Why social research matters

Despite efforts to integrate social science into conservation research, the role of social research in conservation remains a major source of misunderstanding. In a new paper called ‘Social Research and Biodiversity Conservation’ published this week in Conservation Biology, UNEP-WCMC staff member Chris Sandbrook and his co-authors seek to contribute to better interdisciplinary communication and understanding. They describe two different ways in which conservation social science is framed: research for conservation and research on conservation.

Social research for conservation seeks to increase understanding of human society in order to understand why, how and when impacts on nature and biodiversity occur and what motivates people to engage in activities that harm or promote the conservation of biodiversity. Social research on conservation does not necessarily share the underlying mission to contribute to biodiversity conservation; rather, it studies the conservation movement itself as a social phenomenon. Those working within conservation may not think of themselves as interesting to study, but for many social scientists the motivations, practices, and partnerships of conservation are legitimate topics of research, as are the wider structural contexts that shape conservation practice.

Social research on conservation may appear to offer less that is directly useful to conservation, and at times it can be highly critical of its aims, methods, and effects or even opposed to it in principle. However, the paper argues that research on conservation has an important role to play because it helps conservationists to understand themselves as a community with particular interests, habits and characteristics. Furthermore, it helps conservationists to understand the social, political and economic conditions in which they operate and the effects of their actions.

This paper will help researchers, practitioners and activists in debates about conservation understand what others do and why they do it, in the process making it easier for them to argue about the right things.