IV. Social and Cultural Issues

CPB Self-Study Module
STEP 4. Collect audience information relevant to the environmental practice and specific behaviors


A. Introduction: Social and cultural issues are important

We refer to the “social dimensions” of an environmental topic as a short-hand way of drawing attention to the people factor. In the context of water outreach, social dimensions refer to the role of people in managing water resources in a particular place, time, and community.

The social dimensions of a particular community can be divided into four broad interrelating categories:

  • sociocultural
  • economic
  • political
  • historical

An individual’s relationships and understanding of his or herself, others, and the environment; the ways in which he or she makes a living; the processes by which he or she makes decisions; and changing historical circumstances all influence an individual’s behavior.

Case Study I provides an example of how sociocultural factors in particular can play a role in influencing the outcomes of environmental remediation efforts.

Social dimensions are important because human behaviors cause both water quality degradation and improvement. If your goals are to change human behaviors you must develop an understanding of the qualities and characteristics of the individuals and communities with which you work. Outreach efforts can only be truly successful to the extent that they are geared towards changing those characteristics of communities that are contributing towards polluting behaviors in the first place. The overall goal is to pay as much attention to the social aspects of an area as to its ecological components in the planning, implementation, and evaluation of outreach efforts.

Goals for outreach may be to:

  1. Effectively change public behavior in ways conducive to the better management of water resources
  2. Provide communities with the skills required to manage water resources themselves for the long term and/or know where and how to seek help in doing so

The active participation of community members in each and every stage of the outreach process allows for community members to develop the skills and expertise necessary for the short term effectiveness and long-term sustainability of outreach projects. This also allows for educators themselves to actively learn from members of the community of interest while identifying local interests and resources that can be capitalized on in the interests of promoting effective outreach efforts.

What are Social Assessment Tools? provides more specific examples of the kinds of information that comprise the qualities or characteristics of a community, as well as themes for their study.

NEXT: Active participation of community members is vital to short and long term success

If one of the main goals of outreach is to build the capacity of the communities-of-interest to identify and manage environmental situations, opportunities, and problems in the long-term, then members from the community-of-interest need to be included in the entire outreach process – designing, planning, implementing, and evaluating. Even in the preliminary stages of planning, involvement of the targeted audience and stakeholders is vital.