Expanding the role for the social sciences

When thinking about how to promote more sustainable ways of life, policy makers typically rely on a handful of theories – particularly those involving individual change and choice. However, as many of the resources on this site remind us, the future challenge is to look beyond the individual and  see how we can develop social and economic environments that favor sustainable ways of life. There is a need to ensure that the social and human agency aspects within our current social-ecological governance models receive more attention. A number of the pages in this section point to links that help in this aim: participatory action research; ethics protocols and considerations; using narrative and stories; managing inter-and trans-disciplinary initiatives.

Taking wider and more inclusive approaches will also enable policy development to benefit from a much wider range of social science than it does at present. The following links point to an expanding range of papers that highlight the need to expand the role for the social sciences, and begin to point out pathways through which this might happen.

Beyond the ABC: climate change policy and theories of social change
In this short and deliberately provocative paper Elizabeth Shove reflects on what seems to be a yawning gulf between the potential contribution of the social sciences and the typically restricted models and concepts of social change embedded in contemporary environmental policy in the UK, and in other countries too. As well as making a strong case for going beyond what she refers to as the dominant paradigm of ABC (attitude, behaviour, and choice), she discusses the attractions of this model, the blind spots it creates, and the forms of governance it sustains. This paper provides some insight into why so much relevant social theory remains so marginalised, and helps identify opportunities for making better use of existing intellectual resources. A good summary of the paper can be found here  – Going beyond the ABC of climate change policy.

Mainstreaming the social sciences in conservation
This 2016 paper by Nathan Bennett and colleagues points out that despite broad recognition of the value of social sciences and increasingly vocal calls for better engagement with the human element of conservation, the conservation social sciences remain misunderstoodand underutilized in practice. In response the authors recommend fostering knowledge on the scope and contributions of the social sciences to conservation, including social scientists from the inception of interdisciplinary research projects, incorporating social science research and insights during all stages of conservation planning and implementation, building social science capacity at all scales in conservation organizations and agencies, and promoting engagement with the social sciences in and through global conservation policy-influencing organizations. Conservation social scientists, too, need to be willing to engage with natural science knowledge and to communicate insights and recommendations

Why resilience is unappealing to social science: Theoretical and empirical investigations of the scientific use of resilience
This 2015 paper from Lennart Olsson and colleagues acknowledges that resilience is often promoted as a boundary concept to integrate the social and natural dimensions of sustainability. However, they point out that it is a troubled dialogue from which social scientists may feel detached. They first scrutinize the meanings, attributes, and uses of resilience in ecology and elsewhere to construct a typology of definitions. They analyze core concepts and principles in resilience theory that cause disciplinary tensions between the social and natural sciences.   Throughout, they develop the argument that incommensurability and unification constrain the interdisciplinary dialogue, whereas pluralism drawing on core social scientific concepts would better facilitate integrated sustainability research.

Global environmental change I: A social turn for resilience?
In this 2014 paper Katrina Brown looks at the concept of resilience in the context of global environmental change. The application of resilience concepts to social and ecological systems and dilemmas has been roundly critiqued for under-theorizing social dimensions. She examines three emerging topics: community resilience; transformations; and resilience as an organizing concept for radical change. She finds that there is still relatively little analysis of social difference and resilience, and there are continuing tensions between normative and analytical stances on resilience. These characteristics are mirrored in policy discourses and local level actions on resilience.

Understanding adaptation and transformation through indigenous practice
This 2015 paper by Marina Apgar and colleagues points out that the need to  understand social change and its links with adaptation and transformation is central to resilience. Our aim is to contribute to insights about and understanding of underlying social dynamics at play in social-ecological systems. Their paper argues that longstanding indigenous practices provide opportunities for investigating processes of adaptation and transformation.  Their findings reveal that cultural practices facilitating leadership development, personhood development, social networking, critical self-reflection and creative innovation are critical for enabling both adaptation and transformation.

Social research and biodiversity conservation
This 2013 paper by Chris Sandbrook et al. reminds us that the role and place of social research in conservation remains a major source of misunderstanding, miscommunication, and contention among conservation researchers. There are problems of method (e.g., use of both qualitative and quantitative methods in social research), of epistemology (e.g., positivist versus postpositivist, and problem solving versus critical approaches), of understanding (it takes time to become expert in any discipline), and of language (terminology and writing styles can make publications effectively incomprehensible, or at least deeply unattractive and difficult, for people trained in a different discipline). In this article, the authors seek to contribute to interdisciplinary communication and understanding by describing different ways in which conservation social science is framed and acknowledging how those different framings contribute positively to conservation.

Agency, Capacity, and Resilience to Environmental Change: Lessons from Human Development, Well-Being, and Disasters
This 2011 article by Katrina Brown and Elizabeth Westaway addresses a central criticism of how ideas of resilience are used in the environmental change and social-ecological systems literature, i.e., that the analysis is depoliticized and lacks consideration of agency. It synthesizes knowledge on agency, capacity, and resilience across human development, well-being, and disasters literature to provide insights to support more integrated and human-centered approaches to understanding environmental change.

Social Research in Defra
This 2007 report focuses on the uptake and capacity of social research within Defra, although the findings will have wider relevance. It highlights that, with a few exceptions, the potential contributions social research could make to effective policy development were generally not well understood within the Department’s policy and research groups. Social research was often narrowly defined, for example, as engagement or consultation.  When advice from Defra’s professional social researchers was not sought by the instigators of research, it seems probable that social research questions had often been poorly framed or not asked in the first place.

Supporting the development of a social sciences strategy for Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management R&D
This 2008 report by Clare Twigger-Ross, Sue Tapsell and Amalia Fernández-Bilbao  summarises work carried out to understand the approach to social science within one of DEFRA’s programmes.  The report noted a general view that social sciences are very valuable to the programme, but that varied by theme with three perspectives emerging: i) Instrumental – “if it works use it‟ perspective; ii) not relevant – “not for our theme‟; and iii) sceptical support – “valuable but… prove it‟. There was also a general view that the social sciences use too much jargon,  and an emphasis on obtaining simple answers to complex questions and lack of experience in evaluating the quality of social science research. The work contributed to the development of a vision for helping the social sciences move forward.

The RELU Programme: Closing the Gap between Environmental Research and Practice
The Relu programme 2003-2013 was devised as a cross-research council interdisciplinary programme that would involve stakeholders throughout. Requiring strategic collaboration across three research councils (ESRC, BBSRC, NERC) with 94 projects involving over 450 social and natural scientists and more than 4000 stakeholders from the public, private and third sectors, it provided an ideal test bed for interdisciplinary collaboration between natural and social scientists, and for devising methods for effective stakeholder engagement, policy exchange, and practice involvement in interdisciplinary research.  The findings from all this research were distilled into a sophisticated understanding of interdisciplinary research and knowledge exchange activities which were published in a series of articles and edited special issues of prominent journals.

Introduction of Social Sciences in Australian Natural Resource Management Agencies
This 2005 paper by Alice Roughley and David Salt examines the integration, from 1978 to 2002, of six social scientists in five Australian natural resource management agencies. The organisational arrangements for integration, the roles of the social scientists and achievements of social science programs in those agencies illustrate a number of integration approaches and insights for effectively integrating social and natural science. This paper illustrates both significant impediments to integration in practice and positive examples of integrated multidisciplinary approaches in natural resource management.

Integration of Human Dimensions in Climate Change Assessments
This 2001 plenary paper by Shardul Agrawala presented to the Open Meeting of the International Human Dimensions of Global Change Community Rio de Janeiro, Brazil talks about some key aspects of human dimensions research during the early IPCC era. He reminds us that while the predictive potential of many social science disciplines might be rather limited – given the nature of social problems,  they are good at framing the problem as they often take an ends (as opposed to means) driven perspective. Social scientists can also play critical reflexive roles by essentially serving as social sensors and assessing the impact and unintended consequences of scientific analyses.

The Alliance for Useful Evidence
By championing the need for useful evidence, the Alliance provides a focal point for improving and extending the use of social research and evidence in the UK and internationally.  The Alliance is an open access network of individuals from across government, universities, charities, business and local authorities in the UK and internationally. If you are interested in promoting useful evidence in decision making across social policy, whilst gaining access to publications and events, and networking with other members you can join The Alliance for Useful Evidence.