Infrastructure Possibilism and Probabilism 4 pages



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In expert opinion, human beings are stated to possess the innate ability to respond to the environment in which they live, and thereafter, consciously alter it. At the same time, feel experts, the environment in which one lives may in fact subtly ‘condition’ him or her. However, these phenomenon do not occur without proper stimuli; after all, people are not ants, which respond to external stimuli without using any part of their thinking processes, which of course may be non-existent in ants. (Blair; Hitchcock, 2001) Today, the use of ecological principles and theories in relation to anthropological research on human beings has gained in popularity, and this has facilitated experts to better understand the exact role that a human being plays in nature, and what type of influences he may have on the environment, and also, what type of influences the environment may have on him, over a period of time. (Schutkowski, 2006)

The definition of environmental determinism is this: “Environment determines Culture,” wherein environment refers to one’s physical environment, and not to one’s social conditions. In other words, it states that people are what they are, because their environment, that is, the climate, the vegetation and so on, has shaped them into what they are. This definition may be accurate, but most experts seem to be embarrassed by it, because of the simple fact that this explanation may place emphasis on racism, by stating that people from one particular region may be better than people from another, because they have been shaped by their environment, and if the environment was appalling, then they must be appalling as well. (“Griffith Taylor and Environmental determinism,” 1986) These concepts are not new; its history dates back to the days of Darwin and Ellen Semple, and ever since, the idea has been used in various contexts, like for example, in egalitarian politics. (Kay, 1986) as explained earlier, environmental thresholds change as the climatic conditions change, populations across the world increase, and culture and technology evolve through time to the state they are in at the present time. The idea that environmental determinism determines the cultural adaptability of an individual is extremely interesting indeed, especially in today’s globalization and other forms of technological advances. However, if the changes in environment are great, then this may affect the limits and capabilities of average human beings to be able to adapt to them. (Laura, 1999)

Reportedly, Winston Churchill made the statement that a human being shapes a building, and thereafter, the building shapes him. He meant to say that there exists a subtle relationship between one’s building and one’s behavior; environmental psychologists have found this to be true after extensive research on the subject. The relationship is viewed through a list of possibilities and probabilities, and this then is the principle upon which ‘probabilism’ is based. This concept has given rise to the idea that there is a probability of the built environment playing a positive or a negative role on organizations and campus environments. Places are therefore no longer just ‘places’; they are socio-physical entities. Individuals and groups make certain choices based on the scope of the environment in which live or function, and probabilism offers suggestions that some choices may be better than others. (Banning; Banning, 1994)

It is important to note that the concept ‘environmental probabilism’ or ‘architectural probabilism’ has emerged as a direct result of reactions to the supposed shortcomings and inadequacies of environmental or architectural determinism. Probabilism or possibilism as it is known is based on the idea that the physical environment is a source of a great many opportunities and challenges that may well impose certain restrictions and limits on one’s behavior, but certainly never restrict or control behavior. According to Wissler, architectural determinism has been taken quite casually and lightly, and this is replaced by environmental probabilism, which can be taken as an influence of a “passive limiting agency.” This theory may be explained by a simple example related to a college campus. The students may wish to make up an excellent football team and progress to playing at an inter-collegiate level, but this idea may be restricted by the environment, which in this case may say that there is no space within the campus to create a football a stadium in which to practice one’s game. The idea was therefore restricted by the environment. In the same way, if the college management said ‘yes’ to the idea of creating a football stadium for the football team to practice, and the same were to be created several miles away from the campus, not many students would be interested in taking part. This too restricted the concept. (Strange; Banning, n. d.)

Experts say that the assumptions of environmental passivity generally associated with environmental possibilism must be questioned. Take for example the presence of a beautifully constructed and designed campus restaurant. This may be considered more of an opportunity to draw more patrons than just a simple restaurant; because the restaurant does not cause anyone to come and visit it, but at the same time, its mere presence would attract customers. Therefore, this can be taken to mean that architectural or environmental probabilism successfully manages to capture the probabilistic relationship existing between physical environments and behaviors. In other words, it means that certain typical behaviors would have certain typical probabilistic links to one’s environment. For example, one can contrast a warm welcoming entrance to a campus, in opposition to a cold and forbidding one. There can be no doubt that people would prefer to enter through the warm entrance, rather than through the cold one. The example signifies that the warm entrance would not cause anyone to enter, but at the same time, encourages it. The probability or possibility of entry can therefore be increased by bringing in changes in the design, so that it may appear to be welcoming to those who wish to enter. (Strange; Banning, n. d.)

Although the tenets of environmental determinism are age old and have been in existence through the times, environmental probabilism has been introduced only recently. While the environmental determinist theory offered human geography a versatile unifying theme, and stated that all human society was in fact a natural product of his and her natural environment, there also seemed to be a lack of supporting empirical evidence. This factor necessitated the bringing in of new ideas and concepts, namely, environmental possibilism and probabilism. While possibilism gave the environment much credit for imposing certain limits on all human activities, probabilism stated that there could possibly be one answer among other probable ones, which would be the best. Although this theory offered researchers and other analysts more room for manipulation and maneuvering, this seemed to reduce dramatically the power of the environment as an explanatory factor. (Wilgar Boal; Livingstone, 1989)

Therefore, it is clear that while environmental determinism is all about the examination and analysis of the several definable factors that would allow for a complete prediction of the various and several individual characteristics of a person or of a society, environmental possibilism is all about eliminating the too causal approach of the former, only to bring in and maintain human agency. This means that the physical environment and the social environment would remain at par with the hundreds of possibilities that would be offered for a human being to choose from and to act upon. However, it was stated that possibilism was much too open ended, and therefore, a new theory would be needed to succeed determinism. This was how environmental probabilism came into being. Probabilism takes the view that although it cannot be said that the physical environment decides upon the actions of an average human being, it will perforce make certain responses, which would be considered more likely than others. Therefore, probabilism is more about making an informed and educated choice based on the realm of probabilities available. Probabilism brings with it the theory of prediction, and also positivism, with which it is closely associated. However, probabilism is always referred to as being the half way point between determinism and possibilism. (“Infrastructure Possibilism and Probabilism,” 2006)

To conclude, it must be said that while environmental probabilism states that almost all or any behaviors may be probable within one or in any environment, while determinism states that it is the physical environment, and not social conditions, that would shape a person’s character and behaviors. Herein lies the basic difference between the two theories. There can be no doubt that several more theories related to these theories will emerge soon, and perhaps these would explain human behavior in a more succinct and terse manner.


Banning, Carolyn S; Banning, James H. (1994) “Use of Nonverbal Cues of the Physical

Environment in Campus Consultation” Campus Ecologist, vol. 12, no. 4, pp: 36-38.

Blair, Alasdair; Hitchcock, David. (2001) “Environment and business”


Kay, Jeanne. (1986, Jun) “Commentary on the social origins of environmental determinism”

Annals of the Association of American Geographers, Vol. 76, No. 2 (Jun., 1986), pp.

Laura, Johnson. (1999) “Neo-environmental determinism and agrarian collapse” Antiquity, vol. 73, pp: 634-42.

N.A. (n. d.) “Griffith Taylor and Environmental determinism” Retrieved 28 September, 2007 from

N.A. (2006, Aug) “Infrastructure Possibilism and Probabilism.” Retrieved 28 September, 2007 from probabilism / probabilism/

Schutkowski, Holger. (2006) “Human Ecology, biocultural adaptations in human communities” Springer.

Strange, Carney; Banning, James H. (n. d.) “Ch. 1, Physical Environments: The Role of Design and Space” Educating by Design.

Wilgar Boal, Frederick; Livingstone, David N. (1989) “Forms of life, history and mind”



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