Conceptual Social Ecology

"Conceptual Social Ecology" was conceived after Social Ecology at UCI had celebrated its first 25 years of existence.  "Conceptual Social Ecology" presents a number of facets of Social Ecology: its current definition and basic assumptions, its founding scientific presentations, its evolution as an organizational unit within the University of California, Irvine, and its approach to research on contemporary problems of the social and physical environments.

Social Ecology’s Founding Visions
The principal conceptual authors of Social Ecology's original intellectual foundations are Arnold Binder, Daniel Stokols, and Ray Catalano.  Authors of distinctive definitions of Social Ecology are Daniel Stokols, Thomas Crawford, Dave Taylor and Valerie Jenness.  Daniel Stokols identified four assumptions of the social ecology perspective, and core principles of social ecological theory. He has described the development of the ecological paradigm, and applied the social ecological perspective to problems of health promotion.

Research Focus on Unsolved Problems of Society
After forty-five years of existence, Social Ecology's faculty is decidedly multi-disciplinary. Its research is focused on problems in society as envisioned by Arnold Binder's founding statement. The nature of the faculty has made highly relevant the issue of how research is conducted by a multi-disciplinary faculty and its collaborators. This circumstance has in turn made relevant Patricia Rosenfield's distinctions between multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research. Professor Stokols also addressed this issue in the broader context of the future of interdisciplinarity in the School of Social Ecology.  He revisited the future of social ecological research in 2013 in two addresses on the science of team science and the origins of social ecology, and offered an expanded vision of the social ecology paradigm for health promotion.

Transformation to School Status and the 25th Anniversary
From its origins as the interdisciplinary program Arnold Binder founded in 1970, Social Ecology was accorded status as a formal academic school at UCI in 1992. The rationale for transformation in status and identity is captured in the section on organizational development and the companion historical milestones of development.

The selected bibliography of scientific Social Ecology was prepared by Professor Stokols for an undergraduate seminar. The 25th Anniversary Celebration is a special web version of an issue of UCI News which appeared in 1996 at the time that the School of Social Ecology dedicated its second major building, Social Ecology II, and recognized the completion of its first 25 years.

The rationale for compiling "Conceptual Social Ecology" in electronic format is to make more accessible its intellectual origins and historical development. The original documents are widely dispersed, and most are not accessible electronically. The principal intended audience are those faculty, staff and students who are shaping Social Ecology's second 50 years.

William Pereira’s Vision for Campus and Community in 2065
In an address at the California Institute of Technology in 1964, William Pereira, who developed the broad plan for the development of the Irvine Ranch, offered his vision for the campus and community when it will celebrate its 100th Anniversary in 2065:

“If, a hundred years from now, the campus and its community still look as we picture them in our master plan, we shall have, in a sense, failed.  But if, generations hence, it is capable of being physically altered by needs we know nothing of now, and the University and Irvine are a vital and dynamic force in an unfamiliar new world of the future, we shall have succeeded beyond our fondest dreams.”

The invitation now is to current faculty, staff, students and administrators—stewards for Social Ecology’s future toward 2065—to share their visions, their “fondest dreams,” to use Pereira’s phrase, teaching, research and public service on unsolved problems of local and global society.

The goal is to inform the stewards for Social Ecology at UCI’s 100th Anniversary so that they understand the visions which are the wellsprings of research and community engagement by the members of this generation of the Social Ecology community as UCI celebrates its 50th Anniversary in 2015.

Dean's Definition of Social Ecology
Valerie Jenness, Dean of the School of Social Ecology, recently published an article in the Orange County Register to answer a question she often is asked by the community and prospective students - "What is Social Ecology?" Read the article by clicking the link below, to better understand how the School is a unique feature of the University of California.

Read Article


Conceptual Social Ecology has the following sections:




Introductory Statement by C. Ron Huff, Professor and Dean of the School of Social Ecology

The School of Social Ecology is an interdisciplinary academic unit whose scholarly research and instruction is informed by and contributes to knowledge in the social, behavioral, legal, environmental, and health sciences. The School is comprised of four departments: Criminology, Law and Society; Environmental Analysis and Design; Psychology and Social Behavior; and Planning, Policy and Design. Social Ecology faculty apply scientific methods to the study of a wide array of recurring social, behavioral, and environmental problems. Among issues of long-standing interest in the School are crime and justice in society, social influences on human development over the life cycle, and the effects of the physical environment on health and human behavior. While the field of ecology focuses on the relationships between organisms and their environments, social ecology is concerned with the relationships between human populations and their environments.

Social Ecology's faculty is multidisciplinary, including psychologists with a variety of specialties (e.g., developmental, social, environmental, and health psychology); criminologists; sociologists; political scientists; lawyers; urban and regional planners and economists; environmental health scientists; and program evaluation experts. The School's research and teaching is distinguished by an emphasis on the integration of the concepts and perspectives of these multiple disciplines. This focus is based on the School's core belief that the analysis and amelioration of complex societal problems requires interdisciplinary efforts.

Many Social Ecology faculty are involved in developing policies and interventions directed toward improving the functioning of individuals, families and other groups, organizations, institutions, and communities, while other faculty in the School focus their efforts on the complex environmental issues confronting our society. Social Ecology undergraduate students benefit from the multidisciplinary instructional expertise of the School's faculty in the classroom and are afforded opportunities to engage in field-based and laboratory-based learning, as well, through the School's well-established and highly regarded field studies program and its laboratories. Graduate students work closely with the faculty in the classroom and in laboratories, as well as collaborating on important research projects that enhance their research skills while advancing knowledge and addressing important societal problems.

This presentation of contemporary definitions of social ecology is based upon three primary sources: Bold Venture, a publication of the School of Social Ecology which draws extensively on the insights of Daniel Stokols; Rediscovering Social Ecology, a continuing graduate student initiative which began in the Spring of 1997 to explore the roots of social ecology (the presentation here is by Dave Taylor); and Social Ecology Is What Social Ecologists Do, a brief presentation by Thomas Crawford, faculty convenor of the Rediscovering Social Ecology seminar.

Social Ecology: A Bold Venture

Social Ecology is within the tradition in higher education of mission-oriented teaching, research, and public service. The mission of social ecology is the interdisciplinary analysis of complex problems of contemporary society which occur in the social and physical environments. Interdisciplinary analysis is used in the sense of the joining of talents by researchers from different intellectual backgrounds. An interdisciplinary analysis results in the combining of diverse areas of knowledge to create a broader view.

To facilitate a continuing interdisciplinary analysis of contemporary problems, the faculty of the School of Social Ecology is multi-disciplinary. Included within the faculty are professors originally trained in environmental design, law, philosophy, environmental health science, political science, urban and regional planning, program evaluation, sociology, and six branches of psychology: developmental, clinical, health, social, environmental, and counseling.

Daniel Stokols defined Social Ecology's basic commitment as education and research " that will help solve contemporary environmental and social problems" through an approach which is simultaneously "multi-disciplinary, interdisciplinary, and societally relevant."

Rediscovering Social Ecology

Rediscovering Social Ecology is the designation of an initiative by graduate students to examine the roots of social ecology. Dave Taylor offered the following "working sense" of social ecology:

A Working Sense Of Social Ecology

The application of multiple levels and methods of analysis and theoretical perspectives to social problems, recognizing the dynamic and active nature of human-environment interactions and the social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts of people's lives.

In amplifying the meaning of this basic definition, Taylor distinguished six underlying principles of a social ecological analysis:

Six Underlying Principles of Social Ecology

  • Identify a phenomenon as a social problem
  • View the problem from multiple levels and methods of analysis
  • Utilize and apply diverse theoretical perspectives
  • Recognize human-environment interactions as dynamic and active processes
  • Consider the social, historical, cultural and institutional contexts of people-environment relations
  • Understand people's lives in an everyday sense

Multiple levels of analysis include the macro level, the micro level, and the meso level applied, for example, to individuals, small groups, organizations, neighborhoods and geographical regions. Multiple methods of analysis include both qualitative and quantitative methods applied in laboratory and naturalistic settings.

This framework may include consideration of the notion of context:

  • Consider the social contexts of people's lives
    • Social networks
    • Support systems
  • Consider the historical contexts of people's lives
    • Where we come from
    • Our collection of experiences
  • Consider the cultural contexts of people's lives norms, values, expectations
  • Consider the institutional contexts of people's lives
    • Interactions with schools, hospitals, churches
    • Prison systems
  • Understand people's lives in an everyday sense
    • Notion of Fordism - everyone punched the same time clock and worked for the same employer

Two addition components are embodied in Taylor's representation of social ecology: diverse theoretical perspectives, and a conception of social and environmental problems as dynamic and active processes.

Social Ecology Is What Social Ecologists Do

Thomas Crawford introduces a number of clarifying elaborations concerning the meaning of social ecology. He notes what he calls "interesting complications" associated with some of the terms used in a conceptual definition of social ecology. As a starting point for addressing these "interesting complications," he offered the following conceptual definition:

Social Ecology is an academic unit characterized by an interdisciplinary approach to the study of social and environmental problems. These problems are examined at multiple levels of analysis, are viewed from an ecological perspective and involve a systems theory analysis of interdependence.

Crawford proceeds to explore the "complications" associated with the term "interdisciplinary," the phrase "environmental or social problem focus," and the implications of his view of social ecology as a "natural category" with "fuzzy boundaries."

In considering the meaning of the term "interdisciplinary," Crawford cites the influential work by Christopher Jencks and David Riesman entitled The Academic Revolution. Jencks and Riesman consider disciplines to be administrative categories:

They are grouped together mainly because the men working in them went through the same sort of graduate program and have some residual feeling of common identity. A good deal of ingenuity has, it is true, been devoted to the rationalization of these ad hoc arrangements. Some of the resulting efforts to show that history, biology, psychology, and so forth are really unified fields built around certain underlying principles are quite brilliant and valuable. But then so are some of the arguments made for regrouping sub disciplines into new patterns.

Crawford's comment on this quote is that "even if we accept the view of disciplinary rationales as contrived and arbitrary a good argument can be made for increasing research at the boundaries of or between currently defined disciplines." In Crawford's view, for which he credits social psychologist Donald Campbell, such research within the traditional university is currently discouraged by their disciplinary structure to the detriment of accumulating knowledge.

For the purposes of a definition of social ecology, Crawford defines interdisciplinary as "studying a topic from the perspective of two or more subdisciplines that involve different methods, theories, and research topics."

In discussing the phrase "environmental or social problem focus," Crawford reminds us that social and environmental problems are "social constructs." As social constructs, social and environmental problems convey an implicit message that they represent some aspects of society which need to be improved.

Social ecology is not a term which is "precisely definable" in terms of a "conjunction of attributes true of all members and of no non-members." Crawford reminds us that today's basic research project that is part of Social Ecology may be tomorrow's technology relevant to the solution of social or environmental problems.

Social Ecology is for Crawford a "natural category" with "fuzzy boundaries." Therefore, like other natural categories Social Ecology has a most typical or characteristic "prototype":

"Like other natural categories Social Ecology has a most typical or characteristic "prototype." Just as some colors in the category "red" are more red than others, and some birds (e.g. robins, sparrows, blue jays) are more bird-like than other birds (e.g. ostriches,or penguins) so some of the research activities in this School are more Social Ecological than others. It might be interesting to define the prototype and/or see if we are in some agreement about the prototypicality of different projects."

Advocating a multiplicity of methods and a plurality of perspective is a theme common across the definitions provided by Daniel Stokols, Dave Taylor, and Thomas Crawford. Crawford suggests a useful activity: Sharpening a definition of what social ecology has been in its first 25 years by examining what social ecologists actually do. This is possible by a scrutiny of faculty research interests and some of their research groups, and a perusal of the topics of completed Ph.D. dissertations.

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The Social Ecology Perspective, according to Stokols (1992), is distinguished by four assumptions:

Assumption 1: Multiple facets of both the physical environment (for example, geography, architecture, and technology) and the social environment are integral to a social ecological analysis.

Applying Assumption One to health promotion, Stokols stated that the promotion of well-being is of necessity "based on an understanding of the dynamic interplay among diverse environmental and personal factors... (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)." This is in contrast to an analytical framework that focuses "exclusively on environmental, biological, or behavioral factors (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)."

By way of elaboration, in Assumption One the health status of individuals and groups "is influenced not only by environmental factors but also by a variety of personal attributes, including genetic heritage, psychological dispositions, and behavioral patterns (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)."

Assumption 2: The relative scale and complexity of environments may be characterized in terms of a number of components such as:

a. physical and social components,
b. objective (actual) or subjective (perceived) qualities, and
c. scale or immediacy to individuals and groups

(Adapted from Stokols, 1992, p. 7)

In Assumption Two independent attributes of environments are relevant such as lighting, temperature, noise, space arrangement or group size. Additionally relevant are the "composite relationships among several features, as exemplified by such constructs as behavior settings, person-environment fit, and social climate (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)." These latter points are elaborated in a chapter on "Conceptual Strategies of Environmental Psychology" in book edited by D. Stokols and I. Altman Handbook of Environmental Psychology published by Wiley in 1987.

Assumption 3: The Social ecological perspective incorporates multiple levels of analysis and diverse methodologies.

The perspective in Assumption Three assumes that the effectiveness of an intervention "can be enhanced significantly through the coordination of individuals and groups acting at different levels... (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)."

In the area of health promotion, the multi-level aspect of the Third Assumption is illustrated by family members who make efforts to improve their health practices, the efforts of managers to shape organizational health policies, and the activities of public health officials who direct community health services (Stokols, 1992, p. 7).

Assumption 4: The social ecological perspective incorporates concepts from systems theory to take into account both the interdependencies that exist among immediate and more distant environments, and the dynamic interrelations between people and their environments.

By way of illustration on the components of Assumption Four, when it is applied to health promotion, Stokols (1992) drew attention to the following:

a. "people-environment transactions are characterized by cycles of mutual influence, whereby the physical and social features of settings directly influence their occupants' health..." and,
b. "...concurrently the participants in settings modify the healthfulness of their surroundings through their individual and collective actions (Stokols, 1992, p. 8)."

The key idea in Assumption Four is the recurrent cycles of mutual influence which are basic to understanding transactions between people and their environments.

Another key idea in Assumption Four is the notion of levels of human environments where some are more local and others are more distant but still with immediate influence. An example provided by Stokols (1992) in the area of health promotion is where state and national ordinances aimed at promoting environmental quality and protecting public health directly influence the occupational safety and health of community work settings.

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Stokols (1996) addressed the challenge of translating social ecological theory into guidelines for community health programs. The result was the development of a clearly specified theoretical foundation utilizing core principles of social ecological theory. In the process of developing guidelines for community health promotion, Stokols compared the key strengths and limitations of three distinct and complementary perspectives on health promotion: behavior change, environmental enhancement, and social ecological approaches. In this synopsis of Professor Stokols' approach, the focus will be on core principles of social ecology.


Social ecology is alternately conceived as an "overarching framework" or "set of theoretical principles" which assist with understanding interrelationships: for example, among diverse environmental and personal factors in human health and illness. This focus on understanding interrelationships is in recognition of the compelling circumstance that:

"...most public health challenges...are too complex to be understood adequately from single levels of analysis and, instead, require more comprehensive approaches that integrate psychologic, organizational, cultural, community planning, and regulatory perspectives." (Stokols, 1996, p. 203)

In this conception of social ecology as assisting with understanding interrelationship among complex phenomena, the term "ecology" refers to "the study of the relationship between organisms and their environments (Stokols, 1996, p. 285)." There is attention to the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations as well as human ecology's emphasis on biologic processes and the geographic environment in which they occur. The expanded emphasis on people -- environment relationships with cultural, institutional, and social components is reflected in the core principles of the social ecology paradigm.

Principle One: Multiple Dimensional Analysis

Environmental settings have multiple dimensions which influence the person-environment interaction. Environmental settings may be analyzed ("ecological analysis") from numerous perspectives which are relevant to health and well-being. Examples of such multiple dimensions include social cohesion, emotional well-being, development maturation, and physical health status.

Social ecology theory emphasizes "the importance of identifying various physical and social conditions within environments that can affect occupants: physiologic, emotional, and/or social well-being (p 289)." Emotional well-being may be influenced by the perceived predictability, controllability, novelty, and symbolic values of environments.

Principle Two: Differential Dynamic Interplay

The emphasis is on interrelationships between personal and situational factors. This is in contrast to an orientation which focuses exclusively on behavioral, biological, or environmental factors. This approach recognizes that environmental factors may affect people differently depending on such factors as personality, health practices, perceptions of the controllability of the environment, and financial resources. In social ecological research which incorporates differential dynamic interplay, the "level of congruence (or compatibility) between people and their surroundings is viewed as an important predictor of well-being..." (Stokols, 1996, p. 286).

Principle Three: Relevance of Systems Theory

Understanding the dynamic interaction between people and their environment requires the application of such principles from systems theory as interdependence, deviation amplification, homeostasis, and negative feedback.

This incorporation of systems theory facilitates the characterization of people-environment transactions in terms of cycles of mutual influences. In such a characterization, for example, physical and social settings both influence health, and the participants may engage in individual or collective action to modify both the social and the physical settings.

Principle Four: Interdependence of Environmental Conditions

This principle recognizes the importance of the interconnections between multiple settings and life domains, and the close interlinkage between the social and physical facets of those settings. By way of example, there can be independent effects and joint effects on individuals from a wide range of social and physical aspects of settings. Interdependencies exist among both immediate and distant environments.

A "core principle of social ecology is that the environmental contexts of human activity function as dynamic systems. This systemic quality of settings is reflected in the interdependencies between physical and social conditions within particular environments and in the nested structure of multiple settings and life domains" (Stokols, 1996, p. 291).

Multiple settings affect participant well-being. It is important not to neglect consideration of the links between the social and physical aspects of environments and the joint influence of those multiple settings. In this context, "social ecological theory emphasizes not only the interrelatedness of conditions within single settings but also the links between multiple settings and life domains within the broader community" (Stokols, 1996, p. 292).

Principle Five: Inherent Interdisciplinarity

Social ecology analyses emphasize the integration of multiple levels of analysis (for example macro level preventive strategies of public health and epidemiology with micro level individual strategies from medicine) with diverse methodologies (epidemiological analyses, environmental recordings, medical examinations, questionnaires, and behavioral observations).

Interdisciplinary research in the area of health promotion is essential to the development of comprehensive programs which "link the perspectives of medicine, public health, and the behavioral and social sciences" (Stokols, 1996, p. 288).


Stokols, D. (1996). "Translating Social Ecological Theory into Guidelines for Community Health Promotion." American Journal of Health Promotion, 10(4), 282-293.

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The field of social ecology can be contrasted with earlier versions of human ecology. Human ecology gave greater attention to biological processes and the geographic environment. An early statement of the principles of human ecology is Hawley's (1950) book titled Human Ecology: A Theory of Community Structure. This book reflects the roots of human ecology in the field of biology. Ecology itself "pertains broadly to the interrelations between organisms and their environments (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)."

A number of disciplines have contributed to the development of the ecological paradigm as it is employed in the definition of social ecology. The ecological paradigm contains contributions from disciplines with such diverse theoretical frameworks as sociology, psychology, economics, and public health. It provides a "general framework for understanding the nature of people's transactions with their physical and sociocultural surroundings (Stokols, 1992, p. 7)."

Contributors to the development of the ecological paradigm as it is used in the definition of social ecology include: R. Park's and E. Burgess' (1925) edited book The City published by the University of Chicago Press, J. Cassell's (1964) article "Social Science Theory as a Source of Hypotheses in Epidemiological Research" which appeared in the American Journal of Public Health (Vol. 54, pp. 1482-87), R. G. Barker's (1968) book Ecological Psychology: Concepts and Methods for Studying the Environment of Human Behavior which was published by the Stanford University Press, A. Rogers-

Warren's and S. F. Warren's (1977) edited book Ecological Perspectives in Behavior Analysis published by the University Park Press, and R. Catalano's (1979) book Health, Behavior, and the Community: An Ecological Perspective published by Pergamon Press.

The ecological paradigm in the perspective of social ecology has an extended lineage of development with contributors from a number of different disciplines. The culmination of this period of development is that the "field of social ecology gives greater attention to the social, institutional, and cultural contexts of people-environment relations than did earlier versions of human ecology (Stokols, 1992, p. 7.)"

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In "A New Context for Psychology: Social Ecology" Arnold Binder issued a resounding challenge to the status quo of professional schools. In this assessment, the missions of the academic enterprise of professional schools are determined by their professional identities, not by innovation or addressing the "social problems of the day" (Binder, 1972, p. 903). In this founding vision, and in distinction from disciplinary-based education, Social Ecology is "broadly interdisciplinary" including components from the biological and physical, as well as the behavioral and social sciences.


As an academic unit conceived with commitments to interdisciplinarity, innovation, and research directly relevant to issues of public policy and social problems, Social Ecology in this original conception represented a fundamental challenge to the traditional disciplinary based organization of the modern research university. Another difference between Social Ecology and more traditionally based academic enterprises is being as committed to educating for community-oriented jobs as it is committed to training research workers (Binder, 1972, p. 903).


What are the purposes of Social Ecology in this founding vision? In what was later in its history characterized as a "bold vision", Social Ecology was conceived and developed by Binder "for the purpose of providing direct interaction between the intellectual life of the university and the recurring problems of the social and physical environment" (Binder, 1972, p. 903).


The necessity for multidisciplinarity is rooted in the nature of human beings: biological organisms in a cultural-physical environment. The number and diversity of disciplines within the School of Social Ecology after a quarter-of-a-century of development has its roots in a goal of the founding curricula which was aimed at "equipping students to attack and solve environmental problems" (Binder, 1972, p. 904).


"Environmental problems" were defined broadly to span social relationships (how people relate to each other), the consequences of social heritage, and the relationship of humans to the broader biological and physical environment. The emphasis is on the nature of the interactive process between people and the environment.


Regardless of a students' ultimate career objectives, a founding vision for Social Ecology was to provide an education which would produce graduates who would be "more effective and knowledgeable citizens because of a familiarity with community problems and the potential modes of solution..." (Binder, 1972, p. 905).

Another distinguishing feature of the founding curricula was a commitment to making most Social Ecology courses available to students majoring elsewhere on the UCI campus. The goal of such an outreach is "the development of an environmental or ecological outlook among students whose primary interests are more traditional" (Binder, 1972, p. 905).


Binder, Arnold (1972) A new context for psychology: Social ecology. American Psychologist, 27, September, 1972, 903-908.


By way of summary, this founding vision for Social Ecology has a number of distinctive dimensions and original conceptualizations. These distinguish it from the more traditional disciplinary-based academic departments and schools which characterize research multiversities at the end of the Twentieth Century:

  1. A commitment to addressing social problems of the day;
  2. A mission defined by innovation and collaboration across disciplines, not by disciplinary boundaries;
  3. A vision of broad interdisciplinarity including components from the biological and physical as well as the behavioral and social sciences;
  4. A research mission which is directly relevant to issues of public policy and social problems;
  5. In the context of a commitment to undergraduate education, a dual focus on educating for community-oriented jobs as well as training research workers;
  6. A goal of fostering the direct interaction between the intellectual life of the university and recurring community problems which stem from the interaction of the social and the physical environment;
  7. A conception of human beings as biological organisms in a cultural-physical environment;
  8. The necessity for multi-disciplinarity as a fundamental principal for determining the overall composition of the Social Ecology faculty;
  9. Equipping students to attack and solve environmental problems as a goal of the founding curricula. (Environmental problems were broadly defined to include the relationship of humans to the biological and physical environment, the effects of social heritage, and how people relate to each other (social relationships);
  10. An emphasis on interaction in considerations of people and the environment;
  11. A goal of producing knowledgeable citizens for society who are familiar both with community problems and with potential modes of solution;
  12. A commitment to contributing to an infusion within the broader university curriculum of an environmental or ecological outlook for students of more traditional disciplinary interests.

(Reviewer's Note: The term "precept" was deliberately chosen by the reviewer, Professor Whiteley, because its first meaning ("Precept: A rule or principle prescribing a particular course of action or conduct") captures the spirit of this pioneering 1972 article.)


In "Social Ecology: An Emerging Multidiscipline" Binder, Stokols, and Catalano (1975) extended the rationale for the founding vision of Social Ecology articulated originally in Binder (1972). The evolution of Social Ecology is rooted in a challenge to the traditional purposes of higher education which are reflected in the disciplinary-based modern research university. The challenge is "to make the university enterprise more sensitive to non-academic needs and difficulties" (Binder, Stokols, and Catalano, 1975, p. 32).


In developing their conception of the needs of society and the role of the university in addressing those needs, the authors drew on Weidner (1974) who had written that the university should be "more fully a part of society" while maintaining its autonomy and academic freedom: "the needs are for a university that has a sense of social responsibility; that has a problem orientation to its curriculum; that is concerned with future time; and that seeks the integration of knowledge" (Weidner, 1974, p. 3). Key elements in the Weidner analysis are social responsibility, problem oriented education and research, a future rather than a past orientation to developing solutions to social problems, and a commitment to integrating knowledge across pertinent disciplines.


Binder, Stokols, and Catalano (1975) surveyed a number of international programs which had in common with the emerging social ecology paradigm community involvement by faculty and students, and research and teaching which is strongly multidisciplinary. A common approach which was observed combined a broad definition of "environmental studies" with social and interpersonal processes, and a consideration of the biological and physical environment. The intellectual and programmatic development of Social Ecology was clearly occurring in a global context.

A common theme in the international context for the development of the social ecological paradigm was increasing societal concern for the social and environmental problems which were resistant to disciplinary based definition and approaches to solution. This created what the authors called a "supportive atmosphere for the innovation of interdisciplinary, problem-oriented programs" (Binder, Stokols, and Catalano, 1975, p. 34).


Contemporaneous with the development in the broader society of a supportive atmosphere for the social ecological approach was the construction of a theoretical basis on which researchers "from disparate areas could collaborate in an effort to apply scientific methodology to the analysis and resolution of societal problems" (Binder, Stokols, and Catalano, 1975, p. 34) An analytical framework was articulated in which societal problems could be analyzed systematically at macro and micro levels.

The authors provided a detailed examination of the intellectual foundations of the ecological paradigm from its roots in biological and sociological perspectives and from psychological and architectural perspectives. The implications of this explication of the ecological paradigm are profound in their implications for social ecological research.

By way of example, the authors use Michelson's notion of "intersystem congruence" to demonstrate how architecture and urban design can be impacted by related areas of research. Michelson's construct defines as optimal environments ones in which the personal needs and cultural values of those who live in the environment are congruent with the specific environment's social and physical characteristics. For example, psychosocial profiles may become the basis for developing the nature of future settings which are designed for their congruence with cultural and personal attributes of those who will reside in them.


Academic study within Social Ecology is axiomatically applicable to the community: The community itself serves as "an auxiliary source of educational enrichment" (Binder, Stokols, and Catalano, 1975, p. 41). Rather than traditional organization by academic subject matter or discipline, the curricula is organized by problem area. There is a coordination between theoretical and applied learning and on-campus and off-campus experience. Central features of Social Ecology are an encompassing environmental outlook, multi-disciplinarity, and community involvement.


Binder, A. (1972) A new context for psychology: Social ecology. American Psychologist, 27, September, 1972, 903-908.

Binder, A., Stokols, D. & Catalano, R. (1975). Social Ecology: An emerging multidiscipline. Journal of Environmental Education, 7(2), Winter, 32-43.

Weidner, E.W. (1974). Environmental education: An academic plan for universities. Address for O.E.C.D. Conference on Environmental Education, Rugsted, Denmark, June, 1974.

Michelson, E. (1970). Man and his urban environment: A sociological approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

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This section presents several of the key documents which were submitted as part of the transition of the Program in Social Ecology to its current status as a School of Social Ecology. Initially Social Ecology was classified as an interdisciplinary program.

There are three documents which comprise SECTION V. The first is an excerpt from a proposal to establish a School of Social Ecology submitted to the UCI administration dated June of 1989. The second is adapted from a presentation then Director of Social Ecology Daniel Stokols to the Representative Assembly of the UCI Academic Senate on November 29, 1990. The third is the Social Ecology portion of the 1990 UCI Academic Plan called "Visions for the 21st Century"

Proposal to Establish a School of Social Ecology
at the University of California, Irvine
(Excerpt from June, 1989)

... Still the important question remains: What are the unique research and educational functions served by Social Ecology? Is the present proposal to establish a School of Social Ecology simply an effort by one unit to enlarge its resource base, or will the proposed reorganization help to achieve significant research and educational gains for the campus as a whole? To address these issues, we first describe certain intellectual themes and substantive concerns that are emphasized within Social Ecology. We then discuss the graduate and undergraduate core curricula in Social Ecology and the ways in which these required courses uniquely integrate the themes of ecological analysis, interdisciplinary research, and community intervention. It is the integration and application of these intellectual themes in our research and teaching programs that make Social Ecology distinctive vis-à-vis other academic units.

Intellectual Themes Emphasized Within Social Ecology

The intellectual foundations of Social Ecology are quite diverse and span numerous disciplines. The research orientation and educational philosophy of the Program in Social Ecology are rooted in several intellectual traditions, including evolutionary biology (Darwin, Wallace), open-systems theory (Von Bertalanffy, Maruyama, Miller), the Chicago School of Human Ecology (Park, Burgess, Hawley), urban sociology (Durkheim, Simmel, Wirth, Michelson), ecological psychology (Barker, Lewin), and the fields of public health (Cassel), urban planning (Haig), criminology and law (Sutherland, Cressey, Sax). But the Program is not simply a multidisciplinary amalgam of disparate fields and intellectual traditions. Rather, the research and educational perspectives emphasized in our Program are rooted in a common set of theoretical and methodological themes, all of which are derived from the ecological paradigm as it has evolved within the fields of biology, sociology, psychology, and public health. These over-arching themes are, in effect, the intellectual "glue" that links the diverse research areas found within the Program.

Several programmatic themes are emphasized within Social Ecology's undergraduate and graduate core curricula, as well as within our elective courses. Among these themes are the following: (1)Êthe close interdependence among biotic and abiotic systems within environments of varying size and complexity, and the ways in which balances and perturbations among these systems occur through deviation-countering and deviation-amplifying processes; (2)Êthe importance of observing people-environment transactions within naturalistic settings over extended periods as well as within shorter-term laboratory situations, so that the reciprocal and context-specific nature of people-environment relations can be better understood; (3)Êthe value of integrating multiple methodologies (e.g., qualitative and quantitative methods; environmental monitoring, physiological assays, and survey research; experimental and quasi-experimental research designs) in analyses of complex ecological systems; (4) the importance of linking scientific research and community intervention strategies toward the resolution of pressing societal problems (e.g., environmental pollution, urban violence and crime; health and behavioral impacts of new technologies); and, (5) the value of approaching complex community and environmental problems from multiple levels of analysis (spanning individuals, small groups, organizations, whole communities and geographical regions), rather than from singular disciplinary or theoretical perspectives.


Social Ecology's Core Curricula

The above-noted principles of ecological analysis, interdisciplinary research, and community intervention are introduced at the graduate level through the Seminar in Social Ecology (SE200). This course highlights the intellectual roots of Social Ecology and examines the theoretical and methodological tenets of ecologically-oriented research. Graduate students also take two quarters of multivariate statistics (SE264 A&B) and a seminar in Research Methods (SE201). These courses introduce students to a broad range of methodological strategies and statistical techniques for the measurement and evaluation of ecological systems. For their fifth core seminar, students can choose among three different courses: Program Evaluation (SE291), Behavioral Epidemiology (SE224), or Strategies of Theory Development (SE261). Together, the five required graduate courses provide in-depth coverage of the intellectual traditions and programmatic concerns of Social Ecology. Graduate Students also take six additional elective courses in which these general principles and themes are elaborated within the context of specific substantive areas (e.g., environmental health, urban planning, human development, health psychology, criminology, law and society).

The undergraduate core curriculum in Social Ecology includes five lower division courses and three upper division courses. The lower level courses introduce students to the principles of ecological analysis as they apply within three broad areas of inquiry: Criminal Justice (J4), Environmental Analysis (E8), and Social Behavior (S9). Social Ecology majors also are required to take two methodology courses, Research Design (SE10) and Statistics (SE13 or equivalent). The upper level courses consist of the field study sequence. These include a lecture course introducing field observation techniques (Studies in Field Settings, SE194) and two quarters of field internship (about 10 hours per week in a field setting plus one hour per week in small seminar with a faculty supervisor, SE195). In addition, Social Ecology majors are required to take ten upper-division elective courses and can choose to graduate with specializations in Environmental Analysis, Social Behavior, or Criminal Justice by taking six of their electives within one of these three areas.


Proposal to Reorganize
the Program in Social Ecology as a School

Summary of Comments Presented by
Daniel Stokols, Program in Social Ecology,
to UCI's Representative Assembly on November 29, 1990


1. Origins and Academic Mission of Social Ecology

The Program in Social Ecology was established at UCI in 1970 as an interdisciplinary academic unit spanning the environmental, behavioral, legal and health sciences. The intellectual foundations of the Program are rooted in the ecological paradigm as it has evolved in both the natural and the behavioral sciences. The academic mission of the Program in Social Ecology encompasses at least two major goals: (1) to train students to analyze scientific and public policy questions from a broad, interdisciplinary perspective; and (2) to apply basic theory and research to the analysis and resolution of community problems. These principles of ecological analysis, interdisciplinary research, and community problem-solving are reflected in several facets of Social Ecology's curricular and administrative organization:

A. Undergraduate and Graduate Core Courses which emphasize key integrative themes.

B. Undergraduate Field Study Internships, required for all Social Ecology majors. This requirement includes an introductory course on Studies in Field Settings (SE 194) and at least two quarters of field internship (SE 195) with a community organization. Field study placements give Social Ecology majors an opportunity to assess the contributions and limits of academic knowledge presented in the classroom when applied within non-academic community settings.

C. Multidisciplinary Academic Areas. These include the Areas of Environmental Analysis and Design, Psychology and Social Behavior, and Criminology, Law and Society. Each Area is headed by a faculty chair and comprised of a multidisciplinary faculty, rather than being organized around singular disciplinary perspectives.

D. Interdisciplinary Research Programs Focusing on Complex Social and Environmental Problems. Examples include a five-year NICHD study of children's and parents' reactions to alternative day-care arrangements; an NSF-funded study of risk assessment and communication processes among migrant farm workers; epidemiologic studies of the relationships between economic change, mental and physical health, sponsored by the NIMH; research on white collar crime within the health care and savings & loan industries, sponsored by the NIJ; and EPA-funded studies of the human health consequences of water pollution, air pollution, and lead contamination of soils.

E. Faculty Involvement in Community Problem-Solving Arenas. Social Ecology faculty have served as members of the Irvine City Council, the Irvine Planning Commission, the Irvine Water District, Irvine's Public Services Commission, and as Directors of the Youth Services Program, the Greater Irvine Health Promotion Center, and the Orange County Annual Survey.


2. Reasons for Reorganizing as a School

Over the past two decades, the Program in Social Ecology has grown substantially and has achieved strength in several substantive areas. Since 1984, the Program has offered three undergraduate specializations. Since 1988, it has offered two masters and four doctoral concentrations. The transition from a previously undifferentiated Program toward a departmentalized School of Social Ecology, offering multiple graduate degrees (in Urban and Regional Planning; Human Development; Health Psychology; Criminology, Law and Society; Environmental Health and Public Policy; and Social Ecology), would be advantageous for several reasons:

A. By making Social Ecology's unique domains of excellence more visible, the proposed school structure would strengthen graduate recruitment efforts at UCI. Reorganized as a school, Social Ecology would be better positioned to compete effectively for outstanding graduate applicants vis-à-vis similar units such as Cornell's College of Human Ecology and Penn State's College of Health and Human Development.

B. The proposed school structure also would enable Social Ecology to handle several internal, logistical demands more effectively, including (1) the balancing of Area-specific student enrollments, (2) the management of School-wide and Area-specific curricula at both undergraduate and graduate levels; (3) the implementation and management of new graduate degrees, including the recently approved Masters of Urban and Regional Planning, and proposed Ph.D. degrees in Human Development, Health Psychology, Criminology, Law and Society, and Environmental Health and Public Policy; and (4) the strengthening of Social Ecology's alumni outreach and development programs.

C. At a time when universities are being criticized for giving too little attention to complex community problems (e.g., Bok, 1990; Boyer, 1990), UCI's Program in Social Ecology is unique in the country for its long-standing commitment to interdisciplinary education and research directed toward the resolution of contemporary environmental and social problems. The establishment of a School of Social Ecology would give increased visibility to community-oriented teaching and research at UCI, and highlight the University of California's responsiveness to national educational needs and complex societal problems.


3. Chronology of Social Ecology's Reorganization Proposal

A. Proposal submitted December, 1988, as part of UCI's Long-Range Planning Process; comments on proposal provided by Executive Vice Chancellor Tien, the Academic Planning Council and several Senate and Administrative Committees; final version of the reorganization plan submitted to the Office of Academic Affairs, June 1989.

B. Further review of Social Ecology's reorganization plan by the Executive Vice Chancellor, the Academic Planning Council, several Senate and Administrative Committees during 1989-90; compilation of UCI's Academic Plan during Spring, 1990.

C. Proposal sent for formal review to UCI's Academic Senate during Spring, 1990; proposal endorsed by UCI's Graduate Council and Committee on Educational Policy during June, 1990, and by the Committees on Planning and Budget and Academic Personnel during October, 1990; later endorsed by the Executive Committee of the Senate on November 6 and the Representative Assembly on November 29, 1990.

D. Proposal to be sent to Chancellor Peltason and Executive Vice Chancellor Smith for their review during December, 1990, with request for transmittal to the President's Office for Systemwide review and approval.


Program in Social Ecology

Excerpt from
UCI Academic Plan
Visions for the 21st Century
University of California Irvine



The Program in Social Ecology was established in 1970 as an interdisciplinary unit to carry out research and provide instruction on contemporary problems in the social and physical environment from an ecological perspective. Over the past 20 years the Program in Social Ecology has compiled a strong record of interdisciplinary research and teaching. External review committees have commented on the distinctiveness and high quality of Social Ecology's undergraduate and graduate curricula. For example, the most recent graduate review committee commented that "We find the Program in Social Ecology to be a valuable and unique resource for the State and for the nation. The interdisciplinary model of the Program is imaginative and well-conceived. In addition, while most examples of interdisciplinary education elsewhere have failed, this Program has survived and is flourishing." Similarly, the undergraduate review committee noted that "The Social Ecology Program is unique in this country if not the world. Although there are some interdisciplinary programs in other universities--Law and Society, Public Policy and Management, Anthropology and Sociology--there is nothing quite like the combination, ambition, and comprehensiveness found in Social Ecology."

The Program has established several nationally visible research programs and graduate specializations in fields such as human development, health psychology, criminology, law and society, and environmental analysis and design. Social Ecology is the third largest undergraduate major on the campus and carries a relatively high student-to-faculty ratio of 46:3, as of 1988-89. Social Ecology's undergraduate field study and student affirmative action programs (most notably, the Excellence and Minority Mentorship Programs) have earned praise at campus and systemwide levels for their uniqueness and excellence.

The Program offers B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in Social Ecology. Undergraduates may elect to take a general interdisciplinary Social Ecology curriculum or to focus their studies in any of three areas of specialization: Environmental Health and Planning; Psychology and Social Behavior; and Criminology, Law and Society. In addition, undergraduates may enroll in the Applied Ecology degree curriculum which is jointly offered by the Program and the School of Biological Sciences.

The graduate program in Social Ecology focuses primarily upon theories and research which have implications for social policy and action. In the last year, four formal Ph.D. concentrations became available to graduate students: Human Development; Health Psychology; Environmental Analysis and Design; and Criminology, Law and Society. While the Program has no formal departments, faculty members are affiliated with three major areas, each headed by a faculty chair. While all faculty members have a primary affiliation with one group, many also have secondary affiliations with one or more other groups. Each of the groups is interdisciplinary, and the secondary affiliations further contribute to maintenance of the interdisciplinary character which has successfully served as the foundation of the Program since its inception.

Social Ecology currently has a faculty of 31, with six additional faculty positions and one endowed chair available for recruitment. Two of the open faculty positions will be filled as of July 1990. The Program is housed in 23,144 square feet of the Social Ecology Building, which is currently inadequate to support ongoing research and teaching activities. During Spring 1991, the Program is scheduled to occupy an additional 6,000 square feet in the Social Ecology Building, following the move of the Public Policy Research Organization to the new Campus Office Building. During 1995-96, Social Ecology is scheduled to occupy an additional 24,000 square feet in the new Social Science Building. These augmentations of Social Ecology's space will permit the growth and expansion of the Program's research and teaching activities, as outlined in its Long-range Plan submitted in June 1989.

Undergraduate Education

There has been substantial growth in the number of Social Ecology majors in recent years: in 1984-85 there were 441 majors, whereas in 1988-89 there were 1,082. Since an undergraduate does not have to declare commitment to one of the three offered specializations, precise data on the distribution of students among the general degree program and the three specialization programs are not available. However, a review of courses taken by members of the class of 1989 indicates that about 10 percent elected the general curriculum, 5 percent elected the Applied Ecology degree program, and 85 percent elected specializations--20 percent in Environmental Health and Planning; 35 percent in Psychology and Social Behavior; and 30 percent in Criminology, Law and Society. The Environmental Health and Planning specialization focuses on issues related to the impact of the physical environment on human health and behavior. The Psychology and Social Behavior specialization is concerned with human behavior over the life span in various social contexts (e.g., the family, workplace, school). The social control of criminality and violence and the relationship between society and its legal institutions are central issues addressed in the Criminology, Law and Society specialization.

A special feature of the Social Ecology undergraduate curriculum is its field studies requirement. All majors must participate in field research. The settings provided for student field study include a wide range of problem-oriented institutions in the private and public sectors (e.g., schools, health care facilities, private law firms, police departments). An honors program is open to upper division students who have completed at least five upper-division Social Ecology courses with a minimum GPA of 3.5.

Growth in the undergraduate major has been accompanied by growth in the undergraduate workload. In 1984-85, the Program was responsible for a three-term average workload of approximately 8,400 student credit-hours, whereas 1988-89 the figure was 15,000 student credit hours.

New Undergraduate Programs

The Program has proposed that it be administratively reorganized as a School. Under such a restructuring, the core Social Ecology curriculum would be retained, and students would be able to elect a general Social Ecology degree or the Applied Ecology major. Three areas of undergraduate emphasis, closely related to the existing ones, would be available. The area of environmental analysis and design would provide undergraduates an opportunity to specialize in applied ecology, environmental health, architecture, facilities management, and urban design and planning. The area of psychology and social behavior would provide curricula leading to specializations in developmental and health psychology, demography, urban sociology, and social epidemiology. The third area--criminology, law, and society--would offer specialty tracks in criminology, environmental law, legal institutions and legal procedure, and the relationships of law and the social sciences. The establishment of these areas each offering a variety of specialty tracks, would allow significantly greater coherence of Social Ecology's undergraduate curriculum.

Graduate Education

The Social Ecology graduate program grew from 62 students in 1984-85 to 86 in 1988-89. That almost 40 percent increase was accompanied by a decrease in admissions selectivity; 33 percent of its applicants were admitted in 1984-85, whereas 48 percent were admitted in 1988-89. However, only 32 percent of the graduate applicants were admitted during 1989-90. Although some decline was noted in the quality of students entering the graduate program during 1988-89 (as assessed by math and verbal GRE scores), the quality of entering graduate students was quite strong in 1989-90.

As of 1988, four formal Ph.D. concentrations became available, in addition to the general Social Ecology graduate program. These concentrations are: Health Psychology; Human Development; Environmental Analysis and Design; and Criminology, Law, and Society. Because these concentrations are new and not all students have indicated whether they are going to take one of them, it is possible only to estimate the number of students in each area. However, current data indicate that 32 percent of graduate students are unaffiliated with a concentration and that 25 percent are in Human Development, 15 percent are in Health Psychology, 15 percent are in Criminology, Law and Society, and 13 percent are in Environmental Analysis and Design. In addition to these Ph.D. concentrations, the Program also offers two Master's degree concentrations, Urban and Regional Planning and Facilities Planning and Management. Their first classes will be admitted Fall 1991.

New Graduate Programs

The Program submitted a proposal to offer a master's degree in Urban and Regional Planning which was approved by the Graduate Council in 1989 and by CCGA in 1990. The proposal is currently under review by the Office of the President and the California Post-Secondary Education Commission. It is anticipated that the proposal will be approved this year and that implementation of the program will begin Fall 1991. There currently are 13 Social Ecology faculty who will contribute to this master's program and 18 faculty in other units whose teaching and research activities are relevant to it; the Program is now working to recruit three faculty members in this area as well. The Program, which is a professional program, is expected to have an enrollment of approximately 20 students in its first few years. The new M.A. concentration in Facilities Planning and Management is also expected to enroll approximately 20 students a year.

The Program's proposal for reorganization as a School involves some restructuring of its graduate degree programs. Under the three departments that would be established, a number of graduate degree programs will be developed over the next decade. The Environmental Analysis and Design group would offer three postbaccalaureate degrees under the proposal: the Master's in Urban and Regional Planning, a Master's in Facilities Planning and Management, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Health and Public Policy. The proposal calls for the Psychology and Social Behavior area faculty to offer Ph.D. programs in Human Development and health Psychology. The Program submitted a proposal to establish a Ph.D. in Health Psychology to the Graduate Council during Fall 1989. A proposal to establish the Human Development Ph.D. was submitted to the Graduate Council during Winter 1990. Both proposals are currently under review. The Criminology, Law, and Society group would offer a single Ph.D. program. In addition to these focused graduate programs, Social Ecology will continue to offer the M.A. and Ph.D. in the general area of Social Ecology.

The Program's proposal to become a School would create three schoolwide administrative positions; Dean, Associate Dean for Graduate Studies, and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies and would also create three departments. The most recent external review committees for Social Ecology's undergraduate and graduate programs have expressed support for the reorganization. As has been discussed above, one objective of this restructuring is to develop more focused undergraduate and graduate curricula. The Program plans to maintain its unique interdisciplinary structure and educational orientation by requiring all Ph.D. students to take a core curriculum involving interdisciplinary emphases. The range of programs to be offered will be considered within the context of the campus resources required to mount nationally recognized programs in each area. It is clear that the Criminology, Law, and Society area (department) will facilitate eventual establishment of a law school at UCI. Moreover, the area allows for the eventual development of an interschool degree program in jurisprudence and social policy. Similarly, the new degree programs in Urban and Regional Planning and Facility Planning and Management will provide an intellectual basis for the possible establishment of a school of urban planning and design at UCI. The relationship between the proposed Ph.D. in Health Psychology and the development of a doctoral program in clinical psychology, a possibility also now under active consideration, is currently being assessed. As at other major universities, these programs could complement each other and enrich the training of graduate students in each specialty. The faculty of the Program in Social Ecology have prepared several detailed degree proposals that merit the closest consideration in the context of the development of both the initiatives of Social Ecology and the campus as a whole.

Table of Contents



1970 Founding of the Program (and B.A. Degree) in Social Ecology at UCI by Professor Arnold Binder.

1973 M.A. in Social Ecology established.

1975 Ph.D. in Social Ecology established.

1984 Relocation from Engineering and Computer Science Buildings to the new Social Ecology Building (now called Social Ecology I).

1989 Establishment of three Areas (Psychology and Social Behavior; Criminology, Law and Society; Environmental Analysis and Design) and appointment of Area Chairs.

1990 Establishment of Ph.D. Degrees in Human Development and Health Psychology.

1991 Establishment of Ph.D. Degree in Criminology, Law and Society and the Masters of Urban and Regional Planning; Social Ecology's fourth Area, the Graduate Program in Urban and Regional Planning, also established.

1992 Social Ecology formally designated as a School by the UC Regents in May; establishment of Departments and B.A. majors in PSB, CLS, and EAD in July.

1993 Proposal to establish URP Department approved by UCI Academic Senate; proposals to establish Ph.D. Degrees in Environmental Health Science and Policy and Urban and Regional Planning submitted to the UCI Graduate Council.

1994 Construction of Social Ecology II Building to commence; completion of the Social Sciences II Complex scheduled for Spring or Summer, 1996.

1996 Approval of new Ph.D. programs in Urban and Regional Planning and Environmental Health Science and Policy.

1996 Opening of the Social Ecology II Building.

1996 Celebration of Social Ecology's 25th Anniversary.

1997 Rediscovering Social Ecology initiated by graduate students.

1999 Approintment of C. Ronald Huff as Dean of Social Ecology

Table of Contents



Stokols (1992) conceptualized health promotion broadly as "a dynamic transaction between individuals and groups and their psychosocial milieu (p. 8)". Such a conceptualization requires an analysis of both the environmental resources which are available and the life-styles and health habits of the individuals under study.

The first step was to measure the features of the environment which promote personal and collective well-being by different criteria at different levels of analysis. In taking this first step Stokols employed one of the basic assumptions of the ecological perspective that "healthfulness is a multifaceted phenomenon encompassing physical health, emotional well-being, and social cohesion (Stokols, 1992, p. 8)."


Conceptualizing Health-Promotive Environments

For Stokols, an "explicit recognition of the multiple facets of healthfulness has important implications for ecologically oriented analyses of health promotion (Stokols, 1992, p. 8)." Such a recognition leads to defining the health-promotive capacity of an environment in terms of multiple health outcomes:

... the health-promotive capacity of an environment must be defined in terms of the multiple health outcomes resulting from people-environment transactions over a specified time interval. Thus, for any environmental context of behavior, it is important to specify key environmental resources or constraints that are likely to influence personal and collective well-being among members of the setting (Stokols, 1992, p. 9).

In Tabular form, Stokols represented this analysis as follows (presented in abbreviated form):

Facets of Healthfulness

 Resources in the Environment  Behavioral Psychological Outcomes
Social Ecological Multi-Level Analysis of Health-Promotive Environments

 Physical Health

Injury resistant, not toxic

Absence of illness symptoms

Emotional Well-being

Environmental predictability

Attachment to social milieu

 Social cohesion

Social support networks

Social contact and cooperation


The table presented environmental resources which have a positive influence on individual and group well-being. Person-environment transactions with health outcomes may be assessed at different levels of analysis.

Stokols notes that "Given the diversity of environmental conditions present in most settings, it is likely that the relationships between those conditions and multiple health indices will be quite varied and sometimes contradictory (Stokols, 1992, p. 9)." In a social ecological analysis of health promotion, the principal point is the importance of examining both physical and social dimensions of environments and their joint influence of well-being.

Modeling Relationships Among Environmental and Behavioral Factors in Health

Another aspect of applying a social ecological perspective to health promotion is the task of developing interdisciplinary models of the relationships among environmental and behavioral factors in health.

Following L. W. Green's (1984) article "Modifying and developing health behavior" which appeared in the Annual Review of Public Health (Vol. 11, pp. 215-236), Stokols drew attention to a bias in the health-promotion field toward psychological analyses. Interventions with an illness-prevention purpose typically have little or no theoretical input from the fields of sociology, anthropology, economics, and political science.

By way of contrast, a broader analysis is possible by focusing from a social ecological perspective on the health-promotive capacity of environments: "of the transitions between individual and collective behaviors and the various constraints and resources for health that exist in specific sociophysical environments (Stokols, 1992, p. 12)."

The approach Stokols took to accomplish this task was to extend the analysis of healthy environments to a more comprehensive and interactive analysis of "the relationships among behavioral and environmental factors in health and health promotion (Stokols, 1992, p. 12)."

Represented in text format are five health-related functions of the sociophysical environment:

1. Both the physical and social environment can function as mediums for disease transmission.


  • waterborne and airborne diseases
  • illnesses resulting from food contamination
  • spread of contagious disease through interpersonal contact

2. The environment can operate as a stressor.


  • emotional stress resulting from chronic exposure to uncontrollable environmental demands
  • physical debilitation resulting from chronic exposure to uncontrollable environmental demands, (illustrations of uncontrollable environmental demands are noise, abrupt economic change, or interpersonal conflict)

Stokols also notes that exposure to a positive environment can alleviate stress and promote physical and emotional well-being.

3. The environment functions as a source of safety or danger with respect to health consequences.


  • natural and technological disasters
  • air and water pollution
  • occupational hazards
  • interpersonal violence
  • crime

4. The environment can function as an enabler of health behavior.


  • installation of safety devices in buildings and vehicles
  • geographic proximity to health care
  • exposure to cultural practices which foster health-promotive behavior

5. The environment serves as a provider of health resources.


  • community sanitation services
  • organizational and community health services
  • legislation protecting the quality of physical environments
  • legislation ensuring citizens' access to health insurance
  • legislation ensuring citizens' access to community-based health care

Stokols (1992) observed that in specific environmental contexts the health-relevant functions of the sociophysical environment can operate concurrently and are closely intertwined.
The multi-perspective approach and the multi-level analytical framework of social ecology may be illustrated in its application to health promotion. The five health-related functions of the sociophysical environment are one element of a social ecology perspective.

Another component of a social ecology perspective on health promotion is to link an environmental analysis to biological, psychological, and behavioral factors in health, then to develop the framework which emerges at different levels of analysis. Linking an environmental analysis to biological, psychological, and behavior factors was accomplished by Stokols (1992) with two specific categories under the general heading of "Personal and Environmental Factors in Health and Illness."

The first specific category he labeled "Biopsychobehavioral Factors." Within this category were three perspectives: Biogenic, Psychological, and Behavior. Each perspective was then approached from a multi-level analytic framework:



  • Family history
  • Exposure to infectious pathogens
  • Disabling injury
  • Age
  • Gender



  • Optimism
  • Interpersonal skills
  • Coronary-prone orientation
  • Cancer-prone orientation
  • Depression



  • Dietary regimens
  • Alcohol consumption
  • Smoking
  • Exercise patterns
  • Sleep patterns

The second specific category he labeled "Sociophysical Environmental Factors." Within this category were three perspectives: Geographic, Architectural and Technological, and Sociocultural. Each perspective was then approached from a multi-level analytic framework:



  • Groundwater contamination
  • Ultraviolet radiation
  • Atmospheric ozone depletion
  • Global warming
  • Health consequences of reduced biodiversity

Architectural and Technological


  • Non-toxic construction
  • Noise pollution
  • Vehicular and passenger safety
  • Water quality treatment
  • Indoor air pollution, "sick building syndrome"



  • Socioeconomic status
  • Organizational or political instability
  • Availability of health insurance
  • Environmental protection regulations
  • Social support versus social isolation

Combining these two general categories provides six different perspectives on personal and environmental factors in health and illness:

  • Biogenic
  • Psychological
  • Behavioral
  • Geographic
  • Architectural and Technological
  • Sociocultural

Each of these different perspectives are then approached from a social ecological perspective from different levels of analysis.

Another framework for analysis within a social ecological perspective would be to link the five health-related functions of the sociophysical environment to the identification of the specific mechanisms by which geographic, architectural-technological, and sociocultural factors influence health and illness. Since research has not yet confirmed many of the specific linkages, such a framework for analysis also defines a number of avenues for future inquiry. Stokols (1992) represented this analytical framework visually. Dimensions of the environment (multiple perspectives) were presented in terms of levels of function of the environment, and whether the dimension identified and selected was physical or social.

This was represented visually as follows:


Dimensions of the Environment

Environmental Function Physical Social
<-- multi-perspective -->


 (Adapted from Daniel Stokols "Establishing and Maintaining Healthy Environments: Toward a Social Ecology of Health Promotion" American Psychologist January 1992, Vol. 47, No. 1, pp. 6-22.)

In this framework, each of the dimensions of the environment were then approached in terms of levels of analysis.


  Physical Social
Environmental Function
Medium of Disease Water and airbourne disease Contagious disease spread through contact
Stressor Exposure to uncontrollable noise Chronic social conflict
Source of Safety or Danger Effects of toxic hazards Injury from violence or crime
Enabler of Health Behavior Geographic accessibility of health care practices Cultural and religious which are health-promotive
Provider of Health Resources Community sanitation Legislation on public health & safety

 Stokols indicates that a social ecological perspective on health promotion has important implications for theory development and basic research, as well as for the development of public policy, community intervention, and program evaluation.

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 The source of perspective for this section of Conceptual Social ecology are Rosenfield (1992) and Stokols (1998).


Both Stokols (1998) and Rosenfield (1992) consider the essence of transdisciplinary research to be a common conceptual framework which blends existing concepts and theories. Expected outcomes of transdisciplinary research are more comprehensive analyses, new concepts, and new research techniques. Additional outcomes include new training programs and policy changes.

The emphasis is on taking into account the "broader context" in which occurs the societal problem of health or environment which is under study. Taking in account "the broader context" leads to more lasting improvements in the situation which is being studied. Rosenfield urges that researchers "fuse the research approaches and work together in data collection and analysis and interpretation of findings" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1349).


Rosenfield (1992, p 1351) provides a taxonomy of cross disciplinary research by distinguishing the distinctive characteristics of multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary research.

Multidisciplinary: "Researchers work in parallel or sequentially from disciplinary-specific base to address common problem." (Rosenfield, 1992, p.1251).

The strength of such an approach is that it can lead to immediate solutions, though they may be "possibly short-lived...". A limitation is that it is not usually "conceptually pathbreaking." As multidisciplinary research is conducted, each discipline works independently. Results which are a product of the research are "usually brought together only at the end" (Rosenfield, 1992, 1351).

Interdisciplinary: "Researchers work jointly but still from disciplinary-specific basis to address common problem" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1351).

The strength of this approach is that "serious projects are contributing new knowledge" from a different disciplines using their specific techniques and skills (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1352). In contrast to multidisciplinary research, representatives of disciplines do not work independently. Results which are a product of the research are typically reported "in a partial, discipline-by-discipline sequence" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1351).

Transdisciplinary: "Researchers work jointly using shared conceptual framework drawing together disciplinary-specific theories, concepts, and approaches to address common problem" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1351)

The strength of this approach is that it builds a common conceptual framework which serves as a comprehensive organizing construct for research that transcends separate disciplinary theoretical and methodological orientations. The common conceptual framework can be used "to define and analyze the research problem..." (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1351).

A result of a common conceptual framework is that it can lead to new practical approaches to solving societal problems of health and environment. In transdisciplinary inquiry, researchers work together on such basic research tasks as defining the problem, identifying concepts and research methods, and presenting results. New approaches to social and medical science flow from the process of working together.


Rosenfield (1992) describes the characteristics of a conceptual framework for transdisciplinary research. Such a framework "should explicitly incorporate structures of society and bring into play all conditioning factors which influence the extent of health problems" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1351).

By way of example, she provided an illustration of incorporating the conceptual relationship between social, economic, political, and intersectoral conditions and impacts in a study of tropical disease.

  1. Examine social and economic consequences of tropical diseases;
  2. Following adaptation, examine the development and use of medical technologies;
  3. Explicitly include the contextual, political, economic factors;
  4. Explicitly include health inputs, inputs from other sectors;
  5. Explicitly include the combined impact on health, social, and economic outcomes "which then feedback to change the baseline conditions" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1352).


Rosenfield identified the goal of transdisciplinary research in the context of epidemiological challenges in the rise of chronic disease in developing countries and the resurgence of infectious diseases in developed countries:

"...the conceptual framework must transcend disciplinary bounds and, yet, draw on the previous knowledge and experiences of those disciplines. A new type of research should emerge that enables the analysis of a particular problem to be located in the transdisciplinary conceptual framework and to be analyzed accordingly" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1352).

Results from a transdisciplinary framework can lead to "broadly-based trans-sectoral programs and actions with longer life--new concepts, methods, and policies" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1353).

Transdisciplinary research is not "research as usual." There is a "full discussion" of the problem, and more "extensive" and "in-depth" analyses. In the tropical health example, what was included was broadly based: the research framework was expanded to include "concepts from sociology, demography, anthropology, epidemiology, immunology, parasitology, and entomology coalesced and linked with the basic economic concepts underlying the migration and resettlement strategies of the government" (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1353).

Again, by way of illustration from the tropical health example:

"Sociologists pondered new prevalence detection strategies and entomologists explored changing human behaviors while anthropologists and demographers noted changed vectorial behaviors: (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1353).

Such an approach to the process of the tropical health research led to shifts in paradigms and in research practices. The potential of transdisciplinary research is moving to a stage "where disciplines can build on their distinct traditions and coalesce to become a new field of research..." (Rosenfield, 1992, p. 1354-1355).


Rosenfield, P. L. (1992) The potential of transdisciplinary research for sustaining and extending linkages between the health and social sciences. Social Science Med., 35(11), 1343-1357.

Stokols, D. (1998). The future of interdisciplinarity in the School of Social Ecology. Paper presented at the School of Social Ecology Associates Annual Awards Reception. School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine. May 21, 1998.

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UCI News: UCI School of Social Ecology: 25TH ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION


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Dan Stokols: The Future of Interdisciplinarity in the School of Social Ecology


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Compiled by Daniel Stokols for an Undergraduate Seminar



Principles of Biological and Human Ecology

Hawley, A.H. (1950). Human ecology. International encyclopedia of the social sciences, Vol. 4. New York: MacMillan, 328-336.

Michelson, W. (1976). Man and his urban environment: A sociological approach. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 3-32.

Societal and Scientific Origins of Social Ecology

Binder, A. (1972). A new context for psychology: Social ecology. American Psychologist, 27, 903-908.

Binder, A., Stokols, D., & Catalano, R. (1975). Social ecology: An emerging multidiscipline. Journal of Environmental Education, 7, 32-43.

Catalano, R. (1979). Health, behavior and the community. New York: Pergamon Press, Chapters 1, 2, 4.

Proshansky, H.M. (1972). For what are we training our graduate students? American Psychologist, 27, 205-212.


Homeostasis and Disequilibrium Within Biological and Social Systems

Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1975). Eye-contact, distance and affiliation. Sociometry, 28, 289-304.

Bales, R.F. (1949). Adaptive and integrative changes as sources of strain in social systems. In R.F. Bales, Interaction process analysis: A method for the study of small groups. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley, 127-131.

Katz, D., & Kahn, R.L. (1966). The social psychology of organizations. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 14-29.

Milgram, S. (1970). The experience of living in cities. Science, 167, 1461-1468.

Selye, H. (1973). The evolution of the stress concept. American Scientist, 61, 692-699.

Weick, K.E. (1979). The social psychology of organizing. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 69-88; 262-263.

Wynne-Edwards, V.C. (1962). Self-regulating systems in populations of animals. Science, 147, 1543-1548.

Interdependencies Between the Social and Physical Environment, Human Behavior and Well-being

Appleyard, D., & Lintell, M. (1972). The environmental quality of city streets: The residents' viewpoint. Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 38, 233-258.

Baum, A., Fleming, R., & Davidson, L.M. (1983). Natural disaster and technological catastrophe. Environment and Behavior, 15, 333-354.

Lewis, C.A. (1979). Healing in the urban environment: A person/plant viewpoint. American Planing Association Journal, 45, 330-338.

Newman, O. Defensible space. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1-19.

Platt, J. (1973). Social traps. American Psychologist, 28, 641-651.

Ulrich, R.S. (1984). View through a window may influence recovery from surgery. Science, 224, 420-421.


Disciplines, Paradigms, and Theories

Campbell, D.T. (1969). Ethnocentrism of disciplines and the fish-scale model of omniscience. In M. Sherif & C. W. Sherif (Eds.), Interdisciplinary relationships in the social sciences. Chicago: Aldine Press, 328-348.

Durkheim, E. (1964). The rules of sociological method. New York: The Free Press, Introduction, 1-13.

Jessor, R. (1958). The problem of reductionism in psychology. Psychological Review, 65, 245-257.

Lewin, K. (1936). Principles of topological psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 11-29.

Shapere, D. (1976). Critique of the paradigm concept. In M.H. Marx & F.E. Goodson, (Eds.). Theories in contemporary psychology, . New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 53-61.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Contextual Analyses Within the Fields of Criminology, Environmental Analysis, Human Development, and Public Health

Bronfenbrenner, U. (1977). Toward an experimental ecology of human development. American Psychologist, 32, 513-530.

Cohen, L.E., & Felson, M. (1979). Social change and crime rate trends: A routine activity approach. American Sociological Review, 44, 588-608.

Sarbin, T.R. (1970). The culture of poverty, social identity, and cognitive outcomes. In Allen, V.L. (Ed.), Psychological factors in poverty. Chicago: Markham Publishing Company, 29-47.

Stern, P.C., & Gardner, G.T. (1981). Psychological research and energy policy. American Psychologist, 36, 329-342.

Stokols, D. (1992). Establishing and maintaining healthy environments: Toward a social ecology of health promotion. American Psychologist, 47, 6-22.

Stokols, E., & Altman, I. (Eds.). (1987). Handbook of Environmental Psychology. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Preface-70.


Avoiding Unintended Side-Effects of Community Interventions

Barsky, A.J. (1988). The paradox of health. New England Journal of Medicine, 318, 414-418.

Becker, M.H. (1991). In hot pursuit of health promotion: Some admonitions. In S.M. Weiss, J.E. Fielding, & A. Baum (Eds.). Perspectives in behavioral medicine: Health at work. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 178-188.

Everett, P.B., Hayward, S.C., & Meyers, A.W. (1974). The effects of a token reinforcement procedure on bus ridership. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 7, 1-9.

Geller, E.S. (1991). Where's the validity in social validity? Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 24, 189-204.

Schulz, R., & Hanusa, B.H. (1976). Long-term effects of control and predictability-enhancing interventions: Findings and ethical issues. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1194-1202.

Willems, E.P. (1973). Go ye into the world and modify behavior: An ecologist's view. Representative Research in Social Psychology, 4, 93-105.

Developing Research-Based Guidelines for Environmental and Urban Design

Alexander, C., Ishikawa, S., Silverstein, M., Jacobson, M., Fiksdahl-King, I, & Angel, S. (1977). A pattern language. New York: Oxford University Press, 610-613; 889-892.

Marcus, C.C. (1985). Design guidelines: A bridge between research and decision-making. Paper presented at the U.S.-Japan seminar on environment-behavior research. Department of Psychology, University of Arizona, Tucson, October, 1985.

Reizenstein Carpman, J., Grant, M.A. & Simmons, D.A. (1986). Design that cares: Planning health facilities for patients and visitors. Chicago: American Hospital Association, 11-20; 197-218.

Stokols, D. (in press). Strategies of environmental simulation: Theoretical, methodological, and policy issues. In R.W. Marans & D. Stokols (Eds.), Environmental simulation: Research and policy Issues. New York: Plenum Press.

Yancey, W.L. (1971). Architecture, interaction, and social control: The case of a large-scale public housing project. Environment and Behavior, 3, 3-21.

Social Ecology and Social Change

Gergen, K.J. (1978). Toward generative theory. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36, 1344-1360.

Platt, J.R. (1964). Strong inference. Science, 146, 347-353.

Stokols, D. (1988). Transformational processes in people-environment relations. In McGrath, J.E. (Ed.), The social psychology of time: New perspectives. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 233-252.


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