Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version



Published in Great Plains Quarterly 6:2 (Spring 1986). Copyright © 1986 Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.


T he Dust Bowl is an enduring image in the collective consciousness of Americans. Experience and intuition suggest that a few historical events and eras, and their symbols, endure as important cultural memories or benchmarks. The concept of collective cultural myths or symbols is difficult to define or even to examine. Nevertheless, there is compelling prima facie evidence that the American Dust Bowl is a powerful historical symbol; perhaps not one with the power of Frederick Jackson Turner's frontier, but certainly one that focuses attention whenever issues of Great Plains culture and agriculture arise.

In the light of the stringent theoretical and methodological ideals adopted by contemporary social science, it is hard to argue that powerful myths and symbols shape the collective American consciousness. There exist no widely accepted standards for proving that an image is enduring, or evidence that knowing about it adds to our understanding of cultural character or behavior. From the perspective of the social scientist, cultural images or collective memories are fuzzy concepts, partly, I think, because we who use them fail to demonstrate how these images translate into environmental attitudes and behaviors. If the myth/symbol is to be regarded as an important concept, we must identify processes by which it affects, for instance, the interactions of nature and society. In this paper I have asked if Dust Bowl symbolism has anything to do with people's use of the Great Plains, if it affects their behavior, or, more telling, if it has played a role in cultural and technological adaptation to the Plains environment. My answer to these questions is yes. I support my conclusion with two behavioral mechanisms through which the image might translate into environmental behavior.