A Holistic Framework for Understanding Sense of Place

Ardoin, N. M., Schuh, J. S., & Gould, R. K. (2012). Exploring the dimensions of place: a confirmatory factor analysis of data from three ecoregional sites. Environmental Education Research, 18, 583 - 607.

Sense of place research considers how people connect with places and the influence of those connections on their engagement with the environment. A positive sense of place has been shown to encourage pro-environmental behavior, and as such has important implications for environmental education. However, sense of place is a complex, multifaceted phenomenon, which has made it difficult to define, study, and quantify. In this paper, the authors propose a holistic framework for examining a person's sense of place, and evaluate the merits of this framework based on data collected from three distinct ecoregions.

The authors propose four dimensions of place: biophysical, psychological, sociocultural, and political-economic. The biophysical dimension refers to a person's interest and appreciation of elements such as the landscape, plants, and animals of an area. The psychological dimension addresses characteristics internal to a person and a person's relationship to place, such as a feeling of belonging somewhere. The sociocultural dimension refers to a person's social and cultural connections to an area, such as a local circle of friends. Finally, the political-economic dimension refers to job opportunities, financial considerations, and political boundaries of an area.

Between 2004 and 2006, data were collected in three different ecoregions: the Galapagos Islands of Ecuador, the Klamath-Siskiyou of Northern California and southern Oregon, and the Chesapeake Bay on the East Coast of the United States. Overall, 712 interview surveys were conducted, in both Spanish and English. The participants ranged from 18 to 94 years old, with an average age of 41 years, and were 52% female. All were full-time residents who had lived in their current location for at least three months. The survey items analyzed in this article included 23 questions designed to measure the various dimensions of place attachment.

The responses from the surveys were analyzed using structural equation modeling. This approach allowed the authors to examine the common structure of sense of place across these three distinct places, as well as to test their proposed four-dimensional structure of sense of place against other models. The results of the analysis showed that the four dimensions of place (biophysical, psychological, sociocultural, and political-economic) were distinct, but correlated, factors of a person's sense of place. Compared with other frameworks, they also found that this four-factor model was the best fit for the data.

The authors point out a number of limitations and suggestions for future research. One limitation was that the collected responses were skewed towards affirmative, and had relatively little variability. This might be addressed in future research by expanding the answer options from a 5-point to a 7- or 10- point scale, and also conducting the research in locations that aren't iconic sites and vacation destinations. Future research could also be conducted to examine how each of these dimensions of place relates to the others, whether these dimensions differ by locations or circumstances (for example, rural versus urban contexts). Future research is also needed to validate a scale based on these theoretical underpinnings for measuring sense of place.

The Bottom Line

<p>The proposed framework of four dimensions of place—biophysical, psychological, sociocultural, and political-economic—could be a useful tool for those developing place-based education initiatives. Specifically addressing each of these four factors could more holistically address the various ways that people connect with the places where they live. The authors point out that in the United States especially, the dominant focus has been on the biophysical dimension of place, perhaps because of philosophical grounding in wilderness education. Focusing on the biophysical over the other dimensions of place might limit the effectiveness of place-based education, particularly as our society becomes increasingly urbanized and as we learn more about the sociocultural nature of learning and environmental behavior.</p>