New paper: Navigating conflicting landscape aspirations. Application of a photo-based Q-method in Transylvania (Central Romania)

Andra Ioana Milcu, Kate Sherren, Jan Hanspach, David Abson, Joern Fischer. Land Use Policy (full paper available here or here)

How do locals look at their landscape and what do they want from it? These are two questions we’ve been trying to answer since the start of our research project, and the answers are “differently” and “many things” respectively. These questions are interesting to ask in the context of any cultural landscape, but all the more of those subject to increased and confusing pressures from external drivers. In Southern Transylvania, the global and European socio-economic contexts translate in demanding and often contradicting challenges for the Saxons landscapes. On the one hand, as globalization turns into reality for this region as well, traditional subsistence agriculture loses its economic profitability and agricultural intensification becomes a strong model for development. On the other hand, a growing awareness of the threats and continuous alterations cultural landscapes are facing drives European policy makers to elaborate conservation policies which seek to preserve the valuable ecological subsystems.

Our aim was to understand the various ways in which locals think and feel about the cultural landscape of Southern Transylvania and its future role. In order to do so, we employed the Q methodology, a research method that explores people’s subjectivity by identifying shared ways of thinking about a certain topic by how they sort a set of stimuli related to it. 129 participants from 30 villages were asked to sort 33 landscape photos in a forced normal distribution according to what they would like to see more of in their village or village surroundings. By focusing on the respondent and his own system of reference without using imposed a priori meanings, the Q method becomes friendlier to the subjects, which might explain some of the positive feedback we received from locals.

We would like to acknowledgephoto credits to the following colleagues, contacts and web-sites, who agreed to the photos being used for the purpose ofthis: Silvina Armat, Ana Saftiuc, Sebastian Dan (,, Cristi Darie, Alin Todea,Mariana Cut¸,, Andrei Ostroveanu,, Viorel Iras¸ cu,, and Jacqueline Loos.

Characteristic arrangement of photos for one of the factors

Our findings revealed five ways (viewpoints) in which locals perceived their landscape.

Landscapes for prosperity and economic development (F1)

People sharing this opinion thought that landscapes should be put at the service of development and seemed most determined to adopt any means or technologies in order to achieve modernization and economic growth. Pictures suggesting wild, nature-dominated landscapes, or traditional agricultural practices were rated poorly. These people were willing to accept a trade-off between prosperity, and cultural and natural heritage, that might come with development. F1 included many state officials and individuals in management positions who often administrate or control relatively large areas of land.

Landscapes for traditions and balance (F2)

People sharing this opinion prioritized spiritual values and saw landscapes as a way to maintain their cultural identity and traditions.Their preferences suggested pastoral landscapes in which people interact with the landscape in somewhat idyllic ways. They were seeking this balanced relationship between human intervention and nature while projecting on the landscape their own expectations. Ironically, they idealized traditional agriculture, although many of them practiced agriculture mostly as a hobby, not as a source of income. Paradoxically, they had a strong need for sense of place, although F2 included the largest proportion of foreigners. As these individuals made a conscious choice to escape modernization, their lifestyle became dependent on the conservation of the landscapes and maintaining the cultural identity.

Landscapes for people (F3)

People sharing this opinion feel that landscapes should fulfill basic human needs and provide leisure activities. In contrast with F2, for F3 agriculture was a way of survival and they looked at landscapes with fear but at the same time gratitude being dependent on it for food, water and heat. They also preferred traditional rural landscapes but without being able to identify those precise elements of cultural identity or heritage. Very specific to this factor was the concern for community cohesion and seeing landscapes as a space for celebration and community. They had the highest proportion of relatively poor subsistence farmers and day laborers.

Landscapes for farming (F4)

People sharing this opinion think that landscapes are meant for farming and cultivating land.

But while F1 individuals wanted to explore all development opportunities offered by nature, F4 individuals generally viewed agriculture as their only option for achieving development and well being. This group was the least impressed by the beauty of nature and felt little connection to recreation activities in nature. However, they expressed appreciation for open landscapes and had an aesthetic preference for well-maintained settings that mirror stewardship qualities, and seemed to prefer a mix of new and old farming practices. This group was dominated by medium-large farmers, directly shaping and being dependent on the landscape.

Landscapes for nature (F5)

This is the group of recreation consumers that appreciate a natural landscape for its visual qualities. Preferred settings suggested high appreciation for greenery-dominated landscapes and denoted the least degree of anthropic intervention  in the landscape. F5 displayed less active engagement in the landscape than F2, less dependence on the landscape than F3 and F4, and considerably less power than F1. This group included retired country-dwellers but also commuters and weekend inhabitants.

Fig. 5

Conceptual space diagram illustrating the positioning of factors and associated viewpoints (regarding the landscape) relative to the level of desired modernization and the change agency level of individuals within a given factor relative to the landscape

In keeping with this diversity of opinions and interests, we believe Southern Transylvania would gain from avoiding ecological and economical simplification, as well as the homogenization of landscapes and cultures. Policies that nurture diverse opportunities for development, by providing equal chances for economically viable farming, such as operational markets for niche products stemming from traditionally managed areas, as well as non-agricultural livelihoods such as culture-based tourism) are key for the region. Economic diversity, with its various income opportunities, is dependent on a diverse and rich landscape. Landscape heterogeneity would also mitigate conflicts of identities and values over the landscape, which are recently arising among locals with different visions and values systems.

To read our paper on landscape preferences in Southern Transylvania go here. To read other papers that have been published within the Romania project go here.

2 thoughts on “New paper: Navigating conflicting landscape aspirations. Application of a photo-based Q-method in Transylvania (Central Romania)

  1. Really interesting study, and I can see some cross over to work we have been doing on intangible benefits of the natural world, also using Q. I particularly liked the photo sorting; I think that makes for challenging interpretation, but it’s an interesting technique.

    One point – which I got picked up for, so I’m glad I’m not the only person who lapses into this!! ;-}…..These are viewpoints not people, and I too sometimes use the latter to mean the former (the result of an R methodological background!). I suppose the way I think of it is by looking at the factor loadings – whilst some sorters strongly load onto one factor, their sort usually contains traces of the other voices in the analysis i.e they load onto other factors too, just not significantly so. Thus, everyone’s sort is an individual expression of their subjective view. The stats just shape that view into ‘lumps’ of shared subjectivity, but I don’t think they describe the reality of the ‘group’ view. In fact, in some recent post-analysis interviews I have done, some participants seemed shocked to think that their view aligns with that of others they know – even if the analysis would suggest so!

    Having made this error I now have to consciously tell myself not to write or say the phrase ‘These people….’ at conferences….It’s a pain, I know, but I understand (at least I think I understand!) why I was criticised for it!

    Keep Q-ing!!!

    • Thank you for your comment. I agree with you in that the Q methodology identifies shared views on a topic (viewpoints), not groups of people. I think this idea comes out more clearly from our paper. You are also right in saying that participants generally verbalize to some extent opinions specific to multiple factors, and we paid attention to signal this in the paper. Having said this, there are authors which for the ease of communication prefer to refer to these archetypes of existing perspectives as “groups” (e.g. Neff, 2011).

      I also think that Q can be a useful tool for exploring intangible benefits of nature and I have come across other researchers intending to do so.

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