Knowledge Area BEPs: Non-Economic Social Science Applications


The practical application of conservation principles takes place at a specific location, implying the relevance of an array of human values and meanings not ordinarily included in scientific or economic models for managing a particular natural resource (Williams et al, 2011). Social scientists study human society, and the relationship of individuals to society and society to individuals. The work of social scientists can improve our understanding of the connections between human values, experiences, and behaviors and environmental management.

Research in the social sciences is conducted under disciplines such as anthropology, cultural anthropology, economics, resource economics, history, political science, psychology, social psychology, and sociology. While economics are an underlying factor of social dynamics, other social science disciplines, such as environmental sociology, amplify our understanding through the study of relationships between humans and their environments, and the study of the ways in which these relations are influenced by socio-cultural processes (Dunlap et al, 2002, p. 10).

Social scientists study the human dimensions of environmental change, ecosystem management and environmental policy. For example, social scientists may strive to understand how diverse actors (e.g., visitors, residents, experts, agencies, institutions, non-governmental organizations, and political jurisdictions) shape a locale and how to apply results to create a place-based management strategy (Williams et al, 2011, p. 29).

A refreshing result of such a starting point is that common ground can be explored in that values and meanings have potential to be transformed and improved through dialogue and to accumulate without necessarily competing with each other. . . . Place-based conservation has begun to catch on among land managers as they have increasingly recognized that they are not simply managing the mix and flow of goods and services provided by public lands and, instead, they are managing places that the public has come to know and value. (Williams et al, 2011, p. 22)

In other examples, non-economic social sciences may develop research to explore:

  • Social/institutional processes for managing complex systems
  • The social significance of dependence on and interaction with the natural and built environment
  • Power relationships
  • Historical narrative
  • Mechanisms and impacts of informal and formal education
  • Uses of knowledge in building dialogue among stakeholders
  • Group solidarity and shared identity of community members
  • The relationship between top-down scientific discourse and bottom-up engagement, in which practitioners play a more prominent role in the production and validation of knowledge
  • Relationships between institutional learning, social networks, and landscape disturbances
  • Social processes for prescribing particular valuations, preferences, and choices, such as legal-political systems and institutions, and moral-ethical systems embedded in culture, religion, and moral philosophy.
  • Governance systems
  • Networks and interactions across multiple scales of governance
  • Discursive practices of agencies and other organizations as participants in place-making


Recommendations are drawn from these and other resources:

  • Butler, L. C., Dephelps, & K. Gray, 1995. Community Ventures: Partnerships in Education and Research Circular Series, Washington State University Extension. Accessed August 2012 at
  • Cordell, H., K. & J. C. Bergstrom, editors. 1999. Integrating Social Sciences with Ecosystem Management: Human Dimensions in Assessment, Policy, and Management. Champaign, IL: Sagamore Publishing.
  • Dunlap, R. E. & W. Michelson. 2002. Handbook of Environmental Sociology. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.
  • U.S. EPA Office of Water. 2002. Community Culture and the Environment. A Guide to Understanding a Sense of Place. EPA 842-B-01-003.
  • Williams, D., W. Stewart & L. Kruger. 2011. Place-based conservation: perspectives from the social sciences. Accessed August 2012 at
  • Williams, D.R., & A.E. Watson. 2007. Wilderness Values: Perspectives from Non-Economic Social Science. USDA Forest Service Proceedings RMRS-P-49.