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It has long been claimed that a better understanding of human or social dimensions of environmental issues will improve conservation. The social sciences are one important means through which researchers and practitioners can attain that better understanding. Yet, a lack of awareness of the scope and uncertainty about the purpose of the conservation social sciences impedes the conservation community's effective engagement with the human dimensions. This paper examines the scope and purpose of eighteen subfields of classic, interdisciplinary and applied conservation social sciences and articulates ten distinct contributions that the social sciences can make to understanding and improving conservation. In brief, the conservation social sciences can be valuable to conservation for descriptive, diagnostic, disruptive, reflexive, generative, innovative, or instrumental reasons. This review and supporting materials provides a succinct yet comprehensive reference for conservation scientists and practitioners. We contend that the social sciences can help facilitate conservation policies, actions and outcomes that are more legitimate, salient, robust and effective.
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Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to
improve conservation
Nathan J. Bennett
, Robin Roth
, Sarah C. Klain
, Kai Chan
, Douglas A. Clark
Georgina Cullman
, Deborah Curran
, Graham Epstein
, Alison Greenberg
Michael P Nelson
, Richard Stedman
, Tara L Teel
, Rebecca Thomas
Diogo Veríssimo
Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Canada
School of Marine and Environmental Affairs, University of Washington, United States
Center for Ocean Solutions, Stanford University, United States
Department of Geography, University of Guelph, Canada
School of Marine and Environmental Affairs and Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington, United States
School of Environment and Sustainability, University of Saskatchewan, Canada
Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, American Museum of Natural History, New York, United States
Faculty of Law & School of Environmental Studies, University of Victoria, Canada
Department of Anthropology, University of Wyoming, United States
Environmental Change and Governance Group, School of Environment, Resources and Sustainability, University of Waterloo, Canada
Global Economics and Social Science Programme, International Union for Conservation of Nature, Switzerland
Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society, Oregon State University, United States
Department of History, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada
Human Dimensions Research Unit, Department of Natural Resources, Cornell University, United States
Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, Colorado State University, United States
Department of Parks and Recreation, Slippery Rock University, United States
Rare & Department of Economics, Andrew Young School of Policy Studies, Georgia State University, United States
Luc Hoffmann Institute, WWF International, United States
abstractarticle info
Article history:
Received 15 July 2016
Received in revised form 24 September 2016
Accepted 3 October 2016
Available online xxxx
It has long been claimed that a better understanding of human or social dimensions of environmental issues will
improve conservation. The social sciences are one important means through which researchers and practitioners
can attain that better understanding. Yet, a lack of awareness of the scope and uncertainty about the purpose of
the conservation social sciences impedes the conservation community's effective engagement with the human
dimensions. This paperexamines the scope andpurpose of eighteen subelds of classic, interdisciplinary and ap-
plied conservation social sciences and articulates ten distinct contributions that the social sciences can make to
understanding and improving conservation. In brief, the conservation social sciences can be valuable to conser-
vation for descriptive, diagnostic, disruptive, reexive, generative, innovative, or instrumental reasons. This re-
view and supporting materials provides a succinct yet comprehensive reference for conservation scientists and
practitioners. We contend that the social sciences can help facilitate conservation policies,actions andoutcomes
that are more legitimate, salient, robust and effective.
© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license
Conservation social science
Environmental social science
Conservation science
Human dimensions
Conservation biology
Environmental management
1. Conservationandthesocialsciences.................................................... 0
Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Corresponding author at: Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, 2202 Main Mall, V6T1Z4 Vancouver, BC, Canada.
E-mail addresses: (N.J. Bennett), (R. Roth), (S.C. Klain), (K. Chan),
(P. Christie), d.clark@usask.c (D.A. Clark), (G. Cullman), (D. Curran), (T.J. Durbin), (G. Epstein), (A. Greenberg), (M.P. Nelson), (J. Sandlos), (R. Stedman), (T.L. Teel), (R. Thomas), (D. Veríssimo), (C. Wyborn).
URL: (N.J. Bennett).
BIOC-06986; No of Pages 16
0006-3207/© 2016 The Authors. Published by Elsevier Ltd. This is an open access article under the CC BY-NC-ND license (
Contents lists available at ScienceDirect
Biological Conservation
journal homepage:
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
2. Thesocialsciences ............................................................ 0
3. Whataretheconservationsocialsciences? ................................................. 0
3.1. Classicconservationsocialsciences.................................................. 0
3.1.1. Environmentalanthropology................................................ 0
3.1.2. Environmentaleconomics.................................................. 0
3.1.3. Human-environmentgeography............................................... 0
3.1.4. Conservationandenvironmentalhistory........................................... 0
3.1.5. Politicalscienceandconservationgovernance......................................... 0
3.1.6. Environmentalandconservationpsychology......................................... 0
3.1.7. Environmentalsociology.................................................. 0
3.1.8. Environmentalphilosophyandethics ............................................ 0
3.2. Appliedconservationsocialsciences................................................. 0
3.2.1. Conservationanddevelopmentstudies............................................ 0
3.2.2. Environmentalandconservationlaw............................................. 0
3.2.3. Environmentalandconservationeducation.......................................... 0
3.2.4. Conservationmarketing................................................... 0
3.2.5. Humandimensionsofnaturalresourcemanagement ..................................... 0
3.2.6. Policysciences....................................................... 0
3.3. Interdisciplinaryconservationsocialsciences............................................. 0
3.3.1. Politicalecology...................................................... 0
3.3.2. Scienceandtechnologystudies............................................... 0
3.3.3. Environmentalhumanities................................................. 0
3.3.4. Ecologicaleconomics.................................................... 0
4. Thecontributionsofthesocialsciencestoconservation............................................ 0
5. Conclusion:engagingthesocialsciencestoimproveconservation....................................... 0
References................................................................... 0
1. Conservation and the social sciences
Conservation policy and practice can and should be guided by the
best available information and adequate conceptual frameworks. His-
torically, the natural sciences have tended to be the sole or primary in-
formation source used to guide conservation action. Yet, many
inuential conservation scientists have long recognized the importance
of both social and natural considerations for conservation. As the ecolo-
gist Aldo Leopold rst argued in 1935, the fusion of those who study
human, plant and animal communities will perhaps constitute the out-
standing advance of the present century(Leopold, 1966). Much later,
Michael Soulé's (1985) inuential article in Bioscience placed social sci-
ence under the synthetic discipline of conservation biology. Since then,
a broader understanding of conservation science has emerged that
more directly recognizes the role of a diverse set of natural, social, inter-
disciplinary and applied science traditions (Kareiva and Marvier, 2012).
Moreover, it has become widely recognized that engaging with the
human dimensions of conservation and environmental management
is needed to produce robust and effective conservation policies, actions
and outcomes (Bennett et al., 2016; de Snoo et al., 2013; Endter-Wada
et al., 1998; Mascia et al., 2003; Sandbrook et al., 2013).
The social sciences are one means through which researchers and
practitioners can come to understand the human dimensions of conser-
vation and natural resource management. Indeed, the social sciences
have been applied to understand diverse conservation and environ-
mental management problems including, but not limited to, water gov-
ernance (Armitage et al., 2012; Bakker, 2012; Curran, 2015), sheries
management (Heck et al., 2015; Symes and Hoefnagel, 2010; Wilson
et al., 2013), agriculture landscape management (de Snoo et al., 2013),
wildlife management (Clark et al., 2008; Gore et al., 2011; Teel and
Manfredo, 2010), avian conservation (Kingston, 2016; Veríssimo et al.,
2014), protected areas (Brockington and Wilkie, 2015; Ferraro and
Pressey, 2015; Lockwood, 2010), forest management (Agrawal and
Gupta, 2005; Allen et al., 2014; Ostrom and Nagendra, 2006; Stanturf
et al., 2012) and marine conservation planning (Aswani and Hamilton,
2004; Ban et al., 2013; Cornu et al., 2014). The social sciences have
also been used to research conservation and environmental manage-
ment at all scales from local (Bennett et al., 2010)toregional(Pietri et
al., 2015) and global (Fleischman et al., 2014). As the above examples
show, social science research on conservation is increasingly common-
place as are commentaries on the need for more attention to the
human dimensions of conservation. However, the integration of social
science insights into conservation practice still remains limited and
the eld of conservation social science remains nascent.
In this paper, we use the term conservation social science(Bennett
and Roth, 2015; Mascia et al., 2003; Newing et al., 2011) to refer to di-
verse traditions of using social science to understand and improve con-
servation policy, practice and outcomes. Yet, the terms environmental
social science(Cox, 2015; Moran, 2010; Vaccaro et al., 2010; Wellman
et al., 2014)andhuman dimensions of natural resource management
(Clark et al., 2008; Decker et al., 2012; Goreno and Brandon, 2006)can
be viewed assimilar and overlapping traditions. More recently, research
on social-ecological systems(Kittinger et al., 2012; Manfredo et al.,
2014a, 2014b) has also sought to integrate social and ecological consid-
erations into conservation science. These elds draw from diverse social
science theories and approaches. We also recognize the important con-
tribution of the environmental humanities, which provide and draw
from an overlapping set of theories and methods to guide conservation
(Holm et al., 2015; Sörlin, 2012).
Yet among many conservation scientists and practitioners, there re-
mains a lack of awareness aboutthe social sciences, including the differ-
ent disciplines, objectives, methods and outputs, and uncertainty about
the purpose of the conservation social sciences. We contend that this
knowledge void and confusion interferes with the conservation
community's ability to engage with the social sciences purposefully
and constructively i.e., in a manner that will guide conservation prac-
tice and improve conservation outcomes. Without greater knowledge of
the breadth of elds and contributions, the promise of the social sci-
ences to improve conservation will remain largely unfullled.
To encourage and facilitate greater engagement with the breadth of
the conservation social sciences and to help meet calls to mainstream
the social sciences in conservation practice (Bennett et al., 2016), this
review paper provides a succinct and accessible reference guide to and
overview of the conservation social sciences. The failure of conservation
social science to be mainstream, we argue, stems in part from a lack of
clearly articulated objectives and values associated with the social sci-
ences. This article corrects this problem by identifying the distinct con-
tributions that the social sciences can make to understanding and
2N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
improving conservation through a review of the classic, applied and in-
terdisciplinary conservation social sciences. We conclude with a discus-
sion of several key considerations for better engaging with the social
sciences to improve conservation.
2. The social sciences
Both classic and applied social sciences are used to study a diverse
set of social phenomena, social processes, or individual attributes
(Fig. 1). The classic social science disciplines include sociology, anthro-
pology, political science, geography, economics, history, and psychology.
Applied social science disciplines include education, communication
studies, development studies and law. Though not social sciences, the
arts and humanities are often drawn upon to critically analyze, represent
and shape social processes and phenomena, often applying a similar set
of theories and methods to make empirical observations. The social sci-
ence disciplines and the humanities focus on a variety of social phenom-
ena (e.g., markets, governance, politics, culture, demographics, ideas,
narratives, development, socio-economics, well-being, policy and law),
social processes (e.g., social organization, decision-making, educating,
marketing, local development, etc.) or individual attributes (e.g., values,
beliefs, knowledge, motivations, preferences, perceptions, and behav-
iors). We note that there is some overlap between these categories and
also that the example topics in Fig. 1 are illustrative rather than
When employing the socialsciences, it is important to recognize that
there are established bodies of social theory on all of the topics present-
ed in Fig. 1 that cannot be ignored. Different disciplinary traditions have
topical strengths for example, anthropology is to culture what political
science is to governance and it behooves researchers to draw on these
traditions when designing new research projects. For a variety of rea-
sons, which we will not explore here, some areas of social theory have
seen greater application to conservation problems, for example eco-
nomics (Balmford et al., 2002; Costanza et al., 1997; Tallis et al., 2008),
culture (Pilgrim and Pretty, 2010; Turner et al., 2003), behavior
(Clayton and Myers, 2015; Schultz, 2011), power and justice
(Brockington et al., 2008; Martin et al., 2013) and governance
(Armitage et al., 2012; Borrini-Feyerabend and Hill, 2015; Lockwood,
2010). In a recent article, Hicks et al. (2016b) proposed a suite of social
conceptsthat deserve more attention insustainability science, including
well-being, values, agency, and inequality. We concur, arguing that the
conservation science community would do well to engage with an even
broader set of social science theories and ideas than those conventional-
ly explored, including concepts and ideas from non-Western and non-
English language traditions.
Social science research can be conducted on issues at different scales
from the individual to local to global (Fig. 2). At different scales, social
scientists focus in on a variety of research topics or theories i.e., the so-
cial phenomena, social processes, and individual attributes in Fig. 1
and relevant units of analysis i.e., the subjects or objects of study. For
example, at the individual scale one might study perceptions, values, at-
titudes or behaviors of natural resource users (Bennett, 2016; Veríssimo
et al., 2014). At the global scale, social scientists mightstudy how narra-
tives or ideas are changing and inuencing international agreements -
through the study of policy documents, global meetings or even men-
tions and representations of ideas on social media (Ladle et al., 2016).
Social phenomena can also be studied at multiple scales simultaneously
e.g., social scientists might examine how changes in markets, policies
or demographics at macro or national scales inuence local decision-
making or socio-economic outcomes (Adger et al., 2008).
Social science researchers can have a number of objectives, including
to understand, describe, theorize, deconstruct, predict, imagine or plan
(see Moon and Blackman, 2014). First, social sciences can be used to un-
derstand and describe social phenomena, processes or individual attri-
butes under study by asking why or how something is occurring.
Second, similar to natural scientists, social scientists are also interested
in developing theory or testing pre-existing theories. For example, so-
cial scientists might ask What factors are associated with illegal activi-
ty?,What governance arrangements lead to effective conservation?
or When doesmoney motivate people to participate in conservation?
thus contributing to legal, governance or behavioral economics theo-
ry. Third, social scientists might seek to critically deconstruct a situation
Fig. 1. The social sciences, humanities and related topics of study.
3N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
or issue in order to construct more effective solutions (Toomey, 2016).
For example, there has been a long history of critical social science re-
search on racism, equity and environmental justice, in which the goal
was critique and emancipation from unacceptable social and environ-
mental conditions (Brechin et al., 2003; Gustavsson et al., 2014). Fourth,
social scientists can anticipate future trends through modeling and fore-
casting social and/or economic conditions. Finally, social science might
be employed to imagine desirable futures or to plan and identify
courses of action to improve policies, programs or social outcomes. Of
course, these different objectives of social science often overlap in
Additional important social science research design considerations
include: 1) whether and with whom to collaborate in the development
of the research, 2) what methods to use, and 3) how to analyze the data.
First, some social scientists might chooseto develop their research ques-
tions, methods and protocols in collaboration with groups, organiza-
tions or communities to ensure their project meets the needs of those
implicated and to facilitate action or policy change (Koster et al.,
2012). Other social scientists may elect to develop research projects
from a distance to maintain objectivity, when the focus is large-scale,
or if the aim is to contribute to generalizable theory. Second, an array
of methods is used to understand the social dimensions of conservation
at different scales (see Table 1 and Appendix A for longer explanations
of the different methods). We group social science methods under the
following categories: qualitative, quantitative, participatory, planning
and decision-making, evaluative, spatial, historical and meta-analytical
methods. We emphasize that all methods provide important and dis-
tinct insights, while also recognizing that all methods have benets
and drawbacks. To overcome the limitations of any one method, the
use of multiple or mixed methods is common in the social sciences as
is applying both qualitative and quantitative analytical techniques to
the same data (Bennett et al., 2014; Hicks and Cinner, 2014). Methodo-
logical triangulation conducting research using a variety of methods,
and focused on a diverse range of individuals and perspectives can
help to ensure the validity of results while also allowing differing per-
spectives on the same issue to emerge (Neuman, 2000). Third, the re-
sults of social science research can be analyzed in a deductive or
inductive fashion.This means that some research draws on existing the-
ory to guide research design and subsequently to make sense of data
(deductive reasoning) while other research starts with results and
works to construct theory from the data (inductive reasoning).
3. What are the conservation social sciences?
We now turn our attention to the conservation social sciences. In
particular, we ask: 1) What are the conservation social sciences?and
2) What is the value and contribution of the social sciences to conser-
vation?The role that the social sciences can play in guiding and im-
proving conservation is often misunderstood, which may limit both
engagement and uptake of results (Campbell, 2005). We posit that a
more clear understanding of the distinct objectives and values of the
Fig. 2. Illustrative examples of units and topics of social science research and analysis at different scales. Research can be done at single or multiple scales.
Table 1
The conservation social scientist's methods toolbox.
Categories of
Examples of social science methods
Qualitative Interviews, focus groups, participant observation,
discourse and textual analysis, document analysis, free
lists and pile sorts, ethnographies, photo elicitation,
institutional analysis, case studies, comparative analysis,
image analysis
Quantitative Surveys, economic valuation, cost-benet analysis,
modeling, lab and eld experiments, physiological
evaluation, scanner data gathering
Participatory Group facilitation methods (nominal groups, delphi
processes), community-based research (traditional
calendars, group ranking), participatory action research,
arts based methods (photovoice, participatory
Planning and
Back-casting, visioning, scenario planning,
structured-decision making, economic modeling
Evaluative Monitoring & evaluation (e.g., randomized control trials,
synthetic counterfactual, most signicant change, process
tracing, realistic evaluation), policy analysis, argument
analysis, case analysis, statutory interpretation
Spatial Geographic information systems (GIS), historical
geographic information systems (HGIS),
community-based mapping, 3-D mapping, transect walks
Historical Archival research, landscape histories, oral histories, HGIS
Meta-analytical Meta-analysis, systematic reviews, qualitative
comparative analysis
4N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
Table 2
Overview of the conservation social sciences.
Classic Conservation Social Science Fields
Discipline Denition and focus References
Environmental Anthropology
Environmental anthropology studies how culture mediates the relationships between
human societies and their physical, biotic, built, and cognitive environments. Sub-elds
focus on understanding past human environmental impacts, primate conservation and
human evolution, the relationship between language and the environment and the social
dynamics of conservation.
Overviews: (Dove and Carpenter, 2008; Orr et al.,
Examples: (Hardin and Remis, 2006;
Heckenberger et al., 2007; Maf, 2005; West,
Environmental Economics
Environmental economics focuses on the economic value of the environment, trade-offs
between use and protection, and the role of markets and regulations in managing pollution
and public goods. Environmental economics can help understand incentives and guide
decisions given conditions of scarcity.
Overviews: (Fisher et al., 2014; Kolstad, 2011)
Examples: (Balmford et al., 2002; Costanza et al.,
1997; Loomis et al., 2000)
Geography (Geography)
Human-environment geography emphasizes the spatial dimensions of
human-environment relationships across scales. Research can be in support of
management through characterizing existing land use or helping to inform boundary
demarcation or problematize management through spatially informed analysis of
park-people conicts and the implications of changing conservation strategies.
Overviews: (Moseley et al., 2013; Zimmerer,
Examples: (Ayers et al., 2012; Neumann, 2001;
Robbins et al., 2009)
Conservation and
Environmental History
Conservation history focuses on the origins and past processes associated with the
conservation movement, including successes and failures and race, class and gender
dimensions of conservation. Environmental history assesses environmental change
over short and long-term timeframes, including baseline ecological conditions and
wildlife populations.
Overviews: (Alagona et al., 2012; Cronon, 1993;
Szabó and Hédl, 2011)
Examples: (Madison, 2004; Schulte and
Mladenoff, 2001; Szabó and Hédl, 2011)
Environmental and
Conservation Governance
(Political Science)
Environmental governance is the study of the relationship between people andthe
environment as mediated by the formal and informal rules, policies and social norms
that inuence behaviors, actions and outcomes in different social and ecological contexts.
The focus can be on individual resources, local conservation initiatives or broad-scale
environmental management.
Overviews: (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006; Ostrom,
2011; Van Laerhoven and Ostrom, 2007)
Examples: (Coleman, 2009; Cox et al., 2010;
Wilson et al., 2013)
Environmental Philosophy and
Ethics (Philosophy)
Through formal reasoning, environmental ethics aims to understand how humans
ought to view themselves in relationship to the natural world, and what the
corresponding ethical implications of that conceptualization might be. Environmental
philosophy and ethics is a prescriptive, not descriptive, endeavor.
Overviews: (Jamieson, 2008; Jardins, 2012;
Nelson et al., 2015)
Examples: (Callicott, 2014; Moore and Nelson,
2011; Vucetich et al., 2015)
Environmental and
Conservation Psychology
Conservation psychology focuses on the study of human thought regarding the natural
environment and conservation-related topics and its inuence on behaviors. The focus
is on the individual, often emphasizing values, attitudes, beliefs, norms, or emotions.
Social psychology emphasizes the individual in the context of social groups.
Overviews: (Clayton and Myers, 2015; Manfredo,
2008; Saunders, 2003; Vaske and Manfredo,
Examples: (Clayton et al., 2013; Schultz, 2011;
Teel and Manfredo, 2010)
Environmental Sociology
Environmental sociology focuses on how local social contexts, social interactions and
networks and macro-level social structures inuence patterns of daily life as they relate
to the environment and individual, collective, and institutional conservation behaviors.
Environmental sociology also examines the inuence of the material and
socially-constructed environment on both resource-dependent and non-resource
dependent facets of society.
Overviews: (Battel, 1996; Bell and Ashwood,
2015; Dunlap and Catton, 1979; Mills, 1959)
Examples: (Brechin et al., 2002; Freudenburg,
1992; Radeloff et al., 2010; Stedman, 2012)
Applied Conservation Social Science Fields
Conservation Marketing Conservation marketing research focuses on understanding how to ethically apply
marketing strategies, exploring the effectiveness of different concepts and techniques
at inuencing target audiences towards a desired action, such as the adoption of more
environmentally sustainable behaviors.
Overviews: (McKenzie-Mohr et al., 2011;
Verissimo et al., 2011; Wright et al., 2015)
Examples: (DeWan et al., 2013; Martinez et al.,
2013; Saypanya et al., 2013)
Conservation and Development Conser vation and development research focuses o n the rela tionsh ip between
conservation and/or development processes and related environmental and
socio-economic outcomes in different social and ecological contexts at scales
ranging from local initiatives to the globe. It aims to understand the conditions
that lead to ecological or social success or failure and the features of successful
policies or projects.
Overviews: (Fisher et al., 2008; McShane and
Wells, 2004; Roe et al., 2012)
Examples: (Andam et al., 2010; Mascia et al.,
2010; Sachs et al., 2009; West et al., 2006)
Environmental and
Conservation Education
Environmental and conservation education aims to cultivate awareness,
ecological sensitivity, civic engagement and pro-environmental behaviors through a
foundation of knowledge, values and attitudes. Research in this area aims to
improve program development through better understanding target audience
characteristics and evaluating the effectiveness of conservation education and
outreach campaigns
Overviews: (Heimlich, 2010; Hungerford and
Volk, 1990; UNESCO UNEP, 1976)
Examples: (Betiang, 2010; Kuhar et al., 2010;
McDuff and Jacobson, 2000; Thomas et al., 2014)
Environmental and
Conservation Law
Environmental law involves rules of behavior, interaction, use and stewardship of the
environment. Law denes the scale at which conservation can occur, and the actors
who have a formal role in management. Research informs environmental law through
determining how to create socially appropriate and effective regulatory structures
and standards for the preservation and/or use of the natural environment, and feasible
mechanisms for the enforcement of those standards.
Overviews: (Boyd, 2011; Gillespie, 2012; Owley,
Examples: (Curran, 2015; Van Hoorick, 2014;
Walter et al., 2000; White, 2011)
Human Dimensions of
Human Dimensions (HD) is an evolving eld that evolved largely out of the North
American wildlife and resource management traditions. Historically, HD research
involved application of social sciences (mainly sociology and social psychology) to
address management information needs and to nd practical solutions. The eld is
becoming progressively more interdisciplinary and more broadly applied to a diversity
of environmental contexts and issues.
Overviews: (Decker et al., 2012; Heck et al., 2015;
Kittinger et al., 2012)
Examples: (Decker and Purdy, 1988; Hunt et al.,
2013; Manfredo et al., 2003)
Policy Sciences The eld of policy sciences offers a meta-theoretical framework for analysis of and
intervention in the conservation policy processes. This approach is applied to specicpolicy
problems, focusing on that problem's context rather than seeking generalizable solutions.
Overviews: (Ascher et al., 2010; Clark, 2011)
Examples: (Chamberlain et al., 2012; Clark et al.,
2008; Rutherford et al., 2009)
(continued on next page)
5N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
breadth of the conservation social sciences may increase their salience
and legitimacy among conservation professionals, for conservation
funders and in conservation practice (Bennett et al., 2016).
The conservation social sciences can be dened as a subset of the clas-
sic and applied social science disciplines that focus particularly on con-
servation or environmental management (Fig. 3). The classic
conservation social sciences which we dene as those that have
emerged from specic disciplines - include, for example, environmental
anthropology, environmental psychology, environmental economics,
environmental history, human-environment geography, environmental
sociology and environmental governance. Many ideas from the social
science disciplines feed into theapplied conservation socialsciences, in-
cluding conservation communication studies, conservation education,
conservation and development, science and technology studies,
and conservation law. There are also numerous interdisciplinary elds
political ecology, human ecology, ethno-ecology, social-ecological sys-
tems, human dimensions of conservation, ecological economics, etc. -
that draw on and bridge concepts from different social and/or natural
science disciplines. Finally, we recognize that the interdisciplinary envi-
ronmental humanities which often involve collaborations among
Table 2 (continued)
Classic Conservation Social Science Fields
Discipline Denition and focus References
Interdisciplinary Conservation Social Science Fields
Environmental humanities The environmental humanities emphasizes trans-disciplinarity, drawing from across the
humanities disciplines to generate insights and to critique ideas concerning the human
condition in order to (re)orient both thought and action. The eld pays close attention to
questions of what it means to be human (anthropos) on a rapidly changing planet (in the
Anthropocene) and to what constitutes responsible conservation.
Overviews: (Holm et al., 2015; Palsson et al.,
2013; Rose et al., 2012)
Examples: (Holm et al., 2013; Sörlin, 2012)
Political Ecology Political ecology investigates how processes of power (economic, social and political)
shape human-environment relationships. In the eld of conservation, this leads to
investigations of conict, displacement, state territorialization and unequal distribution
of costs and benets. The eld is focused on critique as a means to improve conservation
Overviews: (Adams and Hutton, 2007; Robbins,
Examples: (Brockington et al., 2008; Neumann,
2004; West, 2006)
Science and Technology Studies Science and technology studies (STS) focuses on the relationship between science, policy
and practice, for example in conservation. STS examines how social, political, and cultural
values shape scientic research and the co-evolutionary interactions between
knowledge, expertise and socio-political change.
Overviews: (Clark et al., 2016a, 2016b; Forsyth,
2003; Jasanoff et al., 1998)
Examples: (Beck et al., 2014; Leach and Scoones,
2013; Swedlow, 2012)
Ecological Economics Ecological economics seeks to understand the value of nature to society (in monetary and
other metrics) and assumes that the economy is embedded within ecosystems subject to
biophysical limits. This eld strives to understand and make progress towards
environmental sustainability, efcient allocation, equitable distribution and human
wellbeing in environmental policies and management decisions.
Overviews: (Common and Stagl, 2005; Daly and
Farley, 2011; Wilson and Howarth, 2002)
Examples: (Klain and Chan, 2012; Tallis et al., 2008)
Fig. 3. The conservation social sciences classic, interdisciplinary and applied traditions.
6N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
traditional humanities elds, the social sciences, the biophysical sci-
ences, and engineering can be applied to conservation problems.
Below, we provide brief overviews of 18 sub-elds of the conserva-
tion social sciences, that are fairly well-established or experiencing
rapid growth (see overview in Table 2). We preface this section by rec-
ognizing: a) while our goal in this review is to be as comprehensive as
possible, we cannot cover the entirety of conservation social sciences
in this manuscript; b) the distinctions between the categories classic, in-
terdisciplinary and applied are blurred (Fig. 3), but these categories re-
main a useful heuristic for understanding how the different sub-elds
emerged primarily from single disciplines, multiple disciplines or prag-
matic managerial needs; and c) often multiple social science elds are
drawn from or combined in the design of individual research projects.
3.1. Classic conservation social sciences
3.1.1. Environmental anthropology
Environmental anthropology investigates how culture mediates the
relationships between human societies and their physical, biotic, built,
and cognitive environments (Dove and Carpenter, 2008). The specialty
arose when anthropologists were confronted with widespread environ-
mental changes occurring in their study sites (Orr et al., 2015). Environ-
mental anthropology encompasses the full disciplinary breadth of
anthropology: archeology, biological, linguistic, and cultural anthropol-
ogy. In archeology, the main focus of environmental anthropology has
been uncovering the historical evidence of human impacts on the envi-
ronment to provide context for current impacts (Heckenberger et al.,
2007). Biological anthropologists have worked to advance primate con-
servation as well as to show the evolution of thehuman species in rela-
tionship to environmental change (Hardin and Remis, 2006). Linguistic
environmental anthropologists explore how languages reect their
speakers' biotic and physical environment (Maf,2005). Among other
topics, cultural anthropologists have revealed the complex social dy-
namics that can make conservation initiatives thrive or fail (West,
2006). Ethnography (including participant observation, interviews,
and other qualitative methods) is a major method of the specialty. His-
torically, anthropology's scale of analysis focused on small-scale com-
munities and the smallholder households that made up these
communities. But, starting in the 1990s, environmental anthropologists
increasingly made connections between local-scale dynamics and
broader political and economic forces (Orr et al., 2015).
3.1.2. Environmental economics
Environmental and natural resource economics can help understand
incentives and decisions given conditions of scarcity (Fisher et al., 2014;
Kolstad, 2011). Environmental economists address conservation issues
by applying neoclassical economic concepts of maximizing individual
satisfaction or well-being (i.e., utility) and rational choice theory (i.e.,
individuals have consistent preferences that drive social behavior) to
the management of natural resources and pollution. This eld uses
cost benet analysis to assess trade-offs between the present use and
potential depletion of natural resources for production on the one
hand, and the maintenance and future use of these resources on the
other. Environmental economics has provided support for protected
areas and other forms of conservation, most famously by valuing eco-
system services, often, but not always, in monetary terms (Balmford et
al., 2002; Costanza et al., 1997). Environmental economics research
can also strengthen arguments for other forms of environmental man-
agement, such as ecological restoration (Loomis et al., 2000). See also
the section later in the article that differentiates environmental eco-
nomics from the interdisciplinary eld of ecological economics.
3.1.3. Human-environment geography
Geography is a broad discipline encompassing the humanities, social
sciences and physical sciences. Human-environment geography, as
the sub-discipline most interested in conservation issues makes
contributions across these approaches including (but not limited to)
mapping and modeling land use patterns and conservation manage-
ment, interrogating the social and political implications of protected
area border demarcation and analyzing the changing tools of conserva-
tion funding and practice (Ayers et al., 2012; Moseley et al., 2013;
Zimmerer, 2006). Due to its breadth, geographers have much in com-
mon with many of the other disciplines and sub-disciplines reviewed
in this manuscript, however, the geographic perspective is unique in
its focus on the spatial organization of human-environment relation-
ships across scales. Drawing on a mix of qualitative (interviews, focus
groups, participatory methods) and quantitative (GIS, remote sensing,
surveys) human environment geographers have explored the spatial
dynamics of illicit resource use (Robbins et al., 2009), investigated the
social and ecological outcomesof conservation mechanisms with differ-
ent spatial qualities (Zimmerer, 2006, 2000) and drawn attention to
conservation as a spatial process (Neumann, 2001; Roth, 2008).
3.1.4. Conservation and environmental history
Environmental history offers enormous potential to inform the con-
temporary conservation movement. The eld has produced a large body
of literature on the origins and histories of conservation (Madison,
2004), noting successes but also managerial failures and socialinjustices
embedded within the movement (Jacoby, 2014; Loo, 2011). Historical
archival research can provide critical data on baseline wildlife popula-
tions or environmental conditions (Alagona et al., 2012; Rayburn and
Major, 2008; Schulte and Mladenoff, 2001; Szabó and Hédl, 2011). Envi-
ronmental historians have also developed powerful digital analytical
tools, especially historical geographic information systems(HGIS) tore-
construct historical landscapes, a potentially invaluable tool for restora-
tion initiatives (Bonnell and Fortin, 2014). Structural barriers to
collaboration between environmental historians and ecologists are
many, including contrasting thematic foundations (natural systems ver-
sus human agency) and methodological approaches (the hypothetico-
deductive model versus interpretative approaches to sources) (Pooley,
2013). But if conservation isin part an attempt topreserve and/or recov-
er what nature has been, environmental historians are well positioned
to assess historical ecological conditions, and provide some window
on the social and economic context that fostered ecological change
over time.
3.1.5. Political science and conservation governance
Political scientists have made major contributions to the theory and
practice of conservation by drawing upon multiple methods, including
case studies, models, experiments and statistical analysis (Poteete et
al., 2010; Young et al., 2006), to better understand the institutional di-
mensions of conservation. Political scientists adopt a problem orienta-
tion to consider how institutions (namely conservation policies,
formal and informal rules, and social norms) structure the incentives,
opportunities and constraints that actors face as they interact with the
environment and each other (Lemos and Agrawal, 2006; Ostrom,
2011; Van Laerhoven and Ostrom, 2007). Collectively research on con-
servation governance has highlighted theimportance of local participa-
tion, monitoring, and linkages between resource users, governments,
and other stakeholders as critical conditions for success across diverse
contexts (Armitageet al., 2012; Cox et al., 2010; Ostrom, 1990); contrib-
uting notably to the growth of community-based conservation and co-
management around the world. Although environmental governance
research has tended to emphasize problemsassociated with monitoring
the behavior of free-riders (Coleman, 2009; Rustagi et al., 2010)and
improving the t between rules and contexts (Epstein et al., 2015)at
small spatial scales; more recent research has turned to consider
questions about large-scale environmental problems and regional and
transboundary conservation governance (Fleischman et al., 2014;
Gruby and Basurto, 2014).
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conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
3.1.6. Environmental and conservation psychology
Psychology, and more specically social psychology that takes into
account one's social surroundings, has played an important role in ap-
plied conservation social science research (Clayton et al., 2013;
Clayton and Myers, 2015; Gifford, 2014; Manfredo, 2008; Saunders,
2003; Vaske and Manfredo, 2012). Its focus is on the individual, and ap-
plications have typically centered on the following key questions: What
are people's thoughts and behaviors regarding the natural environment
and conservation?; Why do people think and behave the way that they
do in that context?; and How can management actions be designed to
engender support, change behaviors and increase effectiveness? Prior
research has often emphasized individual values, attitudes, beliefs,
norms, and behaviors and employed a diversity of methods ranging
from quantitative surveys to more qualitative techniques such as inter-
views and focus groups. Contributions to conservation have included
anticipating people's responses to conservation issues and interven-
tions, determining more socially acceptable management actions,
informing communication and other attitude-behavior change strate-
gies, and understanding the basis for and address social conict
among different population segments and user groups. Promising new
directions in this area call for greater attention to non-cognitive (e.g.,
emotions) and broader cultural and societal-level (e.g., urbanization, in-
stitutions) inuences on human behavior (Manfredo et al., 2014a,
3.1.7. Environmental sociology
Sociology is concerned with what people do as members of a group
or when interacting with one another, systematic prediction of societal
behaviors and responses, and the logical and persistent patterns of reg-
ularity in social life (Mills, 1959). It engages with social contexts, em-
phasizing how people's lives are inuenced by society/social structure
and how they in turn reshape their society. Sociology studies social
facts (e.g., societal values, cultural norms, and social structures) rather
than individual-level explanations of behavior. For example, a sociolog-
ical analysis might engage the broader social drivers of conservation in
the face of land use pressure (Brechin et al., 2002), or the social drivers
of rapid land use changes themselves (Hicks et al., 2016a, 2016b;
Radeloff et al., 2010) as stemming from changes in pricing, regulatory
structure (Freudenburg, 1992), or inequality. These broader social fac-
tors enable or constrain the expectations, experience and behaviors of
people within communities. Environmental/natural resource sociology
in particular posits a causal role for the environment in shaping behav-
ior (Battel, 1996), views social and ecological systems as components of
an integrated community (Bell and Ashwood, 2015) and emphasizes
that humans are part of the natural world (Dunlap and Catton, 1979).
Until recently, sociological concepts and research have been used rela-
tively little in specic conservation management initiatives. This is per-
haps because much of sociology engages with the macro level forces
(e.g., inequality, globalization) that contribute to key problems in con-
servation, and since such forces are not easily managed, sociology is
sometimes seen as better at raising problems than solving them
(Stedman, 2012). Yet, application of basic sociological concepts - such
as power, class, social capital and social networks - to local and regional
conservation initiatives (Alexander and Armitage, 2015; Christie et al.,
2009; Hoelting et al., 2014) can yield important insights that will help
managers grapple with the complexity of conservation in rapidly
changing and fragmented landscapes.
3.1.8. Environmental philosophy and ethics
For decades environmental philosophers have been focused on two
entwined questions: 1. What parts of the world ought to be attributed
intrinsic value (that is, value beyond mere use or instrumental
value)?, and What arguments for moral inclusion ought to be most per-
suasive?In other words, what deserves direct moral standing, and why?
(Chan, 2011; Jamieson, 2008; Jardins, 2012). These efforts have revealed
intellectually interesting value taxonomies that should be of interest to
more empirically minded social scientists (Vucetich et al., 2015).
Employing conceptual and philosophical analysis, environmental phi-
losophers have also focused signicant efforts on a variety of topics of
interest to the larger environmental community: from the concept of
wilderness to the concept of sustainability (Callicott and Nelson, 1998;
Vucetich and Nelson, 2010), from the ethical dimensions of climate
change (Moore and Nelson, 2011) to the ethics of human population
control (Jardins, 2012; Nelson et al., 2015), from the ethics of hunting
and shing (List, 2013) to what constitutes ethical conservation policy
(Moore and Russell, 2009). Though philosophy and theoretical ethics
is largely a conceptual endeavor, environmental philosophers have
been successful at integrating and applying their work into conservation
more generally (Callicott, 2014; Moore and Nelson, 2011).
3.2. Applied conservation social sciences
3.2.1. Conservation and development studies
Research on conservation and development is concerned with the
relationship between conservation initiatives and environmental out-
comes on theone hand and development processes and socio-economic
outcomes on the other. Having emerged largely since the 1980s, during
a time when local development needs have been increasingly recog-
nized in conservation policy and when environmental concerns have
been simultaneously mainstreamed in development practice (Fisher et
al., 2008; Walpole and Wilder, 2008), this nascent eld is based on nor-
mative commitments to social equity and sustainable development. It is
a highly interdisciplinary eld that draws on the theories and methods
of development studies, geography, anthropology, sociology, econom-
ics, political science, as well as the natural sciences to answer pragmatic
policy oriented questions in different social and ecological contexts and
at local to global scales. Conservation and development researchers ex-
plore whether human development (e.g., poverty or wealth) enables or
undermines environmental outcomes (Cinner et al., 2009; Fisher and
Christopher, 2007), whether conservation initiatives produce harmful
or support benecial development outcomes (Andam et al., 2010;
Mascia et al., 2010; Roe et al., 2012), under what conditions win-win en-
vironmental and socio-economic outcomes are possible or where trade-
offs are required (Chan et al., 2007; McShane et al., 2011; Sachs et al.,
2009), and how to design and implement successful conservation and
development (e.g.,poverty reduction, sustainable livelihoods, payments
for ecosystem services, tourism) programmes (Bennett et al., 2012;
Blom et al., 2010; McShane and Wells, 2004; Spenceley, 2008).
3.2.2. Environmental and conservation law
Conservation law, as an enterprise and a eld of study, is concerned
with the legal frameworks and regulatory structures for the preserva-
tion and use of the natural environment (Owley, 2015). Laws can pro-
tect an ecological feature such as a watershed and allow its use
according to specied criteria, or can prohibit an activity and make it
an offence to do that activity unless a person obtains a license or other
permission (Sax, 2000). It also focuses on governance and administra-
tive structures for conservation (Van Hoorick, 2014), as well as the ef-
fectiveness of enforcement, licensing and permits to usethe
environment for a specic activity such as oil and gas extraction, and
the role of rights holders (private property rights, Aboriginal/Indian
rights) in conservation (Borrows, 2010; Sax, 2011) A hallmark of law
is dening the scale at which conservation can occur, and the actors
who have a formal role in decision-making for environmental manage-
ment (Curran, 2015). The study of conservation law often critically an-
alyzes why the law has failed to protect or manage ecological health
(Boyd, 2011), particularly law's inability to enable adaptation (Craig
and Ruhl, 2014) and effective enforcement (White, 2011). Using textual
and case analysis, conservation law uncovers the political ecology of
conservation and makes recommendations for law reform to improve
the use of science, public participation, Indigenous knowledge and
8N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
other factors in decision-making about the environment (Gillespie,
3.2.3. Environmental and conservation education
Conservation education strives to develop awareness and concern
among the world's population forthe environment while facilitating de-
velopment of knowledge, skills, attitudes, motivations andcommitment
to seek solutions for environmental problems through individual and
collective action (UNESCO UNEP, 1976). Given its application globally,
the context and setting for issues addressed by conservation education
is broad, and program formats range from free-choice learning
(Dierking and Falk, 1994; Falk, 2005), to more structured initiatives
that take place within institutions (Salata and Ostergren, 2010). Social
science research can inform all stages of conservation education pro-
gram development and implementation in order to optimize success
in the form of positive outcomes for the environment, for local groups
or communities and for society. At the outset of a conservation educa-
tion initiative, social science frameworks can contribute to a better
understanding of target audience cognitions (e.g., values, attitudes and
norms (Teel and Manfredo, 2010; Thomas et al., 2014)), existing knowl-
edge, and barriers and perceived ability to take action to solve environ-
mental issues (Hungerford and Volk,1990). Social science can also form
the foundation for rigorous evaluation of outcomes and impacts to en-
sure program objectives were met (Heimlich, 2010; Thomas, 2016)by
focusing on, for example, changes in pro-environmental human behav-
ior, increased civic engagement, or changes in thinkingtowards conser-
vation issues, in addition to ecological indicators of program success
(Betiang, 2010; Kuhar et al., 2010; McDuff and Jacobson, 2000).
3.2.4. Conservation marketing
Conservation marketing adapts marketing strategies, concepts and
techniques to inuence the target audience towards the adoption of
more sustainable behaviors that benets the individual as well as socie-
ty (Wright et al., 2015). The eld of research emphasizes the center
stage role of the target audience, making sure that the values, percep-
tions and social norms of this group underpin any marketing campaign
(Verissimo et al., 2011). Conservation marketers thus focus on building
abenets exchange where the target audience perceives benets to ex-
ceed the costs associated with adopting the new behavior (McKenzie-
Mohr et al., 2011). Conservation marketing researchers use both quali-
tative and quantitative research methods, with an emphasis on inter-
views, surveys, focus groups, eld experiments and observation of
actual behavior (DeWan et al., 2013; Martinez et al., 2013; Saypanya
et al., 2013). These methods are used not only to characterize and un-
derstand the target audience and any barriers to behavior adoption
but also to pre-test multiple alternative marketing strategies, dene
the benet exchange to be proposed and evaluate the impact of the
marketing effort (DeWan et al., 2013; Martinez et al., 2013; Saypanya
et al., 2013). Given that it has historically been a practitioner-lead
eld, conservation marketers can also play an important role across
the behavioral and conservation sciences by bridging the gap between
knowledge produced in academia and its practical application in the
3.2.5. Human dimensions of natural resource management
Because environmental issues are usually dened in biophysical
terms, human dimensionshas become a useful bridging term across
disciplines and with non-specialist audiences (Jacobson and Duff,
1998). However, human dimensions of natural resource management
(HDNRM) research also remains the recognized label for an interdisci-
plinary approach to conservation social science that aims to inform
and improve the management of specic natural resources (Decker et
al., 2012). HDNRM is most prominent in wildlife conservation where it
now has its own journal (Human Dimensions of Wildlife,Taylor&
Francis), began by applying and adapting quantitative sociological ap-
proaches (Decker et al., 2012), and developed specic conceptual
frameworks and ways to measure them, e.g. wildlife stakeholder ac-
ceptance capacity(Decker and Purdy, 1988)andthepotential for con-
ict index(Manfredo et al., 2003). However, HDNRM research is also
becomingan established approach for investigatingconservation of ma-
rine ecosystems (Charles and Wilson, 2009; Kittinger et al., 2011), sh-
eries (Heck et al., 2016; Hunt et al., 2013), forests (Flint et al., 2008;
Naughton-Treves and Weber, 2001; Skole et al., 1994), and- most gen-
erally- global environmental change (Janssen and Ostrom, 2006).
3.2.6. Policy sciences
Originating in legal jurisprudence literature, the policy sciences ap-
proach has found a ready audience among conservationists seeking to
understand and ameliorate conservation controversies (Clark et al.,
2016a, 2016b; Edwards and Gibeau, 2013; Gibeau, 2012) As a sub-
eld of policy scholarship the conservation-focused policy sciences are
distinctive for three specic features: 1. methodological exibility, 2.
an orientation towards carefully dening the problemat hand, and 3. at-
tention to the social and ecological context that shapes situations (Clark,
2011). The eld provides a meta-theoretical framework for analysis of
and intervention in policy processes which can be used by researchers
and practitioners alike (Ascher et al., 2010; Clark, 2011). That frame-
work breaks down policy processes into discrete components, allowing
precise diagnosis of what's going wrong and enabling interventions to
be designed by integrating relevant information about all dimensions
of the problem at hand. Comprehensive applications have focused on
large carnivore conservation in the North American west
(Chamberlain et al., 2012; Clark and Rutherford, 2014; Clark et al.,
2005; Rutherford et al., 2009) and endangered species recovery (Clark,
3.3. Interdisciplinary conservation social sciences
3.3.1. Political ecology
Political Ecology is an interdisciplinary approach characterized by a
focus on how processes of power shape human-environment relation-
ships across scales. While diverse in method and subject area, propo-
nents of political ecology are united in their general dissatisfaction
with business as usual approaches to conservation and a desire to see
more socially equitable forms of environmental governance (Robbins,
2011). Scholars in this eld are particularly concerned about conserva-
tion policy that excludes people (Adams and Hutton, 2007; Neumann,
2004) and have made contributions to understanding the differential
impacts of conservation projects (Holmes and Cavanagh, 2016;
Stevens, 2014) examined the rationales underlying particular conserva-
tion strategies (Corson et al., 2014), analyzed instances of displacement
and violence in the name of conservation (Brockington and Igoe, 2006;
Lunstrum, 2014) and critically interrogated new forms of conservation
governance and their relationship to global capitalism (Brockington et
al., 2008; Büscher and Arsel, 2012). Political ecology research makes fre-
quent use of case studies to illustrate regional or global trends, and em-
ploys a variety of mostly qualitative (e.g.: ethnography, interviews,
participatory methods, discourse analysis) but also quantitative
methods (e.g.: livelihood surveys).
3.3.2. Science and technology studies
Science and technology studies (STS) focuses on the role of scientic
knowledge and expertise in social and policy change. Operating at any
scale in which scientic research is conducted from the gene to the
global climate system STS illustrates how scienticknowledgereects
a particular time, place, and set of values, and considers how relation-
ships between science, policy and society mutually reinforce each
other (known as co-production)(Jasanoff et al., 1998). STS research
both critiques and hopes to improve these relationships and it provides
insights into the ways in which scientic knowledge is used (or not) to
support social and policy change (Clark et al., 2016a, 2016b; Forsyth,
2003; Webster, 2016). STS research is trans-disciplinary, utilizing
9N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
qualitative and quantitative methods,rich descriptiveanalysis and com-
parative case studies. STS examines diverse topics, including how scien-
tic concepts like old growthare constructed (Swedlow, 2012), how
modes of research privilege certain governance arrangements (Leach
and Scoones, 2013), or comparing the capacity for different structures
of global governance to integrate scientic and other types of knowl-
edge (Beck et al., 2014). STS provides insight into the value of different
knowledge and the means through which to integrate non-academic
knowledge into conservation science and practice (Wyborn, 2015a).
These insights can inform the design of research, conservation pro-
grams, decision-making processes, and policy to be more inclusive of di-
verse perspectives. Through constructive critique and theoretically
informed guidance, STS can play a vital role in connecting conservation
science with conservation outcomes.
3.3.3. Environmental humanities
The environmental humanities is a trans-disciplinary eld of re-
search and practice that emphasizes methodological and conceptual in-
novation among humanities scholars concerned with environmental
problems and that encourages collaborations among the human, social,
engineering, and natural sciences (Bergthaller et al., 2014; Holm et al.,
2015, 2013; Palsson et al., 2013; Rose et al., 2012; Sörlin, 2012). Within
conservation, a key contribution has been the eld's emphasis on pro-
ducing insights about the human-in-its-environment that can better
orient thought and action, especially in situations of increased uncer-
tainty, ambiguity, rapid change, and ethical ambivalence where stan-
dard methods of knowing and acting become less desirable or
effective (Bergthaller et al., 2014). To this end, environmental humani-
ties scholars have shown that the concepts conservation uses to under-
stand and shape the world have cultural histories, political
consequences and ecological impacts that need to be understood by re-
sponsible environmental researchers and practitioners (Cronon, 1996;
Pilgrim and Pretty, 2010) Therefore, the eld tends to focus on the re-
nement and creation of concepts and insights that better reect what
it means to be human (anthropos) as causal agent and in responding
to local, regional, and global ecological change (the Anthropocene).
3.3.4. Ecological economics
In contrast to environmental economics, ecological economics con-
siders the economy as a subsystem of ecosystems and so subject to bio-
physical limits, including the imperfect substitutability of human-made
capital for natural capital. Human-made capitalphysical infrastructure
and knowledgeis differentiated from natural capital, dened as the
stock of environmental assets that provides a ow of ecosystem goods
and services (e.g., a forest that lters water, provides timber and habitat
for other species) (van den Bergh, 2001). Environmental economics as-
sumes that human-made capital is substitutable for natural capital (e.g.,
a water ltration plant can be substituted for a forested watershed in
providing water quality) while ecological economics highlights imper-
fections in this substitutability (e.g., a water ltration plant will not pro-
vide the biodiversity and other benets that a forested watershed
provides). Using more diverse approaches to understanding the inter-
dependence of economies and ecosystems (Common and Stagl, 2005;
Daly and Farley, 2011; Wilson and Howarth, 2002), ecological econom-
ics refutes the neoclassical assumption of perpetual economic growth in
anite biosphere. Ecological economics also questions the commensu-
rability of environmental values by identifying types of values that can-
not be appropriately expressed in monetary terms (e.g., the spiritual
value of a sacred grove is incommensurate with economic value of the
grove converted to timber). Unlike environmental economics, ecologi-
cal economics places distributive justice (denedas a socially just distri-
bution of goods, including ecosystem services) as a fundamental
normative principle not reducible to the sum of individual utilities. Fi-
nally, ecological economics highlights limits to the substitutability be-
tween human-made and natural capital by dening the concept of
critical natural capitalas an irreversible threshold below which an
ecosystem ceases to function (Faber, 2008). Ecological valuations can
ll strategic gaps in conventional economic analyses by highlighting
non-monetary dimensions of value (Klain and Chan, 2012). Ecological
economics can help identify policies, management systems, incentive
structures and development options that are more sustainable
biophysically, more responsive to ecological complexity, and more con-
ducive to long-term human well-being (Power, 2001).
4. The contributions of the social sciences to conservation
What is the value and contribution of the social sciences to conserva-
tion? The answer to this question may not havebeen articulated clearly
and succinctly enough for broad engagement with the conservation so-
cial sciences. This may be one reason that the role of social science is
often misunderstood and that social scientists are often pegged as im-
plementers and educators (Bennett et al., 2016; Viseu, 2015). The pre-
dominant understanding of the value and contribution of the
conservation social sciences is that they are instrumental to achieving
effective conservation. This may be true; however, there are additional
rationales for the use of social sciences in conservation. For example,
Sandbrook et al. (2013) suggest that social science research can be ei-
ther for conservation or on conservation. Yet, we need to move beyond
this dichotomy towards a more nuanced understanding of the values
and contributions of the conservation social sciences. Drawing on this
review and our collective understanding of the various conservation so-
cial sciences, we articulate ten propositions regarding the value and
contributions of the social sciences to conservation (Box 1).
Broadly, the conservation social sciences can be valuable for descrip-
tive, diagnostic, disruptive, reexive, generative, innovative, or instru-
mental reasons. Below, we provide examples of research projects that
might contribute to conservation in each of these ways. First, the social
sciencescan be used to document and describe the diversity of conserva-
tion practices, including historic and current examples (Berkes, 1999;
Cinner and Aswani, 2007; Colding and Folke, 2001; Jacquet et al.,
Box 1
The value and contributions of the conservation social sciences.
What are the values and contributions of the social
sciences to conservation?
The conservation social sciences can be valuable to conservation for descriptive,
diagnostic, disruptive, reexive, generative, innovative, or instrumental reasons.
1. Documenting and increasing understanding of the diversity of ways in which
conservation occurs in different contexts (descriptive value)
2. Facilitating learning about and knowledge of conservation challenges, practices
and processes as well as successes or failures (descriptive or diagnostic value)
3. Aiding in proactive consideration of and reactive rethinking about why and
how conservation does or should occur (diagnostic, disruptive or reexive
4. Interrogating the underlying assumptions, concepts and models of conserva-
tion (disruptive or reexive value)
5. Allowing for imagination, innovation and creation of novel or desirable
concepts, practices or models for conservation (generative or innovative
6. Improving conservation management practices and governance processes,
including understanding how to better engage different stakeholders
(instrumental value: to better processes)
7. Enabling planning and design of conservation initiatives that match different
social, economic, cultural and governance contexts and that are socially ac-
ceptable (generative, innovative or instrumental value: to better conservation
design and models)
8. Helping to justify and normalize conservation actions (instrumental value: to
conservation action)
9. Increasing the likelihood of more ecologically effective conservation planning
and management in different social, economic and political contexts (instru-
mental value: to ecological outcomes)
10. Facilitating more socially equitable and just conservation processes and
outcomes (instrumental value: to social outcomes)
10 N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
2011), as well as conservation planning, decision-making and gover-
nance processes (Borrini-Feyerabend and Hill, 2015; Flannery et al.,
2015; Osmond et al., 2010). Second, social science can help to diagnose
why conservation is succeeding or failing (Bennett and Dearden,
2014; Cinner et al., 2016; Cullman, 2015), what scales are appropriate
for different conservation processes and projects (Levine, 2007;
Wyborn and Bixler, 2013) and how different processes (e.g., collabora-
tion or integration of science) might fail as a result of the interactions
between groups (Gray, 2010; Walley, 2002; Wyborn, 2015b).
Third, the insights provided by social science can be disruptive for
example, the critical social sciences can be challenging when they reveal
inequities, power imbalances or systemic issues at the scale of specic
conservation initiatives or in global conservation organizations
(Adams and Hutton, 2007; Brockington et al., 2008; Dowie, 2009).
Fourth, we note here the reexive value of both the social sciences and
the environmental humanities including history and philosophy -
which allow us to explore the history and underlying assumptions of
conservation (Adams, 2004; Cronon, 1996; Jacoby, 2014) and what con-
stitutes ethical or responsible conservation actions (Moore and Russell,
2009; Moore and Nelson, 2011). The socialsciences can also enableus to
examine the way that different cultures or groups might think about na-
ture or conservation and the implications for practice (Augustine and
Dearden, 2014; Berkes and Turner, 2006; Christie, 2011).
Fifth, the lessons learned from examining the contexts, processes,
models and ways of thinking about conservation can be generative,pro-
ducing innovative ways of thinking about or planning conservation. An-
thropological studies and the humanities can guide us to think about
new and more appropriate models for conservation for example,
that include culture (Gavin et al., 2015; Pilgrim and Pretty, 2010)or
ways of thinking about the future (Murphy et al., 2016). Similarly, the
arts can help us to think in new ways about old sustainability problems
(Schefferet al., 2015). Innovations, both in science (e.g., novel methods)
and the planning of conservation, are enabled by constantly learning
about what makes conservation work (Ban et al., 2013; Moon et al.,
Finally, and largely as a result of the other values and contributions,
the social sciences can be instrumental to conservation in 5 ways - they
can 1) improve management practices and governance processes, 2)
enable better conservation designs and models, 3) justify conservation
actions, 4) help to achieve ecological outcomes and 5) facilitate more
socially equitable processes and outcomes. The ongoing monitoring
and evaluation of social and governance considerations is key to im-
proving the effectiveness of management practices and quality and le-
gitimacy of governance processes (Borrini-Feyerabend et al., 2013;
Hockingset al., 2006; Lockwood, 2010; Pomeroy et al., 2004), for exam-
ple, through determining the social or governance determinants of suc-
cess or failure (Cinner et al., 2016; Cox et al., 2010). Better incorporation
of social, economic, economic, cultural and governance considerations
can facilitate conservation planning (Ban et al., 2013; Cornu et al.,
2014; Gray et al., 2010) and can produce initiatives that are better
matched to local contexts (Nursey-Bray, 2011), that are more socially
acceptable (Bennett, 2016) or that have more democratic decision-
making or enhanced governance (Lockwood et al., 2010; Reed, 2008).
Ecological economics, through documenting the economic and societal
values of nature, can help to justify and even normalize the need to
take conservation or restorative action (Balmford et al., 2002; Loomis
et al., 2000). By helping to identify management actions that are more
or less efcient or effective, social science might help to facilitate better
ecological outcomes (Clayton and Myers, 2015; Roman et al., 2007;
Saypanya et al., 2013). Anthropologists, geographers, economists and
development scholars have studied the social impacts of protected
areas and the means to overcome negative consequences (Mascia et
al., 2010; McShane and Wells, 2004; Oldekop et al., 2015; West et al.,
2006), which could be applied to improve social outcomes. Integrating
social and ecological data can help identify trade-offs and optimal solu-
tions for both humans and nature (Chan et al., 2007; Sala et al., 2002).
We acknowledge here that there is also a broader and less directly
applicable value of studying humans in the context of conservation. Be-
yond providing critical insights into how to improve conservation prac-
tice, policies or outcomes, the conservation social sciences can also
contribute to advancing knowledge on concerns that are foundational
to the social sciences e.g., to our understanding of human nature, so-
cial organization and human-environment relations via analysis of po-
litical, social and economic processes.
The list of values and contributions of the conservation social
sciences in Box 1 might be framed as objectives - providing a useful ref-
erence for those articulating the purpose of and designing conservation
social science research projects. Clearly stating the rationale for
employing conservation social sciences would also serve as a guide to
monitor whether theobjectives have beenachieved at the end of apro-
ject. We encourage this. Yet we recognize that, while these types of
values and objectives are often stated in publications, there is still a
need to strengthen the proof of conceptfor the conservation social sci-
ences. By this we mean that there is a need to document real-world case
studies and examplesof where and how each of the conservation social
science elds has actually helped to achieve the types of idealized con-
tributions that we have identied here. In particular, we highlight the
need to demonstrate case studies where critical social science analysis
has been used to construct novel conservation solutions or improve
practices. Documentation of failed attempts to integrate social science
into conservation would also be instructive, particularly when accom-
panied by anexploration of why these attempts were unsuccessful. Fur-
thermore, we need to identify how the results of the conservation social
sciences have been and can be communicated and incorporated into
conservation decision-making in order to make real world change and
5. Conclusion: engaging the social sciences to improve conservation
The conservation social sciences are not an optional complementbut
rather a vital component, along with the natural sciences, for effective
conservation decision-making during planning, implementation and
management. Integrating the social and natural sciences will ensure
that these processes are indeed guided by the best available informa-
tion. In this paper, our objective has been to clarify the role and solidify
the rationale for engaging with the social sciences in conservation. We
aim to increase knowledge and inspire uptake of the social sciences in
order to increase their impact on conservation policy andpractice. How-
ever, we recognize that designing and implementing conservation so-
cial science projects and communications strategies that will enable
real improvements in conservation practices or outcomes is not a
straightforward task. In closure, we make three broad points below.
First, there is a need for greater knowledge of and acknowledgement
of the breadth of the conservation social sciences among the conserva-
tion science and practitioner communities including the various disci-
plines, theories and topics of study, scales and units of analysis, and
research design considerations (i.e., level of collaboration, research
methods, analytical approach, means of communicating results)
reviewed in this paper. In particular, we highlight the need to engage
with a greater array of social science elds and theories than those
that typically receive attention in conservation. We also re-emphasize
the need to recognize the benets offered by diverse methods and ap-
proaches to analysis. For example, not all human dimensions consider-
ations are amenable to quantitative methods, Big Data analyses or
integration into predictive models. Qualitative approaches to research
can provide distinct insights and increase our understanding of how to
improve conservation. Practically, this means that it can be worthwhile
or necessary to draw on multiple social science elds and methods si-
multaneously in research projects focused on the human dimensions
of conservation.
Second, for social science to have real and tangible impacts on con-
servation practice, those engaging with or employing conservation
11N.J. Bennett et al. / Biological Conservation xxx (2016) xxxxxx
Please cite this article as: Bennett, N.J., et al., Conservation social science: Understanding and integrating human dimensions to improve
conservation, Biological Conservation (2016),
social science need to pay greater attention to lessons from the
extensive literature on a) interdisciplinary research, b) knowledge co-
production, c) the science-policy interface, and d) science communica-
tion. For example, writing on effective interdisciplinary research and
knowledge co-production emphasizes the need to take a problem-
based approach, to incorporate social scientists into projects and
teams at all stages, to develop shared knowledge of the different areas
of expertise and to co-develop research objectives, methods and out-
puts (Bennett et al., 2016; Campbell, 2005; Turner et al., 2016; Viseu,
2015). To improve the link between social science and conservation
policy, researchers need to clearly identify management or policy impli-
cations of research (Game et al., 2015) and consider how to ensure the
salience, credibility and legitimacy of results (Cash et al., 2003; Cook et
al., 2013). Science communicators might urge social scientists to com-
municate the results of their research more strategically and in diverse
formats and to disseminate their results through a wider array of
media in order to have a greater impact (Baron, 2010).
We would encourage conservation social scientists to explore the
array of possible formats in which they might present their research
and to consider communicating via a wider variety of outputs to reach
intended audiences (Fig. 4). Formats for presenting social science re-
sults might include: textual (e.g., case study descriptions, narrative ac-
counts, lists of best practices), numerical (e.g., tallies, valuations,
graphs, statistics), visual (e.g., charts, maps, models), auditory (e.g., pre-
sentations, interviews, music), artistic (e.g., videos, photographs, draw-
ings or paintings, dance) and even experiential (e.g., experiential
learning, citizen science, guided or facilitated journeys). Outputs can in-
clude the typical academic venues, such as journal articles, reports and
conference presentations, but the impact of social science research on
conservation might be augmented when additional venues are used.
These might include writing manuals or policy briefs, connecting with
media (e.g., print, radio, TV), doing public presentations (e.g., in com-
munities, to the general public, to youth), presenting results in alterna-
tive formats (e.g., documentaries, art shows, blog posts), or engaging in
advocacy work.
Finally, we highlight a need for broader knowledge among conserva-
tion funders and practitioners of the diversity of ways that the social sci-
ences can contribute to improving both the ways that conservation
occurs and the outcomes of conservation. In this paper, we articulate
ten contributions of the conservation social sciences that align with de-
scriptive, diagnostic, disruptive, reexive, generative, innovative, or in-
strumental values (Box 1). Ignoring the diverse insights and
contributions of the social sciences will undermine the acceptability
and effectiveness of conservation. At worst, it may even lead to conict
and active opposition to conservation initiatives at all scales from local
communities to global conservation meetings. In contrast, truly heeding
and integrating the various insights and lessonsoffered by the social sci-
ences about the human dimensions of environmental issues will lead to
an improved conservation. On a rapidly changing and increasingly
crowded planet, the legitimacy, saliency, robustness and effectiveness
of conservation decisions and actions will increasingly depend on
rapid social learning and institutional adaptation based on multiple
types of knowledge.
Supplementary data to this article, including a review of social sci-
ence methods (Appendix A) and of the sub-elds of conservation social
science (Appendix B), can be found online at
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