IV. What are social assessment tools?

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


A. Introduction: What are social assessment tools and what can they do for natural resource professionals?

Social assessment tools are techniques that social scientists and educators apply to learn more about the social dimensions of a particular community. Table 1 provides a list and brief description of nine different types of social assessment tools that we recommend for natural resource professionals.

Learn more about the community

Aspects of social dimensions

Information – qualitative or quantitative



Learn more: Social science tools can be used to learn more about the following broad characteristics of a community of interest:

  1. Attitudes, perceptions, and beliefs
  2. Economic conditions and trends
  3. Structure, organization, and how local decision-making processes work
  4. The use and means of accessing certain natural resources
  5. An overall sense of place both today and in the past
  6. Governmental structure


Aspects of social dimensions: The following list provides an additional way of categorizing the social dimensions of a particular community (Community Characteristics, U.S. EPA, 2002):

  • Community Boundaries
  • Community Capacity and Activism
  • Community Interaction and
  • Information Flow
  • Demographic Information
  • Economic Conditions and Employment
  • Education
  • Environmental Awareness and Values
  • Governance
  • Infrastructure and Public Services
  • Local Identity (and Culture)
  • Local Leisure and Recreation
  • Natural Resources and Landscapes
  • Property Ownership, Management, and
  • Public Safety and Health
  • Religious and Spiritual Practices


Information – qualitative or quantitative: Information relating to the social dimensions of a particular community can be of either qualitative or quantitative nature.

Qualitative data generally includes non-numerical information relating to:

Community members’ values and perceptions on particular issues

Researcher’s observations and interpretations of particular behaviors in particular contexts.

Quantitative data relates to numerical information about a community that is gathered and then analyzed statistically to reveal certain trends and patterns relating to various demographic and/or economic issues.

Qualitative and quantitative methods and the data they generate each have certain advantages and disadvantages. Qualitative data tends to be gathered in an interactive manner with community members and is very localized and specific in nature. It is challenging to make generalizations about an entire community of interest based upon the individualized views and perceptions of different community members. Quantitative data on the other hand tends to be gathered in a less interactive manner and is more easily generalizable often at the cost of overlooking internal diversity in terms of the views and perceptions of various members of the community.


Triangulation: A complementary qualitative/quantitative approach for learning more about a community’s characteristics is the ideal. This allows for information to be verified and cross checked from a variety of approaches – a process called triangulation in the social sciences.


NEXT: Is there a social dimension to a particular environmental concern?


National Marine Protected Areas Center, MPA Science Institute. 2003. Social Science for Marine Protected Areas. Santa Cruz, California. Also see resources available at NOAA, Office of Coastal Management — Digital Coast: Social Science Tools for Coastal Programs, https://coast.noaa.gov/digitalcoast/publications/social-science-series

US EPA. 2002. Community Culture and the Environment. A Guide to Understanding a Sense of Place