3 Fundamental Challenges to Teaching Environmental Studies and How to Overcome Them* (Part 2: Social Change)

Part 2 of 3: Poor Understanding of Social Change

What if I asked you to envision what a “better,” more “sustainable” society looks like. What do you see?

Now imagine asking your students that question. What do they say?

The book Creating a Sustainable and Desirable Future catalogs a long list of qualities global thought leaders associate with a sustainable society. Among them are happiness, psychological well-being, equality, a strong nature-based economy, zero waste, wisdom, local use of local intelligence, new norms, less consumerism, values-based solutions, and more.

There’s sure to be some overlap among these and the characteristics of the better worlds in your and your students’ visions.

The World We Want, and Need

In addition to those aspirational visions, we have some clear mandates — things that must change in order to remain within the boundaries of a habitable world. Stabilizing the climate, reversing soil degradation, slowing biodiversity loss are but a few examples.

What’s great about the visioning process is that, with permission to focus on the good things we want, it feels fun and exciting. In contrast, figuring out how to make the needed and desired changes feels much harder. Dreaming is easier than doing, but do we must. Business as usual, we are assured, spells certain disaster.

Our situation calls for radical and immediate societal transformation. Taking action to avert the worst of potential climate disasters, for instance, entails sweeping changes in economic, political, and other social systems. Journalist Brentin Mock (2015) summed it up nicely, saying: “want to fix the climate? first, we have to change everything.”

But the reality is that change is coming, ready or not.

Doing nothing puts us on a path to massive unplanned changes, leaving us to react to crises, and whatever circumstances their unfolding brings.

This is why the theme of change figures prominently in sustainability and environmental studies and science (ESS) programs. Not only do we want to understand the socio-environmental systems we participate in and depend on, we want to be able to use that understanding to address and prevent problems, and ideally to help make things better.

But How Do We Get There?

The problem is that, while experts typically have a lot to say about what should be done, they have much less to offer when it comes to the how.

With regard to a viable theory that can guide us in making the much-touted preemptive social transformation, it’s been observed that “we really don’t have one” (Brulle 2012).

Despite a great deal of earnest scholarship, we lack a general theory of social change that is empirically grounded, widely recognized, and commonly accepted as such. We have, rather, an agglomeration of theories — sometimes made explicit in teaching and research, more often not — which decidedly do not add up to a coherent understanding of social change.

This helps explain why even educational programs most strongly devoted to understanding and addressing socio-environmental problems offer students visions of a sustainable future, but without a systematic means of figuring out how to get there.

Without a basis for comparing and evaluating competing theories, teachers and students alike are left to find their own way. The results are “cobbled-together notions of social change that manifest themselves as simplistic and counterproductive juxtapositions” (Maniates and Princen 2015:214).

Where does this leave us? In a word, confused.

In general, we remain unclear about how social change happens, ill-equipped to strategically bring about the kinds of changes we need and want, and unprepared to skillfully navigate the changes that are coming either way.

What’s Getting in the Way?

Ideas have histories. How we think about social change today is the dynamic product of a much longer development.

Sociologist Norbert Elias (1997) highlights some key moments of this process in western thought, beginning with the longstanding notion of ideal social change as a return to some golden past. From about the 16th century onward, this gradually gave way to a valorization of the present and future and assumptions about the linear path of Progress.

The mismatch between these ideas and the realities of history led to a growing skepticism about Progress. An uneasy tension about change and the future grew as people welcomed the advantages of small-p progress, while also fearing certain dangers it presents.

These dangers were, and still are, poorly understood.

Common sense accounts of the dangers humans pose for each other, Elias observed, rarely transcend simplistic voluntaristic explanations, with threat and harm primarily attributed to the qualities and willful actions of nefarious others.

This highly emotionally-involved view (including self-congratulation, along with fear and loathing of the other) gets in the way of being able to read social processes more accurately. Adding to the difficulty are habits of thought which keep us from seeing the reality of dynamic interdependence more clearly:

  • studying social processes in isolation from biophysical ones
  • thinking in terms of static things as opposed to dynamic relations
  • being fixated on the identification of discrete causal factors
  • seeing stability and change as opposites, with stability as the default

Together, these tendencies have hindered the development of a more accurate and useful theory of social change.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons sums up the result well. In it, a person holds a picket sign that reads: “WE ARE BEING CONTROLLED BY THE RANDOM OUTCOMES OF A COMPLEX SYSTEM.”

In other words, while we have a vague appreciation for the complexity of the systems we live in, we tend to explain the origins of the forces we feel pushing and pulling us as the results of either another’s reasoned intent or randomness, or both. Neither idea is completely wrong, but neither do they get it quite right.

There are plans, intentions, and randomness at play in the unfolding of social dynamics within their biophysical contexts, but these all interweave to:

give rise to changes and patterns that no individual person has planned or created. From this interdependence of people arises an order sui generis, an order more compelling and stronger than the will and reason of the individual people composing it. It is this order of interweaving human impulses and strivings, this social order, which determines the course of historical change” (Elias 2000:366).

Even if on some level we know that, conventional ways of thinking make it difficult to communicate about and act on that knowledge. If we take a different starting point, however, we end up in a very different place.

A General Theory of Social Change

Synthesizing existing knowledge and situating humans in the biophysical world reveals the possibility of an organizing framework for socio-environmental studies, which at the same time serves as a general theory of social change.

More fully unpacking the implications of this theoretical framework takes time, but even a brief introduction shows its value for being able to explain what any valid theory of social change must:

the long-term and unplanned, yet structured and directional trends in the development of social and personality structures which embody, occur in, and are in relations of mutual influence with biophysical conditions (Kasper 2021:221, adapted from Elias 1997:355).

Three especially important ingredients are worth mentioning here.

Core Principles

When the subject matter under investigation involves a diverse and complex array of causal conditions, its study must be approached according to “a modest number of principles rather than a virtually infinite number of possible variables,” say sociologists Lieberson and Lynn (2002:8). Here are a few of the most fundamental.

  • Humans are biological organisms.
  • Humans are social organisms.
  • Humans’ exceptionally dynamic brains make them exceptionally changeable beings.
  • Humans exist in mutual relations of interdependence.

Even if these seem too obvious to need mentioning, they do need mentioning. More explicit recognition of these facts produces a subtle but significant shift in perspective and provides the coherence long sought in sociology and socio-environmental studies.

Alternative Nondual Concepts

Communicating about reality more accurately requires concepts that can accommodate dynamic interdependence. Figuration and habitus, for example, are handy alternatives to conventional but inadequate dualistic notions of individual and society. Rather than needing to be added on, relationality and process are inherent in them.

Figuration refers to the dynamic pattern, and patterning, of bonds of functional interdependence within which humans necessarily develop and are embedded.

Habitus is the embodied system of schemas that forms within shared social contexts, a society-specific way of being in the world that manifests as “second nature.”

Along with two somewhat more familiar concepts, biophysical conditions and socio-environmental impacts, these alternatives facilitate our ability to think and speak more clearly about human social phenomena.

A Universal Pattern

Zooming out to put it all together reveals a basic pattern of socio-environmental processes from a high level of synthesis. Its integration of the three basic levels of phenomena makes it quite distinct from prevalent models of human-environment relations.

In a nutshell: Humans are embedded in patterns of social interdependence within which we form and express socially shared ways of being in the world, the cumulative expression of which exerts discernible effects on the world and other people, which influence the biophysical and figurational conditions within people and relational patterns continue to develop.

A moment in human time

The components depicted above, though conceptually separable, are in reality inseparable. Each represents enormous complexity, with numerous interacting parts and processes at multiple underlying levels.

And, while they are ordered here according to the direction of conditioning influences (i.e., social relations necessarily precede the formation of a socially derived “second nature,” which must first exist in order to be expressed and after which impacts follow, all of which is made of and happening within biophysical conditions), the phenomena they refer to are occurring simultaneously, albeit at different rates, on different levels, and perceived from different vantage points.

Situating this “moment” in a continuum of such moments forms the basis of an ongoing pattern of socio-environmental processes in time — to wit, a general theory of social change.

A sequence of moments

Guidance for Studying Social Change

Even a very basic grasp of the concepts which together outline the pattern of social change allows us to engage in more systematic inquiry into it. For one thing, this simple assemblage of components translates into a helpful series of interrelated questions which aid efforts to explore and explain, anticipate, and guide social change.

Exploring and Explaining Change

Tailored to a specific topic, these questions highlight useful starting points and provide clear yet adaptable direction for researching questions about particular changes. Where to begin and which question or questions to take on will depend on the interests and capacities of the researchers.

The important point is that this framework allows us to situate the questions, and the areas of study best suited to explore them, in and among one another in a way that was not possible before. In addition to providing valuable orientation, it helps facilitate the interdisciplinary cooperation and collaboration long called for.

Anticipating Change

Within the context of this framework, employing available information about sociological and biophysical conditions prompts a novel and systematic series of questions relevant to understanding and anticipating how certain circumstances could manifest in long-term social change processes.

Looking backward to understand the development of a given condition, we can discern which earlier conditions were necessary for its formation. Looking forward from the perspective of an earlier point, we can see some future condition as only one of a range of possibilities. Complex socio-environmental systems are not amenable to crystal ball-style predictions, but with the support of a sound theory we can anticipate the likely outcomes of certain combinations of conditions.

Guiding Change

Charting the basic pattern of socio-environmental processes, this theoretical framework serves as a constant reminder that socio-environmental impacts (and their future implications) are generated by human activities oriented by a particular sort of habitus formed, and always forming, within a particular configuration of social relations, all taking place within a biophysical context and its particular conditions at a given time.

The crucial insight here is that meaningful and sustained changes to our socio-environmental impacts (like the kinds being urgently called for now) demand changes in the conditions that give rise to them. This is an important divergence from dominant individualistic approaches which prioritize more direct intervention. In particular, this theory highlights the need to examine and strategically modify figurations — reorganizing them in ways which support the desired changes in habitus, its expression, and impacts over time.

Where Do We Go From Here?

If you’ve ever engaged in the joyful work of visioning, you have a sense of the kind of world most people want. If you’re paying attention to the science, you’re aware of what needs to happen. If you’re listening to the analysts, you know we’ve got a long way to go and lots of lost time to make up for.

The good news is that, contrary to popular belief, we can better understand how social change works. And in doing so we can, in principle, more intentionally direct it.

Of course, understanding social change provides no guarantee of action, nor does action guarantee success. Accomplishing the changes being urgently called for will require unprecedented effort, cooperation, and almost certainly more time than we’d like. But as so many have pointed out, we have to try — in the countless possible ways available to us in our respective roles and contexts.

Guided by a coherent and scientifically-grounded theory of social change, our efforts stand a much better chance.

Still, when it comes to self-organizing nonlinear complex systems, we will never achieve total predictability or control. And we don’t have to. The thing is, despite the impossibility of reason-based control in a social system,

“it is by no means impossible that we can make out of it something more ‘reasonable’, something that functions better in terms of our needs and purposes” (Elias 2000:367).

The extent to which we act decisively and the degree to which we are able to create and sustain more reasonable and functional systems will depend largely on having an understanding of socio-environmental processes informed by a more accurate picture of reality.

The theory of social change described here is part of that picture, which includes a more far-reaching re-visioning of the fundamental paradigms which shape how we view ourselves, others, and the world.

These problematic paradigms, often called out but so tricky to address from within them, are the subject of the third and final post in this series.

*While this post speaks directly to the challenges related to teaching introductory ESS courses, the same logic can be applied to overcoming the challenges that similarly affect people teaching and learning socio-environmental subject matter in any discipline or program.


Featured Image: Photo by Garidy Sanders on Unsplash


Brulle, Robert J. 2012. American Sociological Association Environment and Technology section email listserv, November 17.

Elias, Norbert. 2000 [1939]. The Civilizing Process, translated by Edmund Jephcott and edited by Eric Dunning, Johan Goudsblom, and Stephen Mennell. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Elias, Norbert. 1997. “Towards a Theory of Social Processes, a Translation,” translated by Robert van Krieken and Eric Dunning. British Journal of Sociology 48(3):355–383.

Kasper, Debbie. 2021. Beyond the Knowledge Crisis: A Synthesis Framework for Socio-Environmental Studies and Guide to Social Change. London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Lieberson, Stanley and Freda Lynn. 2002 “Barking Up the Wrong Branch: Scientific Alternatives to the Current Model of Sociological Science.” Annual Review of Sociology 28:1–19.

Maniates, Michael and Thomas Princen. 2015. “Fifteen Claims: Social Change and Power in Environmental Studies.” Journal of Environmental Studies and Sciences 5: 213–217.

Mock, Brentin. 2015. “Want to fix the climate? First, we have to change everything,” Grist. April 2. http://grist.org/politics/want-to-fix-the-climate-first-we-have-to-change-everything/

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