Environmental factors refer to the natural and socioeconomic conditions in which humans interact with each other.
These conditions (such as natural resources, climate, political systems, etc.) play a key role in shaping social institutions and relationships. By creating opportunities as well as constraints, they also influence human attitudes and actions.
In both sociology and psychology, there are subfields known as environmental sociology and environmental psychology, which study the interaction between human societies, human beliefs and behaviors, and the natural environment, which combined represent an ecological perspective to social science.
Environmental Factors Defined
Amenta & Elliott define environmental factors as
“the external conditions or circumstances that impact human behavior and decision-making. These factors include physical, social, cultural, and economic factors, as well as broader structural conditions such as political systems, institutional arrangements, and historical legacies” (2019)
The term “environment” literally means “that which environs or surrounds”. It is used in different ways in different academic contexts. In disciplines like biology and psychology, the term environment is often juxtaposed with heredity.
“Heredity refers to what is genetically transmitted, environment to what is given externally.” (Scott, 2014). In sociology also, the heredity vs environment debate is significant, although most scholars now recognize that both factors shape human behavior.
Here, when we say “environmental factors”, we refer to both natural and human factors that surround us. In other words, we are talking about all the larger structures that create opportunities and constraints for our behavior.
Case Study: Environmental Factors and the Cohort Effect
Academics can study how environmental factors – such as economic conditions, cultural attitudes, and technologies, can affect entire generations. Gen X and Gen Z, for example, were raised with vastly different environments, which may lead to differing values, beliefs, and socioeconomic outcomes. The differences between generations is described in academic research as the ‘cohort effect‘.
Environmental Factors Examples
- Climate: Climate plays a huge role in shaping social structures and cultural practices. In warm places, such as the Middle East and Southern Europe, there are customs like siestas (short naps during the afternoon) that allow people to avoid the hottest part of the day. In contrast, people use fur clothing and food preservation in cold regions. Natural disasters, such as hurricanes or floods, also pose significant threats.
- Natural Resources: Access to natural resources significantly shapes economic and social structures. Societies with abundant resources, such as oil or gold, have greater economic opportunities and political power. At the same time, overexploitation of these can lead to environmental degradation and political conflict. The ownership of these resources is also a major issue, shaping economic activity and the distribution of power.
- Population: The size, composition, and distribution of populations have major consequences for any society. A growing population can lead to increased productivity and economic growth, but it also puts a greater toll on resources and can exacerbate environmental degradation. The diversity of the population influences social cohesion and political power. Finally, the spatial distribution of the population is also significant; for example, it can lead to the concentration of economic activity in a specific urban center.
- Geography: The physical characteristics of land play a key role in shaping any society. River valleys, for example, support agriculture and urbanization, which is why most major cities in the world have developed around rivers. Mountainous terrains, on the other hand, often lead to isolated communities. Geographic barriers, such as deserts, can impact geopolitical power while also influencing the spread of ideas.
- Technology: Technology has a crucial impact on the way we live, work, and interact with each other. In the 21st century, the internet has revolutionized everything, from the spread of ideas to the facilitation of businesses. Medical technology has allowed us to cure diseases and increase the human lifespan. While technology often leads to environmental degradation, it can also help us find more sustainable options.
- Urbanization: The concentration of people in urban areas can lead to greater cultural exchange and social diversity. Urban areas are often the centers of economic activity, which lead to increased productivity and innovation. They provide a range of opportunities and services, such as education, employment, healthcare, etc. However, urbanization can also lead to environmental degradation and social inequalities.
- Globalization: The increasing interconnectedness of the world has transformed our society in various ways. The mobility of goods and services increases economic growth and productivity. By facilitating the exchange of ideas, globalization also promotes cultural exchange and diversity. But globalization also exacerbates environmental degradation and economic inequalities (especially in developing countries).
- Political Systems: Political systems play a fundamental role in how societies are organized and governed. Democracy is based on individual rights, mass participation, and accountability; authoritarianism, on the other hand, concentrates power in the hand of a few individuals. In the latter, marginalized groups have less access to resources, leading to inequalities. Political systems also determine collective actions: democracies allow social movements and change, while authoritarian governments do not.
- Economic Systems: Economic systems refer to the way societies allocate resources, organize production, and distribute wealth. Market economies allow private ownership and promote free competition, while centrally planned economies are based on state ownership and control. Economic systems also influence cultural values: market economies promote individualism and consumerism, while centrally planned economies emphasize collective values and social welfare.
- Social Norms & Values: The social norms and values surrounding us play a key role in our lives. They are fundamental to our identity formation and shape all our social relations. Cultural norms determine how we express ourselves and communicate with others. They influence power relations; for example, gender norms may limit the access of women to education and employment opportunities, perpetuating gender inequalities. But social norms also evolve with time and can lead to positive changes.
Examples of Environmental Factors in Psychology
- Family Environment: A person’s family environment can have a very strong influence on a person’s values, beliefs, and actions. This can be seen, for example, in how a person might come to develop gender schema and other cultural attitudes. Note that family structures change across cultures.
- Community: The community in which you are raised can similarly affect a person’s social identity, attitudes toward social interaction, and similar aspects related to social psychology.
- School: Schools have a major role in a person’s psychological development. A person’s experience at school can have long-term psychological effects (both positive and negative). Furthermore, educational psychology holds that a teacher’s attitudes and teaching practices significantly affect a student’s learning and development.
- Culture: Cultural attitudes hugely affect people’s lives. For example, cultural attitudes toward mental health can impact how or whether a person might seek help. Similarly, cultural attitudes can also affect how people approach learning, social interaction, and all other aspects of their lives.
- Material Goods: Material goods can have a significant impact on an individual’s psychological well-being. People can derive a sense of happiness and satisfaction from material possessions, and material goods can have a huge motivating factor in helping people to take action.
One of the most influential theories that explores environmental factors in psychology is Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory.
According to this theory, a person’s culture, values, and personal development are strongly influenced by their surrounds – or environmental factors.
This theory is so influential due to its excellent framework for exploring environmental factors, starting from the most intimate and influential to the child (micro) through to the broader societal factors (macro).
The tiers of “environmental factors: include:
- The Microsystem: A person’s closest and first contacts, such as parents, siblings, and people they intimately interact with on a daily or near daily basis.
- The Mesosystem: Defined as the relationships between influential actors in a child’s life. Examples of mesosystems include parent-teacher relationships, parent-church relationships, and sibling-parent relationships.
- The Exosystem: Any setting in which a child is not directly involved yet still which still influences them. Examples include a parent’s workplace, mass media, school policy, social support systems, family friends, and local government policy settings.
- The Macrosystem: Refers to the attitudes and ideologies of the society and culture in which a child is raised. May include laws, customs, and taboos of a society.
- The Chronosystem: How time affects a person. For example, the era in which you’re born affects you due to the types of technology and values systems available in that era.
Environmental sociology is a subfield of sociology that studies the interactions between societies and their natural environments.
Environmental problems, as Dunlap writes, are fundamentally social problems (2007). This is because they are caused by human behavior; they have a significant impact on humans (along with other species); and their solution requires societal efforts.
However, this focus on environmental problems is a rather recent phenomenon. The founders of sociology, having the goal of establishing a new discipline, focused on the study of social phenomena, as against biological or physical phenomena.
In other words, sociology had to go beyond explaining cultural differences in terms of genetics or climate. It had to focus on social facts, which meant a rejection of biological or geographical factors in sociology.
In sociology, the “environment” was limited to the social context (the community, the institutions, etc.); the physical environment was merely the stage on which social behavior was enacted (Dunlap & Catton 1979).
The Origin of Environmental Sociology
Environmental sociology developed as a subfield in the 1970s as a response to the environmental movement in the 1960s.
During the 1960s, there emerged an environmental movement in the United States, which involved a growing awareness of the negative impact of human actions on the environment. It advocated for ways to protect the environment and create sustainable ways of development.
In this context, there was a demand for academic research dealing with environmental issues. The works of several scholars, such as William R. Catton, Jr. and Riley Dunlap, challenged the anthropocentrism of classical sociology and brought a new holistic perspective.
This led to a significant transformation of sociology, and today, environmental factors play a key role in social explanations. There are various traditions within environmental sociology, such as:
- Neo-Malthusianism: This tradition is based on the ideas of the 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that population growth would ultimately deplete the Earth’s resources. Neo-Malthusians also see population growth as the main culprit and advocate for population control to achieve environmental sustainability.
- Marxist Tradition: The Marxist tradition focuses on the role of economic structures and power relations while studying environmental issues. It argues that environmental problems arise due to the exploitative relationship between capitalism (which is built on the relentless pursuit of profit) and nature. It advocates for a fundamental restructuring of economic systems to promote environmental sustainability.
- Ecological Modernization Tradition: The Ecological Modernization tradition believes that economic growth and environmental sustainability are not mutually exclusive. Instead, technological innovation can help achieve both. It advocates market-based solutions and private-public partnerships for environmental sustainability.
- Social Constructionist Tradition: The Social Constructionist tradition developed in the 1980s with the rise of postmodernism. It emphasizes the importance of understanding how human societies construct and interpret environmental problems—they are not objective facts but are the result of sociocultural constructions.
Environmental factors in sociology refer to natural and socioeconomic conditions in which humans live and interact.
These conditions create opportunities as well as constraints for all human activities. They include things like climate, technology, social norms, etc., which play a role in shaping social institutions and human behavior.
There is also a subfield of sociology known as environmental sociology, which focuses specifically on the relationship between societies and the natural environment. It developed in the 1970s as a response to the environmental movement and transformed sociology.
Amenta, E., & Elliott, K. A. (2019). Environmental factors. In G. Ritzer (Ed.), The Wiley Blackwell encyclopedia of sociology. Wiley-Blackwell.
Dunlap, Riley E. (2007). “Environment, sociology of the”. The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Wiley-Blackwell.
Dunlap, R. E. & Catton, W. R., Jr. (1979). Environmental Sociology. Annual Review of Sociology 5:243. Annual Reviews.
Scott, J. (2014). A Dictionary of Sociology. Oxford: University of Oxford.