The environment is literally ‘that which environs or surrounds’, and the term is used in various ways in academic discourse. In biology and psychology, environment is frequently juxtaposed to heredity, in an exhaustive division of the causes that shape the character of living things. Heredity refers to what is genetically transmitted, environment to what is given externally. Much of the debate has focused on their relative importance, and environment itself is usually given little substantive content. In other usages the environment is simply the (delimited) social context in which the individual (or any living organism) is located, and the emphasis is on issues of adaptation and adjustment to this environment, as in Jean Piaget's work on cognitive development.
Writing on the environment in early sociology saw the physical environment as a major determinant of patterns of social life and has often been characterized as environmental determinism. Examples of such work include Frederic le Play and Patrick Geddes. In France, the work of Paul Vidal de la Blache and Lucien Febvre established a regional focus for social studies and found its best expression in the work of the Annales School. American work on environmental influences, such as that of Ellen Semple, exercised a great influence on the urban ecology of the Chicago School.
The natural environment, for all its potential significance to sociology as the territory in which human action occurs and as itself modified by human agency has featured in sociological thinking mainly in references to the heredity versus environment debate. Significantly, the current social and political attention given to the environment concentrates on the physical world—on towns, houses, the countryside, and natural resources such as air and water—albeit an environment recognized to be not just a matter of nature but also of human intervention. In this interpretation, the term contrasts with concepts like community, society, and social group that highlight social relations rather than physical and material conditions. However, it is precisely the focus on the specificities and impact of the material world and on the way it is socially constructed that produces the potential for an environmental sociology.
Since the 1980s, the sociology of the environment has emerged as an identifiable specialism within the discipline, although it is still rather loosely defined. Among the topics likely to be encountered in any of the standard texts now available will be the following: the role of industrialism in generating environmental degradation; the structural and social origins of environmental movements (see social movements); the content and influence of Green politics and parties; the environmental implications of urbanization and globalization; the problems of securing sustainable development; and wider theoretical issues such the possible conflict between a non-exploitative approach to nature and the continued commitment to Enlightenment values such as those of democracy, human rights, and the pursuit of progress. (See, for example, Tim Hayward, Ecological Thought, 1995, and David Goldblatt, Social Theory and the Environment, 1996.) Several strands of this literature deal with the built environment and lead into discussions of culture (especially popular culture). For example, in his study of the links between environmental and social change, as these are evident in the use of commercial space, Mark Gottdiener (The Theming of America, 1996) depicts ‘themed spaces’ (everything from Graceland and Disneyworld to local shopping malls) as a barrage of familiar and comforting symbols that are intended to make consumers feel good, and to part them systematically from their money in the interests of sustaining economic growth. See also human geography.