News >> Holistic Science student and teachers publish study on qualitative landscape perception in peer-reviewed scientific journal

Holistic Science student and teachers publish study on qualitative landscape perception in peer-reviewed scientific journal

Thursday, 9 March, 2017


A summary by Stephan Harding

Harding SP, Burch SE, Wemelsfelder F
(2017) The Assessment of Landscape Expressivity:
A Free Choice Profiling Approach. PLoS ONE 12(1):

For many years Professor Francoise Wemelsfelder from Scotland’s Rural College, has visited Schumacher College in the autumn to teach students on our MSc in Holistic Science about the powerful method she has used to quantitatively assess people’s qualitative perceptions of the emotional states of farm animals raised under differing conditions, from free range to intensive.   The method, called Free Choice Profiling (FCP), encourages people to generate their own words (or ‘terms’) to describe the emotional states which they perceive in pigs, cows and other animals.  These terms are later turned into quantitative scores (assessing the intensity of the animals’ emotions) by the same people, whereupon the data are analysed using a complex multivariate statistical procedure known as Generalised Procrustes Analysis.   What emerges is a rigorous measure of the extent to which people’s qualitative impressions of animal emotional states converge significantly. Francoise and her colleagues have found that people strongly agree about whether animals are relaxed, stressed, and so on, and that these assessments link very well with the way in which the animals have been kept and with key physiological measures such as levels of stress hormones. Pig farmers, veterinarians and animal activists, using FCP to judge the quality of pig expressions, were found to show good agreement despite their different backgrounds and attitudes.

During one of her visits to the college, Francoise and I had the idea of investigating whether this same FCP technique could be applied to the perception of expressive qualities in landscapes. Such a study would follow in the footsteps of other Schumacher teachers such as Margaret Colquhoun and Craig Holdrege, who helped us understand that landscapes affect us powerfully, whether we are aware of this or not.  Many of us feel that landscapes are expressive – that they express specific qualities. We feel uplifted in leafy forests, and sometimes feel a certain sense of depression in deforested areas.   To say that landscapes are ‘expressive’ is not the same as saying that landscapes have emotional experiences as do humans and animals. It is to recognise that psychological relationship emerges in how we and other organisms collectively create and perceive landscapes as we live and breathe within them. As landscape architect and planner Anne Whiston Spirn puts it in her book `The Language of Landscape': “Landscape has meaning. . . . Significance is there to be discovered, inherent and ascribed, shaped by what senses perceive, what instinct and experience read as significant, what minds know. Any organism with senses has the potential to read and understand landscape”.

Our first move in exploring this notion of landscape expressivity was to select ten quite different Devon landscapes within about twelve miles of the college, ranging from a monocultural field to a wild stream tumbling through native woodland on the edge of Dartmoor.  We then took ten students from the college to visit these landscapes and asked them to generate their landscape expressivity terms, which they scored quantitatively on a second visit to the same landscapes.  We took photographs of each of these Devon landscape and repeated the experiment by asking a different group of ten people at the college to assess the landscape expressivity they perceived when we showed them the photographs projected onto a large screen. Finally, Sebastian Burch, our student on the MSc in Holistic Science, carried out a similar FCP experiment for his dissertation with fourteen people in eleven landscapes outdoors around his home in Asturias in northern Spain.

We were very interested to find that the people in each of these 3 groups showed significant agreement, and that their scoring patterns appeared to share similar emergent themes of landscape health and development in time.  A primary theme of expressivity was the loss of authenticity, vibrancy, and abundance in landscapes strongly impacted by humans. These landscapes were perceived as ‘tired’, ‘numb’, ‘bored’, ‘damaged’, or worse, as ‘violated’, ‘suffocated’, ‘misused’ - all terms that indicate ill health, but also aggressive and abusive interference. However, in the Asturias study human presence was also seen to make landscapes ‘welcoming’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘nutritious’. Regardless of whether the effect was positive or negative, it is striking how prominently notions of health and well-being featured in these assessments of landscape.

A second theme in all three studies was that of development in time, with some landscapes perceived as ‘young’, ‘fresh’, ‘dynamic’, ‘boisterous’, and ‘fragile’, and others as ‘ancient’, ‘abiding’, ‘patient’, ‘wise’, and ‘resilient’. This distinction does not appear to be linked to what humans do - both young and old landscapes could be seen as welcoming (`a picnic spot') or as suffering restraint (e.g. `sad', `bored').

Thus, through quantification of their personal terminologies, the three observer groups provided coherent and meaningful judgments of landscape expressivity, and the emerging themes appeared to support our guiding hypothesis that landscapes, as places of collective living, express sensitivity. Landscapes impressed themselves on observers not as just as inert stuff to be shifted around without consequence, but as responsive presences, which, when not appropriately treated, lose health and suffocate.  The upshot is that we should treat landscapes as somehow alive, at least in the sense that their perceived expressivity affects how we (and perhaps other animals) feel about unfolding our lives within them.  This is what deep ecologists have been saying all along  - to take care of the land is to take care of ourselves at the same time.