What are social values?

Often when decisions are made about the environment, a form of ‘valuation’ will take place, this means understanding the value of the environment and what impact that change will have. This ‘cost’ is then weighed up against potential ‘benefits’. However this traditional way of making decisions assumes we all value the environment for the same reasons and that we all value a certain thing based on its usefulness to ourselves individually. Social values as a subject in sustainability science questions this assumption and recognises that people value the environment for lots of different reasons. For example, often these reasons can be based on social and cultural influences.

These ‘influences’ might range from feelings of community identity, recognition of cultural heritage and history or simply social practices that are important to people. For instance, you might love rowing up and down the Ouse both for the feeling of being on the river but also because you’re a member of a rowing community that’s provided you with memories and stories. Further still, social values as a subject for research recognises that what people value (find important) may change over time or according to the way in which we try to understand what those values are. For example if you were asked a simple survey question about whether you value an ‘otter’ you might express a certain type of value but if you were part of a conversation about the history, lives or habitats of otters in your area you may, after the conversation, express a different value for the species. This points to the role of learning but also points to the importance of deliberation when making decisions too.

These ‘values’ often go unnoticed when it comes to decision-making, as it is hard to put these values into monetary prices that can be weighed against potential costs. However, we do not always have to use this Cost-Benefit Analysis (CBA) method to make decisions; in fact evidence suggests that, in environmental decision-making, CBA methods often fail to capture the real social and environment impacts that decisions might have (these are sometimes referred to as externalities).

Alternatively, we can deliberate and make decisions collectively and democratically too. It is really important therefore to know the range of values that people hold in relation to the rivers and the livelihoods that are impacted by these rivers.

What happens next with these ‘social values’?

These social values can then be discussed in groups and workshops where people can see the many different ways that other people value the rivers. Then we might start to have shared visions of what we want to see in the future; what changes we might like to see.

These social values can also relate to more ‘formal’ policy frameworks too, such as the Ecosystem Service Framework or Nature’s Contributions to People (NCP), developed by the Intergovernmental Platform for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) – See here https://www.ipbes.net/news/natures-contributions-people-ncp-article-ipbes-experts-science). These policy frameworks allow these values to be expressed by people, ‘written down’ by researchers and then used to inform policy. In this way the decision making process starts with people who are actually going to be affected by the decisions that are being discussed. Social values in particular relate, more often, to notions of ‘cultural ecosystem services’ or ‘non-material contributions’ of nature to human wellbeing. So while these ideas are harder to translate into policy decisions, these frameworks aim to make it easier to communicate and understand.