In this blog, Maurice Paulissen, Edward H. Huijbens and Roy van Beek introduce their forthcoming Open Access article in Environment and History, which will be published online-first next month. In the article, the theory of affordances is intriguingly applied to medieval and modern bog landscapes.

Imagine someone who has never seen a coffee mug before and has never been told how to use it. According to the theory of affordances, this person would look at the mug, probably from different angles, and then pick it up by the ear – as is intended. And if there was fragrant coffee in the mug, chances are high that our person would bring the mug to her or his nose and mouth, and take a sip from it. This abridged and adapted Heideggerian example simply tells how the object has a role in defining its possible use: the mug ‘tells’ even the inexperienced user how to handle it and make use of it. More than simply a product of perception, the mug’s ear not only invites gripping, but also ensures that the user’s fingers will not get burned. We could say that the mug affords drinking (hot) beverages. This is what affordances are essentially about: objects provide us with visual and haptic information that allows us to make use of them in an appropriate and effective way. And, according to affordance theory, without even having to think about it.

No wonder, then, that the concept of affordances is well known to designers. After all, if industrial designers do well, they create objects and environments that allow easy, safe and intuitive use. Ergonomic design objects such as door handles should afford easy usage to anyone, while the well-known desire paths we find in many public spaces indicate that what a specific place should afford to its users is not always given detailed consideration. Indeed, desire paths (the Dutch prefer the term ‘elephant paths’) remind us of the human tendency to look for easy and energy-efficient ways of moving through, and working in, our environment in everyday life (principle of least effort).

So, all well and good about knobs, utensils and designed environments, but what about natural landscapes? Well, the same thinking applies there. In fact, James Gibson (1904–1979), the American psychologist who first developed the theory of affordance, over the years developed an increasing interest in ‘an ecological approach to … perception’ and illustrated his thinking with many examples from the (natural) terrestrial environment. The main question of his last book simply was: ‘How do we see what things are good for?’[1] At the time, Gibson’s spatial-ecological approach to visual perception was far from common among scholars in that field:

Looking around and getting around do not fit into the standard idea of what visual perception is. But note that if an animal has eyes at all it swivels its head around and it goes from place to place. The single, frozen field of view provides only impoverished information about the world. The visual system did not evolve for this. The evidence suggests that visual awareness is in fact panoramic and does in fact persist during long acts of locomotion.[2]

A near-intact bog landscape in Estonia, showing the substantial spatial variability in the affordance of passage. The elevated ridge on the left is drier, as also indicated by the trees growing on it. Such visual information, but also the sound of suction or possibly the smell of the bog tell even the inexperienced wanderer where best to go when crossing the bog. Copyright © Sijmen Hendriks Photography; not for re-use (

Thus, rather than considering environmental perception as a distanced, abstracted mental process, original affordance theory highlighted the direct experience of the environment and the potential for action it offers. As such, Gibson’s theory shares affinity with phenomenology in stressing the importance to perception of being-in-the-world, being physically engaged as humans in our environment.[3]

The theory of affordances has certainly been a success in the sense that it has been applied by scholars of very different disciplines – not least in the environmental humanities –over a period of decades now. But scholars have critically discussed different aspects and premises of affordance theory, and the theory does grapple with fundamental questions which basically boil down to whether nature or culture is the dominant force shaping human communities and their environments.[4] The resulting fundamental debates are of vital importance to academic scholarship, though at the same time some of their core questions may be irresolvable.[5] But how useful is it to seek to settle the argument in favour of one of the competing views – as we often implicitly seem to prefer? Cannot both views – as conceptual models that merely try to grasp reality from different perspectives – be valid and valuable? The competing positions in the debate around what dominates the shaping of our environment may appear convincing by themselves, but obviously also risk being one-sided or overstated. Isn’t it rather the range between the two extremes that allows for different, insightful perspectives and cogent nuances? In the long-term pendulum movement between fundamentally opposing scholarly viewpoints (e.g., nature determines, or culture determines), timely adjustments are therefore needed to get the pendulum back into the insightful and generative middle ground, in this case recognition of the untenability of the nature/culture divide.

In our article on raised bogs as historical ‘barriers’ and borderlands, we look back on how environmental determinism, which was still prevalent in the first decades of the twentieth century and in which ‘natural boundaries’ were to be accepted and even strived for, was banned after World War Two for understandable reasons. But over time the pendulum swung to the point of arguing that all borders are exclusively artificial, socio-cultural constructs.[6] Since the broader neo-materialist turn in the 2010s, we see the balance shifting back somewhat.[7] Our article aligns with this reappraisal of the workings of nature’s materiality.

A seventeenth-century map showing part of the duchy of Brabant (Low Countries). Next to rivers, peatlands are the most conspicuous natural elements on the map, suggesting how remarkable these naturally non-forested landscapes must have been to the eyes of contemporaries. Also note how the large Peel bog landscape (the largest blue patch on the right half of the map) is intersected by political boundaries. Source: H. Hondius, 1639, Brabantiae pars Orientalis …. ‘s-Hertogenbosch: Brabants Historisch Informatie Centrum, toegang 343, inv. no. 55.

The topics we address in our paper – bordering and ‘natural boundaries’ – touch upon the core of environmental history, as they can be linked to resource management and conflict, while also enabling detailed analysis of human entanglements with the workings of nature’s materiality. But despite the ‘return to materialist concerns’ in the environmental humanities, historians and geographers alike have rarely gone into detail as to how natural environments came to function as borderlands and how border formation evolved over time.[8]

In the paper we show how bog landscapes have historically made for borderlands through their very specific affordances. But this disclosive agency was through humans: negotiation, materialisation and meaning of boundaries were human aspects, though always informed by and entangled with the bog landscape’s materiality.

An old boundary stones has literally been put on a pedestal in the Wooldse Veen bog on the present Dutch-German border. Photo by Maurice Paulissen.

For us, the value of affordance theory resides in its perspective for a better understanding of the historical – everyday and practical – meaning of bog landscapes to people, and in demonstrating how nature’s materiality is crucially meshed with the development of boundaries in bogs. No more and no less!

[1] J.J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1979), p. 1.

[2] Gibson, The Ecological Approach, p. 2.

[3] T. Ingold, ‘Back to the future with the theory of affordances’, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 8 (1/2) (2018): 39–44, here 39; C. Ward Thompson, ‘Landscape perception and environmental psychology’, in P. Howard, I. Thompson, E. Waterton and M. Atha (eds), The Routledge Companion to Landscape Studies, Second edition (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 19–38, here p. 20, which reminds us that this aligns with phenomenological theories of landscape experience: M. Merleau-Ponty, Phénoménologie de la Perception (Paris: Gallimard, [1945] 2013).

[4] E.g., I.E. Gordon, Theories of Visual Perception, Third edition (Hove: Psychology Press, 2004), pp. 143-182; Ingold, ‘Back to the future’, 39–42.

[5] Ingold, ‘Back to the future’, 42.

[6] E.g., H. van Houtum, ‘The geopolitics of borders and boundaries’, Geopolitics 10 (2005): 672–79, here 675–76; H.-D. Schultz, ‘Zwischen fordernder Natur und freiem Willen: Das politische an der “klassischen” deutschen Geographie’, Erdkunde 59 (1) (2005): 1–21, here 1.

[7] Neo-materialism recognises more-than/non-human agency as exerted by other species and/or by non-living components of our environment: cf. J. Bennett, Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010); T. LeCain, The Matter of History: How Things Create the Past (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017); S. Whatmore, Hybrid Geographies: Natures, Cultures, Spaces (London: Sage, 2002).

[8] For notable exceptions see M. Ferrari, E. Pasqual and A. Bagnato, A Moving Border. Alpine Cartographies of Climate Change (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s