You say you need to incorporate the social sciences? Which kind?

This post in the second of a series entitled “The Basics of the Human Dimensions”, which gives the most basic tips for how to work with social scientists and social questions in marine conservation efforts. Whether you are the stakeholder, the collaborating natural scientist, or both, this series will hopefully make the journey into the human dimensions easier. 

A common adage in fisheries management is that “you’re managing the fishermen, not the fish” – and this is emblematic of many conservation issues. Conservation efforts rely upon good information (which also requires diverse inputs, but that’s a story for another day) but perhaps most importantly, understanding how decision-makers will use that information and how communities will integrate that information into their daily practices. Conservation is a lived experience, not theory in a textbook.

As a response to an awakening in the ecological sciences to this paradigm, there are frequent calls for integrating the social sciences into their analyses. A program within the National Science Foundation directs research dollars to “Coupled Human and Natural Systems”, the Resilience Alliance is pushing the theory of socioecological systems, and out of geologists comes the term “anthropocene” – all efforts to formally incorporate social scientists into traditionally natural science research efforts. But not all social sciences are created equal. Which one you need depends upon your subject matter, but also the kind of data that will mesh best with your natural science methods. Here’s a quick review of the disciplinary divides within the social scientist, so you have an idea of who best to reach out to in putting together your next proposal:


Traditionally, sociologists are the number geeks in the crowd. They are responsible for tackling large and sometimes complex data sets like national censuses and large-scale surveys. As a result, you have sociologists to thank for whole branches of statistics like multivariate data analysis and, recently thanks to increased computing capability, network analysis. We love to think about how people are related not only to each other, but to the resources they rely on, and how they are embedded in a society that has structural inequalities and opportunities that might change those relationships. Loads of our techniques have already been widely adopted by the ecological sciences, given the utility of the statistical methods to strictly biological questions – for example, using network analysis to investigate a marine food web or doing a principle component analysis to figure out the driving factors in a changing estuarine landscape. As a result, the means of melding sociological and ecological questions might be easier than you think.


Most folks are more familiar with economics than any of the other social sciences – and they are also numbers people, just focus on a very particular kind of number: money. Broad-scale economics (called macroeconomics) can structure societies and build (or destroy) nation-states. Small-scale economics (microeconomics) investigates the daily exchanges that move society forward. In the latter case, the price of something is a means of signaling value, and all kinds of insights can be gleaned from observing what people spend their hard-earned dollars on. Common applications here to the environmental science include valuating ecosystem services, which puts all those lovely ecosystem functions we study into dollar form, and cost/benefit analyses of environmental management decisions, especially when one can document if a conservation effort has the potential to pay itself off. In macroeconomics, we’re often talking about development efforts that incentivize green(er) industries and ensuring that the world’s poorest have enough resources to get by that they don’t have to rely on fragile natural resources. Both of these forms of economics are a language that policymakers understand and therefore often serve as a means to get a discussion started about conservation efforts.


Always one of the most popular introductory classes on a college campus, psychology is inherently interesting to us as curious organisms. We want to figure out what makes others tick. For conservation efforts, understanding human behavior is helpful on so many levels, for example: figuring out why decision-makers vote a certain way, how environmentally-minded citizens develop their ethic, or what might change someone’s behavior. Psychology combined with economics goes a long way in describing what incentives exist or are needed to tip someone over into the environmental camp, even for just one thing. Both psychology and behavior economics perform controlled experiments (sometimes in game form) that allow focus on one particular aspect of a potentially complex issue.


While sociologists and anthropologists often study similar concepts, the traditional divide leaves anthropologists on the qualitative side of the spectrum. Their results are often presenting in complex, context-specific writings known as ethnographies, that attempt to capture and understand culture, and in some cases, learn from diverse cultural practices to better human well-being. Anthropologists generally spend at least a year embedded in the culture they are trying to understand to gain the trust of the folks they are working with and make sure they understand the deep complexities of the topic at hand. This means they often get along well with field biologists and natural historians, who understand that field work can be intense, messy, and unpredictable, but also fun and perhaps the best way to capture what’s really going on in the world because of the amount of time dedicated to studying a sometimes tiny thing. Plus, ethnographies provide a great context in which to place a smaller study, be that conservation or otherwise.


Some folks think spatially, and geography is a bit of a catch-all field for those who need that place-based focus. They draw heavily from many other social and natural science discipline to figure out what forces are literally shaping our world. Most folks are familiar with their cartographic results, and many have had a chance to play with the capabilities of their main tools – ArcGIS, Google Earth, or occasionally the good old fashioned set of pencils and paper. Some recent attention is excitingly focused on the use of maps as a way to communicate from both a powerful standpoint and to contest that power with a different version of the same space. Nevertheless, if your conservation effort has a very visual or spatial kind of focus, geographers might be the best match for you (check out #aag2015 on twitter for a sampling of the diversity of contributions from geography). After all, we’re all a little bit map nerd at heart.

Policy Analysis

The letter of the law and how it is implemented by our governing agencies not only shape how conservation efforts take shape, but define what is feasible in a particular region. After the fact, those same policy scholars may also need the help of natural scientists to evaluate their program and make necessary changes in order to meet the desired goal. This implement-evaluate-adapt scheme is called adaptive management, and is gaining adherents in all levels of government around the globe. Understanding how science can aid their efforts will help make that science more valuable in its applicability, but also policy scholars can help look at how institutional practice and regulations are either helping or hindering your cause. Policy helps structure how people relate to each other and define their culture, so policy scholars can help both mediate and study the relationship between society and nature.


Speaking of linking society and nature, communication researchers study how those links are formed, both informally and formally. Often through surveys, focus groups, and field tests of communications products, these scholars have the potential to be the marketing team for your conservation effort. For example, they study how decision-makers get information on an issue and interpret that information before making their related decisions, how the messaging around an environmental issue like climate change may effect behavioral change by the general public (or in this case, how messaging has hurt the cause), how different kinds of communication reach different sections of society, and perhaps most importantly – how communication is not just about information transfer from one person to another but about trust and understanding. As a natural scientist, if you have ambitions of broader impacts, you best have a communications colleague on your team.

Of course, there are many people who cross the boundaries between these fields, but it’s important to understand what their disciplinary traditions are and what your newfound social science colleague might be strongest in. Many of these crossovers come from researchers growing and learning in a problem-based environment (which is what you’re trying to create, right?). This means, for example, that a fisheries social scientist might be skilled in both anthropological and sociological methods with a sprinkle of economics thrown in. If you’re in a conservation field that has such experts, they might be the best person to go to, especially in early project planning. And finally, just like any discipline on earth, there are some researchers who are more interested in theory and basic science while others prefer to work on applied research and see the fruits of their labor in the hands of practitioners as soon as possible. Collaborator matchmaking should also consider researcher preferences for the basic or applied. Some of the social sciences tend to be less applied, given how hard it is to change the humans they study, while others gravitated towards the social sciences because they wanted to make a difference in human well-being.

Now go, and find thee some good collaborators!


  1. Carolyn Thaler · April 23, 2015

    Great article . Analysis applies to other disciplines like law as well.

    • bluegrassbluecrab · May 6, 2015

      That’s a very good point. However, often lawyers have a different type of degree (JD vs. PhD in something or the other) that helps with this a bit.

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