Move Beyond Natural Science To Include Social, Political Research

August 15, 2008


One core tenet of environmental journalism is the inclusion and explanation of complex physical and natural scientific facts into coverage of environmental issues, and it is expected that reporters invest a considerable effort into understanding the science behind these topics. The journals Scienceand Natureare virtually required background reading, and physical and natural scientists typically serve as the sources for interviews.

But this scientific focus rarely includes the social sciences. Research on environmental issues from the disciplines of anthro- pology, sociology, political science, communications, and psychology is seldom mentioned in environmental reporting, and when social or political questions are raised, sources tend to be natural scientists, regardless of whether they are qualified to speak on the topic at hand.

Natural science alone cannot explain environmental issues. Yet social science has been noticeably absent or extremely marginal in media coverage of global warming. The primary scientific spokespersons about this issue are physical scientists, principally climatologists. However, analyses of the social, institutional, and cultural processes involved in environmental issues lies in the social sciences, which are generally outside the expertise of natural scientists. These limitations are illustrated in lectures by luminaries in the global climate field, such as NASA's Jim Hansen, and Harvard's John Holdren. For the most part, both adhere tightly to the scientific literature up until the point where they turn to an analysis of the politics of global warming. Here they turn to simplistic assertions, with no engagement or reference to the relevant social science. Within the mass media, social science information on global warming is also lacking. In popular environmental blogs (Grist, Dot Earth), radio pro- grams ("Living on Earth"), and magazines (E, Sierra), social scientific analyses of global warming is very marginal.

Environmental journalists can contribute to a greater public understanding of the processes that drive the creation of, and our responses to, environmental issues by incorporating social science perspectives into their reporting. Rather than seeing environmen- tal degradation as a piecemeal set of problems, a social science approach examines how the normal functioning of social institu- tions, such as corporations, government, international agreements, and the environmental movement, create or influence environ- mental problems. Thus the social scientific research on environmental issues provides a wealth of important insights into the origins, impacts and responses to environmental change. If the public has some understanding of what social science says on a particular subject, they will be better informed and also in a better position to judge the viability and soundness of different advocacy positions.

Of particular interest to reporters is the emerging field known as the "Human Dimensions of Global Environmental Change." This research focuses on three interrelated social processes:

1) the social origins of environmental change, 2) the effects of environmental change on human living conditions and everyday practices, and 3) the social responses to changes in the natural environment.

Thus social scientific research can provide a broader context to environmental news that complements natural science analyses; in this way, reporters can show the connections between environ- mental problems and underlying social processes, thus integrating the social and natural sciences and providing a richer, and deeper understanding of environmental issues.

How to develop a story using environmental social science:

Several key resources can help journalists bring social science perspectives to environmental stories. The following five sites are excellent points of entry into the field:

1. Reports from the National Research Council:

The National Research Council has created the Committee on the Human Dimensions of Global Change to focus on the social science aspects of environmental issues. In recent years, the committee (composed of several leading U.S. environmental social scientists) has produced a number of excellent reports on topics such as environ- mental risk decision making, population and the environ- ment, and public participa- tion in environmental decision making. Information about this committee is available online at

2. Annual Review of Environment and Resources:

This publication provides 15 to 20 review articles every year on a wide range of environmental topics. These essays summa- rize the existing refereed literature in a given topic area. Recent essays have covered corporate social responsibility, globalization and its impacts on the environment, and the role of environmen- tal art in social change. The Annual Review provides excellent background information and identifies the leading scholars in the topic area. Abstracts can be viewed online at

3. Key Journals

There are a number of specialized environmental social science journals. Using appropriate key words on Google Scholar will provide a good overview of environmental social science. Additionally, a compilation of academic journals that focus on environment and society is available online at Some of the leading academic journals in this area include:

Organization and Environment

Environmental Politics

Society and Natural Resources

Population and the Environment

Environmental Communications

Rural Sociology

Additionally, general social science journals that focus on environmental social science include

American Sociological Review

Social Forces Mobilization (research on the environmental movement)


Academics working in environmental sociology utilize several listserv to communicate research findings, upcoming conferences, or general announcements within their communi- ties. The key listservs in environmental social science are:

Environmental Sociology Listserv : Operated by the Environment and Technology Section of the American Sociological Association, this listserv focuses on academic discussions and events related to environmental sociology rosoc&A=1

Environmental Communication Network Mailing List: Operated by the Environmental Communications Network, this is an academic forum for scholars working in the area of environ- mental communications

Conservation Psychology Listserv This listserv connects scholars working in the area of environ- mental psychology. A link to join is provided at:

Environmental Anthropology Listserv – A scholarly listserv covering ecological and environmental anthropology:

5. Professional Associations:

Most of the major social science associations have a section that focuses on environmental topics. As such, the annual meet- ings of these organizations include paper presentations/discus- sions on environmental social science topics. The professional societies include:

American Sociological Association: Section on Environment and Technology -

American Psychological Association: Division 34 – Population and Envi- ronmental Psychology -

American Political Science Association: Section in Science, Technology, and Environmental Politics

National Communication Association: Environmental Commu- nications Division -

American Anthropological Association: Anthropology and the Environment Section -

There are also numerous multi-disciplinary associations that focus on environmental social science. Some of the more promi- nent ones include:

Environmental Communications Network -

Society for Risk Analysis - North American Association for Environmental Education -

Robert Brulle is an academic member of SEJ. A Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he is the author of Agency, Democ- racy, and Nature: U.S. Environmental Movements from a Critical Theory Perspective, MIT Press (2000), and editor, with David Pellow of Power, Justice and the Environment: A Critical Appraisal of the Environmental Justice Movement, MIT Press (2005).

Miranda Spencer is an associate member of SEJ. She writes for E magazineand is the environmental media critic for the group blo WIMNs Voices. She is also editor of EGA Journal, the mem- ber magazine of the nonprofit Environmental Grantmakers Association.

**From SEJ's quarterly newsletter SEJournal, Summer 2008


Topics on the Beat: