Cultural explosion and path dependency – useful tools in studying landscape change or just next buzzwords?

Authors and Affiliations: 

Hannes Palang 1, Anita Zariņa 2 and Anu Printsmann 1

1 Centre for Landscape and Culture, Estonian Institute of Humanities, Tallinn University, Uus-Sadama 5, 10120 Tallinn, Estonia; e-mail:,

2 Department of Geography, Faculty of Geography and Earth Sciences, University of Latvia, Alberta 10, LV-1010 Riga, Latvia; e-mail:


Landscape change is one of the key topics in landscape ecology studies, but the discipline also tries to understand how people cope with ever-changing landscapes. We narrow our focus from gradual change – development (transition) – to more radical changes (transformation) that are typical to the Baltics (and Eastern Europe) in the 20th century and investigate whether the two theories are of help in grasping these breaks – one being the cultural explosion originating from the works of the semiotician Juri Lotman (2009), the other being path dependency approach (Mahoney 2000, Zariņa 2010).

The first handles radical changes (revolutionary situations) as cultural explosions that could be described only after the break itself; and explains why it is important to create a link with the situation before the change. Usually the inability to understand the path leads to serious societal and environmental problems.

At the same time, this explosion can be understood as a contingent event (quite unused concept of human realm in landscape ecology) that triggers change that might have either institutional or sequential inertia and the path dependence approach allows one to understand the nature of the landscape change process and to distinguish the development paths or trajectories, which are characterized by matters of chance, the confluence of events, the initial situation and the sequence of events. We suggest that the lag time needed for description in Lotman’s cultural explosion is called institutional reproduction or inertia in path dependence. For landscape ecology, of interest could be the framework of explanatory models used in path dependant analysis, as well as the idea that path dependence narratives and explanations can also be easily communicated to local people thus making it an activity for public participation, awareness and deliberation.

As empirical case study we will look at former soviet military areas in Estonia and Latvia. Despite the ‘event’ was long one (formal independence 1991 and troops left 31st of August 1994) the idea what to do with the areas that laymen had no access around 50 years was not clear. There are several development paths: (1) nature reserves, (2) neglected land, (3) active use; and also different strategies in creating the link with the past: (1) ignorance and oblivion, (2) acknowledging the fact, (3) make active use of the past to make the landscape more attractive is not so common because of the inertia.


Lotman, J. 2009: Culture and Explosion. Semiotics, Communication and Cognition 1. Editor Paul Cobley. Edited by Marina Grishakova. Translated by Wilma Clark. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Mahoney, J. 2000: Path dependence in historical sociology, Theory and Society 29 (4): 507–548.

Zariņa, A. 2010: Path dependency and landscape biographies in Latgale, Latvia: a comparative analysis. European Countryside 2 (3): 151–168.

ZARIŅA, A. (2013): ‘Path dependence and landscape: initial conditions, contingency and sequences of events in Latgale, Latvia ’, Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography 95 (…): …–… .