The integrated socio-perceptual approach: Using ecological mental maps and future imaginaries to understand land use decisions

Kira Sullivan-Wiley, Amy Teller

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Rural places are important centers of environmental and social transformation. Landholders are not only affected by socio-environmental changes, but they are influencing futures related to climate change, food security, freshwater, biodiversity, and social and economic development. Much environmental land use work understands individual landholders as rational actors, portrayed through the economic lens of “producer.” These approaches generally focus on present capacities and limitations as the principal factors contributing to land use, and the individual farm as the reference unit for decisions. Our research takes steps to expand conceptualizations of rural landholders as active and knowledgeable in envisioning, managing, and shaping environmental futures. We design and test a new approach using ecological mental maps and future imaginaries to understand land use practices through a case study in the cocoa-producing and Atlantic Forest region of Southern Bahia, Brazil. The integrated socio-perceptual (ISP) approach combines qualitative and quantitative methodologies to honor the depth of landholders’ experiences and perspectives and to allow broader regional relationships and insights to emerge. We demonstrate that the ISP approach—through 49 surveys—has the capacity to capture variation and identify patterns in ecological mental maps and future imaginaries in a population, approximate the relevant spatial scales underlying these factors, and identify relationships between these and land uses. In this context, the types of narratives landholders hold about the region's future are associated with current forest land use on their properties. We discuss potential applications of the ISP approach for land use study and practice.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number102151
JournalGlobal Environmental Change
StatePublished - Sep 2020
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by a Nature Conservancy NatureNet Science postdoctoral fellowship; Brown University; and the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society.

Funding Information:
Foremost we would like to thank everyone in Bahia who participated in the survey and piloting. Without their generous and thoughtful participation, this study could not have been completed. Their time, effort, kindness, and knowledge-sharing are truly appreciated. We must also extend a special thanks to Moriah Smith for her help in field assistance and interpretation; mentors and colleagues including Leah VanWey, Flavio Malagutti, Rui Rocha, Stephen Porder, Daniel Piotto, Jorge Chiapetti, Neide Souza de Oliveira, Fernando Fernandes, Fernando Veiga, Valerie Nicollier, Kari Malkki, Jon Nelson, Ciça Viana, Yashas Vaidya, Wilsa Mendonça, and Cândido Azeredo; and local organizations on the cocoa coast, Rede Povos da Mata and Mecenas da Vida, for their support while conducting fieldwork. We also appreciate the financial support of Brown University, the Institute at Brown for Environment and Society, the Population Studies and Training Center at Brown, the NASEM Gulf Research Program, and the Nature Conservancy NatureNet Science Fellowship. Finally, we thank two anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback that improved this manuscript.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2020 Elsevier Ltd


  • Brazil
  • Environmental perceptions and behavior
  • Land use and forest conservation
  • Mixed methods
  • Smallholder agriculture
  • Sociology of the future


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