A Place for Social Science in Conservation

Tourists explore Yosemite National Park, enjoying the results of social research into park experiences. Credit: Pixaba

We talk a lot about “conservation management”. What are the best ways to protect orcas? How should salmon stocks be managed for sustainability? Where is the best place to put a protected area? While the focus of conservation questions like these are to conserve some sort of natural resource, so it might seem like natural science is the best way to inform this management. However, the answers really lie in the answers lie in the actions and behaviors of people. In reality, the majority of conservation practices and policies are focused on managing people–for the benefit of conservation. So if you want to be effective at conservation, you have to understand people and the human dimensions associated with whatever it is you are trying to conserve. This is where the social sciences come in.

Social sciences traditionally have included disciplines like anthropology, archaeology, political science, communications, psychology, and sociology. Broadly speaking, they focus on human society and social relationships. In the field of conservation biology, social sciences were not really recognized until the late 20th century; thus, it is still developing and emerging. Traditionally, there was always a divide and even rivalry between natural sciences and social sciences. However, acknowledgement of social science and its integration into conservation efforts has been seen by major institutions. For example, NOAA created social indicators to assess the vulnerability of fishing communities so they can make better management decisions. The National Parks Service conducts social research to learn how visitors can enjoy parks the most and keep returning. Big nonprofit conservation organizations often study public wildlife attitudes so they can strategically design their campaigns.

Figure 1: Conservation social science disciplines adopted from Bennett et al. 2017

Specific, positive outcomes from the integration of social and natural sciences are growing. Social science methods have been essential in collecting traditional ecological knowledge that has been used to help better understand changes in animal populations like whales and caribou as well as the impacts of climate change on weather, wildlife, and vegetation. Social science has been used to understand complex markets and supply chains to combat the illegal poaching of animals like  turtles, abalone, and tigers. Social science can even be used to understand the complex politics that are barriers to  the success of conservation initiatives to protect species like the vaquita.

As social sciences continue to prove themselves in the conservation realm, new disciplines are being defined. Recently, researchers illuminated 20 different disciplines that make up conservation social science (Figure 1). As conservation issues continue take center stage in the 21st century, we will can expect see more and more social sciences being used to help solve these pressing issues.


Every Thursday through April and May, Currents is covering the past, present, and future of the conservation movement in the U.S. and beyond. This is the fourth article in the series, read the first article here, the second here, and the third here.