New Bucknell Study Reveals How Interactions in Nature Impact Stewardship

June 20, 2024

by Mike Ferlazzo

Professor Annetta Grant is the author of a study showing how nature-based activities, such as fly fishing, can foster environmental stewardship and ethical consumption practices. Photo by Emily Paine, Marketing & Communications

Imagine the serenity of standing knee-deep in a cool stream, the rhythmic casting of a fly rod, and the sudden, exhilarating tug of a fish on the line. This peaceful scene, often depicted in films and literature, may hold the key to a deeper, more meaningful connection between humans and the natural world, according to a new Bucknell University study.

The new study, led by Freeman College of Management Professor Annetta Grant, markets, innovation & design, has unveiled how such nature-based activities, in this case, fly fishing, can transform human experiences and interactions with wildlife in profound and unexpected ways.

Published shortly before June's National Outdoors Month by the Journal of Consumer Research, the study provides new insights into the reciprocal relationships between humans and nature. The research, conducted in collaboration with Robin Canniford, professor of marketing at the University of Galway, Ireland; and Avi Shankar, professor in the School of Management at the University of Bath, U.K.; highlights the significant impact that spending time in nature can have on fostering environmental stewardship and ultimately ethical consumption practices.

A person in a fishing vest stands in water waist deep while fly fishing.

A Bucknell researcher found that fly fishing fosters a deeper connection with nature, which can encourage environmental stewardship. Photo by Parilov, Adobe Stock

Grant and her research team conducted an ethnographic study of fly fishing, focusing on how these interactions influence human participants and the fish they encounter. The findings reveal that spending time in nature through activities like fly fishing enhances individuals' connection with the environment and fosters a sense of protection toward it.

"The big implication is that the more time people spend in nature — in this case, fly fishing — the more they end up learning about it, and that can change the way they see nature," Grant says. "A leisure activity can change people so they can be stewards of the environment.

"In order to re-see nature, people have to go through a learning process where they have to learn about species and the environment," Grant says. "They see how things such as weather are connected with the behavior of species, and how water is a marker of the health of the environment."

To understand the human experience of encounters with fish, over several years, Grant conducted in-person and video interviews with 21 fly fishers and one guide. In-person interviews took place on the riverbank or while driving to the river. This was enhanced by streamside observations and participation in fly fishing communities.

The research categorizes human-fish interactions into three types: separated, slippery and sticky. The classifications highlight different levels of connection and transformation experienced by individuals. Sticky interactions represent a deeper, more profound connection where, in the context of fly fishing, the experience of holding a fish can lead to a moral and ethical awakening. Participants in the study reported feeling a heightened sense of responsibility and care for the natural world after such encounters.

"The way sticky emerges is through the moments when a person holds a fish in their hands," says Grant. "We found that to be a transformative experience — a moral awakening where they stop and pause and see the species and nature in a new and different way."

The study also explores the power dynamics present in human-wildlife interactions, particularly in the context of consumption. Traditional views often see wild species as resources for human use. However, Grant's research reveals more reciprocal expressions of power, where both humans and other species influence each other — and as the study shows, wild animals can transform people in surprising ways.

The research encourages more sustainable and ethical consumption practices. It also emphasizes the transformative potential of nature-based experiences as a way to encourage responsible stewardship of the environment.