious, and searching into the workes of nature’, had explained to him efficient ways of ploughing. Plat’s purpose was to gather information that was experimentally tested and proven to be efficient and profitable and publish it in an accessible form in order to ‘stirre vp a number of drowsie wittes to the practise thereof’. He published his findings on agrarian issues in two books, first in the second section of the 1594 book The Jewell House of Art and Nature,[1] and later in his 1600 book The New and Admirable Arte of Setting of Corne.[2]

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Front page from the 1601 edition of Hugh Plat’s The New and Admirable Arte of Setting of Corne (Source: Early English Books Online/STC 1149:19).

Plat was a participant in the emergent scientific communities in Elizabethan London.[3] In the 1590s, when he lived just across the street from Francis Bacon (1561-1626), Plat spent his time walking the streets and gathering information on diverse sorts of inventions and experiments from all kinds of people. These people came from all types of occupations, and included physicians, apothecaries, goldsmith, gardeners, clockmarkers, and, as we have seen, farmers. Plat criticized the current state of natural knowledge in the universities. This knowledge was of a ‘theoretical speculative kind’, and scholars produced ‘volumes of imagination only’. Instead of this speculative kind, knowledge of nature should be ‘drawne from the infallible grounds of practise’, he thought. From this position, he constructed a practice of knowledge production based on hypothesis making, experimentation, observation, trail and judgement. This way of producing knowledge was, according to Plat, the best way to learn the secrets of what he called the ‘Jewel House’ of nature. Nature could be discovered only through practical and experimental knowledge production.

The use of the house metaphor by Plat is significant. It referred not to the ideals of the well-ordered and patriarchal governed domestic space. Rather, he described nature in feminized terms as a kind of unruly force, which through experimental practice could be understood, used and manipulated to delightful and profitable ends. The house of nature was not like a closed domestic space, but constituted an infinite resource. In the practice of farming, this meant perceiving land not as embedded in a complex set of social relations and customary regulations, but rather as a ‘store-house’ or a ‘cofer’ that should be unlocked by well-tested and efficient farming methods based on experimental knowledge. Plat explicitly contrasted the customary types of knowledge of traditional husbandry, with the experimental and therefore efficient and profitable kind of knowledge of what he called the ‘new kind of husbandry’.

Plat provided new criteria for distinguishing between good and bad husbandry based on the production and possession of experimental, observational and practical knowledge. Farmers practicing husbandry according to customary rules and tradition, and who were not willing to engage in experimentation and invention and implement the newest and best agricultural methods thus proven, were described as ‘ignoraunt Farmers’, ‘the common and vulgar sort of people’, the ‘simple sots’, and as ‘clownish people’. In the best case, these farmers would voluntarily follow the practice of the new kind of husbandry. If not, Plat advised to ‘take our idle Farmers by the hand’ and by ‘violence thrust them into one of his Marle-pittes’, thus revealing the often violent conflicts over the implementation of new farming systems in the early modern period.

In Plat’s mind, specific types of social relations, kinds of knowledge, ideas of nature, and use of land was connected. The customary farming systems and practices, described as the ‘general practise of this land’, were heavily condemned by Plat. According to him, certain types of social relations and farming systems stood in the way of developing a more efficient and profitable new kind of husbandry. By promoting and publishing an experimental kind of knowledge about farming, he imagined that he could inspire the supposedly lazy and idle farmers to leave their old ways of farming. He was, however, also aware that violent conflict could result.

Plat represents the intersection in the period between an emergent scientific culture in London and a new English tradition of agrarian literature promoting ideals of improvement. By the turn of the eighteenth century, a unique English culture of improvement had been established,[4] and the messy scientific communities of sixteenth century London had been institutionalized in the form of the Royal Society. Despite the many intellectual and personal overlaps, the connections between these two intellectual and cultural developments, and the ideas promoted by their intersection, remains understudied.

[1] Hugh Plat Sir, The Iewell House of Art and Nature, London: Printed by Peter Short, dwelling on Breadstreat hill, at the signe of the Star on Bredstreet hill, 1594

[2] Sir Hugh Plat, The Nevv and Admirable Arte of Setting of Corne, London: Printed by Peter Short, dwelling at the signe of the Starre on Bredstreet hill, 1600

[3] For these communities, see Deborah E. Harkness, The Jewel House: Elizabethan London and the Scientific Revolution, Yale University Press, 2007

[4] See Paul Slack, The Invention of Improvement: Information and Material Progress in Seventeenth-Century England, Oxford University Press, 2015. For the connection between improvement ideals, social relations and the shaping of the English rural landscape see Richard W. Hoyle (ed.), Custom, Improvement and the Landscape in Early Modern Britain, Ashgate, 2011


Esben Bøgh Sørensen is a PhD fellow in the Department of the History of Ideas at Aarhus University, Denmark. He was recently awarded runner-up in the Postgraduate Paper Prize awarded by the Social History Society Annual Conference.

Find Esben on twitter, academia.edu and at Aarhus University.

Interpreting Britain’s Second World War Experience From an #EnvHist Perspective

In the first of our blog posts on this year’s workshop theme of Intersections, Gary Willis (University of Bristol) shares some of his finding about the relationships between the Second World War and the transformation of the rural landscape in Britain:

Looking at Britain’s Second World War experience from an environmental history perspective can provide an entirely different dimension to military, political, economic, industrial and aeronautical approaches.

My research offers an alternative means of illustrating and measuring the scale of British preparations for war well before its actual outbreak. Analysing when land was requisitioned or purchased by the State’s various war departments for new war-effort related industrial plant sites reveals the under-appreciated rural location of much of Britain’s war-time industry.

Environmental history can also discover previously unknown or ignored material. Evidence for land requisitions comes from a perhaps unusual and surprising source – the Executive Committee minutes of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (or Council for the Preservation of Rural England as it was then). Its archive, held at the Museum of English Rural Life, University of Reading, shows an increasing pre-occupation with concerns over demands for land from late 1935 onwards, particularly by the Air Ministry for airfields, the Ministry of Aircraft Production for aircraft factories, the army for training camps, and the Ministry of Supply for munitions factories.

By the end of 1937 this led to CPRE successfully lobbying Neville Chamberlain, the relatively newly-appointed Prime Minister, and friend of the conservation movement, to intervene in a War Department land-grab free-for-all that had developed over the previous two years. Chamberlain responded by issuing a directive to all Government departments, requiring them to establish consultation mechanisms with CPRE and other concerned organisations over the future possible use of land for war-related purposes. This Chamberlain did despite being beset by both domestic and international political challenges, and his quite extraordinary intervention has not been covered by the existing biographies of Chamberlain; more proof, not that it should be needed, of the benefits of an analysis of history through an environmental lens.

Whilst there is a quite extensive historiography relating to Second World War airfields, much less has been written about the rapid expansion of Britain’s war-effort related industrial capacity, and indeed its impact on the rural landscape. Approximately 1,000 new war-related industrial plant sites were constructed from1936 onwards; a significant proportion were so-called ‘shadow factories’ run by private companies on behalf of the State, manufacturing anything and everything from military aircraft to clothing, and tending to be built on what would now be called “green-field” sites on the urban periphery. Around 50 Royal Ordnance Factories were also constructed under the direction of the Ministry of Supply – often – for obvious reasons – in relatively isolated rural areas.

My findings to date point to the vast majority of sites not reverting – post-war – to their pre-war agricultural or amenity use. The sites either continued at least for a period of time to serve a military function, or were sold off to private industry for civilian manufacturing or other commercial use. Only it would seem in picturesque cases – such as the Ministry of Aircraft Production’s seaplane factory at Calgarth on the shores of Lake Windermere – earmarked as a national park before the war – was there successful opposition (led by CPRE) to the post-war retention of the site for industrial purposes.

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DP176 seaplane ready to launch at the Calgarth factory on the shore of Lake Windermere; note the Lake District hills to the left (photograph courtesy of Allan King) Source [accessed 7/6/2018]
This reflected not so much a clear Government policy that CPRE could refer to in support of its position, but more that at the height of its fevered lobbying in 1941 to stop the factory from being built at all, CPRE had been able to extract a written commitment from the then Minister of Aircraft Production, Lord Beaverbrook, to the effect that the factory would be dismantled at the end of the war. This was subsequently done, albeit in the face of local community opposition on the grounds that the manufacturing potential of the site and the accompanying workers’ housing would be beneficial to people in the area in the post-war period, given the shortage of both jobs and housing.

As for the majority of sites which never returned to their previous pre-war rural identity, does this represent the last significant industrial land-grab before the passing and implementation of the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947? What cumulative impact on the rural landscape have these sites had, representing a visual and environmental legacy of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War? And what does it tell us about the future likelihood of sites acquired on a supposedly temporary basis by the State for military purposes being returned to their original use? These are all questions my PhD will seek to answer.


Gary Willis is undertaking a PhD on the impact on the rural landscape of Britain’s expanded war industry in the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Bristol; he writes in greater detail about the role of CPRE in the run-up to and during the Second World War in a forthcoming issue of Rural History.

Twitter: GaryW_Env_Hist
Email Gary

2018 workshop programme and registration

We’re really thrilled to be able to share the programme for September’s workshop with you.

We received a phenomenal response to the call for papers. The diversity of topics and approaches represented on the programme is remarkable, and should prove for a very stimulating day in September. As a collective, we hope to have imposed some kind of logic on the papers and have divided them into sessions on hydropolitics, boundary crossing, energy landscapes, subterranean histories, healthy environments, and disaster and instability. We’re delighted to welcome Professor Vinita Damodaran, Professor of South Asian History and Director of the Centre for World Environmental History at the University of Sussex as our keynote.

You can find the full programme here, and register to attend here.

Thanks to the kind support of the IHR’s Power and Postan Fund and the Royal Historical Society, we are able to offer some travel bursaries for postgraduate, early career and low income colleagues.

There were a number of papers we couldn’t find space for in the programme but that we really wanted to hear. So, taking inspiration from the excellent Voices of the People symposium hosted on the Many Headed Monster, we will be holding a virtual workshop throughout August, showcasing the best environmental history research that we couldn’t schedule for September. Stay tuned to our dedicated blog page for updates.

— John.