Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-17, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 2 January, 2017 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2017.


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Social ecology

core definition

Social ecology is the study of the intreaction of people with their environment.

explanatory context

Social ecology has been a focus of social enquiry for a century, although a modern notion of social ecology seems to have divorced itself entirely from the sociological activities of the 1920s. For example Wkipedia states 'Social ecology is a philosophy founded by Green author and activist Murray Bookchin'. This despite another entry that, under the subheading 'Ecology and social theories' states 'The Chicago School wanted to develop tools by which to research and then change society by directing urban planning and social intervention agencies. It recognized that urban expansion was not haphazard but quite strongly controlled by community-level forces such as land values, zoning ordinances, landscape features, circulation corridors, and historical contingency. This was characterized as ecological because the external factors were neither chance nor intended, but rather arose from the natural forces in the environment which limit the adaptive spatial and temporal relationships between individuals.' A further entry headed 'Criminology' states 'Chicago School sociologists adopted a social ecology approach to studying cities, and postulated that urban neighborhoods with high levels of poverty often experience breakdown in the social structure and institutions such as family and schools'.

Social ecology, also referred to as urban ecology and often confounded with human ecology was first developed at the University of Chicago in the 1920s. Robert E. Park, for example, encouraged social ecological studies and had a strong interest almost every aspect of city life, race relations and ethnic neighborhoods to to unionism and the role of the press.

Hamm (1992, p. 1) unpacks the development of social ecology from the early days at Chicago to current usage and shows how a rift developed in the conceptualisation, which has led to the claims above:

'Since its inception in old Chicago school years, social ecology has been split up in what might be called the ecological schism. On the one side of the schism was the paradign of human colectivities in permanent processes of mutual adaptation with their nonhuman environment. On its other side was the analysis of urban structure and development, i.e. one specific type of environment, and the most artificial one. Attempts to bridge the gap between the wtwo branches never really succeded...'

analytical review

The University of California, Irvine (undated) states:

A modern definition of social ecology understands it as the interactions within the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations that make up well-being. This approach adopts an explicitly systemic approach in focusing on the interdependencies of social systems. Thus, such an approach focuses on the possibility that the foundations of ecological crises can lie in social structures, or that civil war can originate from environmental scarcity, or the multiple cause-and-effect relationships linking SES status and health. These phenomena beg for approaches that are cognizant of system complexity.

At its core, Social Ecology's motivating philosophy is a pragmatic one --the most persistent ills of society (sprawl, malnutrition, deforestation, urban violence, waterborne disease, obesity, housing insecurity, and countless others) seem to resist the prescriptions emerging from uni-disciplinary research. Social ecology often focuses on the centrality of context in understanding these phenomena --context, or place, remains despite the popular wisdom that the globalized world is now everywhere flat.

Is social ecology the study of everything? No, but it is a manner of studying things. Thus, it concerns how the different objects of study relate to, bump into, and change each other such that the social phenomenon cannot be attributed to any of its objects....

Contributors to the development of the ecological paradigm as it is used in the definition of social ecology include: R. Park's and E. Burgess' (1925) edited book The City....The intellectual foundations of Social Ecology are quite diverse and span numerous disciplines. The research orientation and educational philosophy of the Program in Social Ecology are rooted in several intellectual traditions, including evolutionary biology (Darwin, Wallace), open-systems theory (Von Bertalanffy, Maruyama, Miller), the Chicago School of Human Ecology (Park, Burgess, Hawley), urban sociology (Durkheim, Simmel, Wirth, Michelson), ecological psychology (Barker, Lewin), and the fields of public health (Cassel), urban planning (Haig), criminology and law (Sutherland, Cressey, Sax).

The Social Ecology Institute of British Columbia (undated) states:

Social ecology is defined as the science of the relationships between human populations and communities and their environments. Social ecology advocates an empowered and re-constructive view of environmental and social issues, and envisions a moral economy that moves beyond scarcity and hierarchy toward a world that re-harmonizes human communities with the natural world while celebrating diversity, and creativity....Some social ecologists claim that the environmental crisis currently facing us is a result of the hierarchical organization of power and the authoritarian mentality rooted in the structures of our corporatist and consumer society.... For many, many years, social hierarchy and class have been used to legitimize our domination of the environment and to justify imperialistic movements; they have also provided the foundation for the consumer system, the basis of our North American economy. Some social ecologists believe that the root causes of environmental problems are such factors as trade-for-profit, industrial expansion, and the equating of corporate self-interest with ‘progress.’ Ecological problems cannot be understood, much less resolved, without resolving a number of these social issues first


The Institute for Social Ecology (2011) defines it thus:

Social Ecology n 1: a coherent radical critique of current social, political, and anti-ecological trends. 2: a reconstructive, ecological, communitarian, and ethical approach to society.

White et al. (2012) defined social ecology as follows:

Social ecology is concerned with the social roots and implications of ecological dislocation. Broadly speaking, this interdisciplinary field begins with the scientific fact of ecological crisis, seeking to overcome this crisis through an understanding of its origin(s) within human society. Because this social and scientific exploration seeks to get “to the root” of this problem through an analysis of existing, yet mutable, social institutions, values, and relationships, it is considered one of the three core radical ecological philosophies (along with deep ecology and ecofeminism).

The starting premise of social ecology, as put forward by Bookchin, is often articulated as: the domination of humanity over nature is rooted in the domination of human over human, and that the ecological crisis is rooted in deep-seated social issues. Implied in this starting premise is the end goal of social ecological investigation: the overcoming of the ecological crisis through creation of the ecological society. This has been referred to within the field as, variously, “post scarcity,” “libertarian municipalism,” or “ecocommunitarianism.” Because social ecological investigation claims to find the root of ecological dislocation in social domination, the sufficiently ecological society has characteristics including egalitarianism, decentralization, direct democracy, and the absence of hierarchy and domination. For social ecology, the ecological society is at once the liberated society....

The method of investigation used by social ecology is radically dialectical. Such a method originates in the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus in the “West” and Guatama Buddha and Lao-Tsu in the “East.” It continues historically through the works of Aristotle, Hegel, and Marx, among others, as well as many aspects of the Buddhist and Taoist traditions. Such a method of inquiry, concerned as it is with concepts of negation, opposition, and relation, is seen as organic and highly compatible with an ecological understanding....

associated issues


related areas

See also

Chicago School



Hamm, B., 1992, Progress in Social Ecology, New Delhi, Mittal Publications.

Institute for Social Ecology, 2011, Home page, available at, posted 15 April 2012, accessed 29 April 2013, page still available 28 December 2016 but content changed.

Park, R.E. and Burgess, E., (Eds.) 1925, The City, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.

University of California, Irvine, undated, 'What is Social Ecology?', available at and, accessed 29 April 2013, page not available 28 December 2016.

White, D.F., Kovel, J., Bellamy, J. Foster, J., Clark, P., Bookchin, M., 2012, 'In Search of a Broad, Coherent, Social Ecology', available at, posted 15 April 2012, accessed 29 April 2013, still available 28 December 2016.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2017

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