Position paper

Redefining social sustainability

Network alliances and research plans

Murray RiverOur network will be applying for recognition as part of a larger ARC Special Research Network. We will become one node of this larger network, focusing on environmental and social sustainability, although node members will contribute to other areas. Our node will be administered by the Hawke Research Institute for Sustainable Societies at the University of South Australia and will be convened by Professor Alison Mackinnon. The initial focus of our node will be an examination of local and regional sustainability projects in the Murray-Darling Basin area as a case study.

The key researchers in our node will be from the University of South Australia, Charles Sturt University, the Institute for a Sustainable Future at UTS and the CSIRO Division of Land and Water. In addition 4–5 international partners will be approached. It is anticipated that our node will meet 2–4 times a year, with one of these meetings being a face-to-face summit. This is in addition to full network meetings, which are expected to be annual. These plans are still being developed.

Summary of position statement

This section is an outline of our definitions of social sustainability and eco-social sustainability.

As noted in our background paper, a two-stage process of definition is required in order to develop an equal partnership between environmental and social scientists. Social sustainability must initially be developed as an independent field of study without reference to environmental or economic concerns. Once this process has occurred, the interplay between these indicators and similar indicators of environmental sustainability can be measured and understood.

This paper also explains our choice of local and regional issues as a key focus for sustainability. While policies and institutions operating on a federal or international level are certainly within the scope of our study, the main focus will be on the effect of policies and institutions operating within particular local areas of the Murray-Darling Basin. We see that the recognition of common problems and the adoption of shared solutions throughout regional institutions in the Murray-Darling will have greater effect than the attempted implementation of top-down strategies from the federal level. In particular, we will be looking at the role of education and the arts in sustainability studies.

The next sections deal with our views on the importance of interdisciplinary research in this field. The idea that social scientists, physical scientists, as well as visual artists should work together on sustainability issues is commonly stated but less commonly achieved, and we will examine the potential for the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge centrally within the discourse of sustainability.

Social sustainability

The following definition has been developed using other available definitions of social sustainability, with particular reference to the work of Polése and Stren (discussed below). The definition will be evaluated and expanded as the network progresses.

Social sustainability is: a positive condition created by particular social institutions and policies.

The following features define the condition:

  • equity of access to key services (including health, education, transport, housing and recreation)
  • equity between generations, meaning that future generations will not be disadvantaged by the activities of the current generation
  • equity within generations, so that all sections of the community have access to the services described
  • a system of cultural relations in which the positive aspects of disparate cultures are valued and protected, and in which cultural integration is supported and promoted when it is desired by individuals and groups
  • the widespread participation of citizens not only in electoral procedures but also in other areas of political activity, particularly at a local level. 

Eco-social sustainability

Eco-social sustainability is: a positive condition created by particular social and environmental institutions and policies. The following features define the condition (in addition to the features of social sustainability described above):

  • a use of natural resources that is not greater than their natural supply
  • a locally-based sense of community responsibility for the use and management of resources within the community area
  • a system for transmitting socio-environmental awareness from one generation to the next, as well as a sense of community responsibility for maintaining that system.

Local focus: sustainable cities

As noted in the previous sections, definitions of sustainability become meaningless without knowledge of precisely what is being sustained. A project framework that attempted to encompass all aspects of all societies (including all interactions with the economy and the environment) would almost certainly be too general to be applicable to any specific situation. For this reason, most studies of social sustainability in practice focus on specific case studies in local situations, and attempt to extrapolate from these to make observations about the bigger picture only where they are particularly appropriate.

Much of the most useful literature in this regard comes from studies of successful and socially just urban environments and the policies and institutions that support them. For example, UNESCO’s MOST (Management of Social Transformations) has run a series of case study projects on cities, and the social policies that determine the social sustainability of each city. In their project report The social sustainability of cities, Polése and Stren’s definition of social sustainability for a city is: ‘Development and/or growth that is compatible with the harmonious evolution of civil society, fostering an environment conducive to the compatible cohabitation of culturally and socially diverse groups while at the same time encouraging social integration, with improvements in the quality of life for all segments of the population’ (pp 15–16).

In their case studies of 10 large cities, Polése and Stren analyse the success of social policies in six key areas: governance, cultural policy, infrastructure (services), housing, transport and employment. (Governance may generally be defined as the systems by which the other policy areas are implemented.) Their focus on the local in all these matters is due to recognition that ‘the social sustainability of cities is affected not only by nationwide aspatial policies … but also, if not chiefly, by policy decisions and implementation at the local level’. They note that much macro-level social theory and policy has thus far failed to develop sufficient frameworks for social sustainability. What is instead required is a focus on local policies and institutions, to build up ‘comparative knowledge about the key factors that make urban policies successful or unsuccessful’ (p 14).

Polése and Stren define social stability without specific reference to the environment, as does our network. This does not mean that the environment is not a core concern in their agenda. Their argument for doing so is that environmental degradation is often closely linked with poverty, and policies that reduce poverty reduction and increase social justice will in the long run prove to be more effective solutions to environmental issues. ‘To be environmentally sustainable, cities must also be socially sustainable’ (p 15).

Local focus: sustainable rural communities

Another related field is the study of social sustainability in rural environments. Here, the focus is commonly on ways of protecting communities from the worst effects of demographic change in rural areas. That the movement of rural population to urban centres of employment has destabilised rural areas and also created a further downgrading of services to those areas is well known and should need no further exposition. What is required are local studies of the strategies that are being adopted in response to issues such as drought and unemployment, to study their effectiveness and to see whether they might be transferable into other areas.

The Centre for Rural Social Research (Charles Sturt University) has run a number of projects on rural social sustainability in recent years. The Social Aspects of Agriculture, Environment & Sustainability and Rural Social Conditions, Rural Policy & Service Delivery groups, which include network members Margaret Alston and Ian Gray, have conducted large-scale surveys and GIS analysis of subjects such as access to education, coping with drought, community perceptions of sustainability and the social aspects of farming. Another CSU centre, the Johnstone Centre for Research into Resources and Society (currently headed by network member Nick Klomp) also focuses on sustainability in the Murray-Darling Basin and also has a specific focus on the social dimensions of sustainable development.

These and other rural social and environmental research institutions form a substantial area of Australian research capacity with which our network will initiate dialogue and share research results and research design ideas.

Institutions and policies

The Murray-Darling case study contains specific examples of institutions with which our network will engage. This section outlines our general position.

Policy areas and institutions that affect social and environmental sustainability covers a large range of government and non-government activity. Of primary importance to the social aspect are the areas of health, education, employment, transport and housing, which are the primary responsibilities of state and federal government. However, we note that societies cannot be studied, sustained or altered through policy or institutional change without reference to the space (local region) they occupy, an observation which brings into play such things as the allocation of recreational and civic space, street design, the location of services in relation to population, and so on.

All education institutions functioning within the local area will come within the remit of our study. We see education (broadly defined) as a vital tool in achieving social sustainability. ‘Intergenerational relations‘, in many definitions of sustainability, has come to mean the assurance that the needs of the future generation are not compromised by our own behaviour. Equally important is the ability to be able to transmit consistent ideals of sustainability from one generation to the next. Structures of sustainability research, practice and reporting must be applicable to subsequent generations otherwise they will quickly become redundant, as the ‘needs’ of a society are subject to change dependant on expectation and available resources.

In this regard, we see that a system in which concepts of ecological and social sustainability are understood, valued and promoted is one of the principal things that needs to be sustained and transmitted, and that the education system, both in its formal and informal modes, is one of the principal arenas in which this transmission can occur. We also believe that the arts, visual and written, can play a major role in educating communities about social and environmental change. These notions are embedded in one of the principal features of our definition of eco-social sustainability: A system for transmitting socio-environmental awareness from one generation to the next, as well as a sense of community responsibility for maintaining that system.


The associated terms multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity and transdisciplinarity all propose the necessity of integrating formally distinct disciplines and their methodological and theoretical frameworks. This is in order to gain a fuller, multifaceted understanding of any field of study the scope of which transcends those disciplinary parameters and the artificial restrictions they impose. It has been argued throughout this web report that all research into sustainability requires an approach that incorporates an array of disciplines because only in this way is it possible to understand the complex interactions taking place within and between the environment and human societies and to simultaneously address environmental problems and their social and cultural causes.

While all of the above terms derive from an appreciation of the possibilities offered by consideration of the complex interactions between disciplines and knowledge systems, transdisciplinarity is often distinguished from the others by two particulars. The first is that it is usually considered to be ‘problem-based’ and specifically aimed at producing ‘societal’ rather than purely ‘academic’ or epistemological outcomes. The second is that ideas of transdisciplinarity are often said to derive from thinking about ways for science disciplines and methodologies to establish connections between themselves and with ‘non-science’ disciplines, such as those within the humanities and social sciences, to allow ‘scientific’ studies of problems with cultural and societal ramifications.

In the words of Egon Becker, transdisciplinarity ‘indicates a transformation in the relationship between science and society’ and deals ‘with complex problems that have extra-scientific roots in a scientific manner while working with networks of researchers and social actors. It aims at solutions to agency problems and at an overarching integration of scientific and action based knowledge as well’ (from 'Transformations of social and ecological issues into transdisciplinary research' in UNESCO, Knowledge for sustainable development: an insight into the encyclopedia of life support systems, UNESCO Publishing, Paris, 2002, p 2).

As Becker goes on to note, there may be a tendency according to this definition to marginalise or exclude projects whose research has a more theoretical focus, once powerful scientific organisations become involved. The marginalisation of some knowledges in order to achieve consistency in results is not the only issue faced by interdisciplinary research teams. For Julie Thompson Klein (1994) a deeper epistemological problem arises in many transdisciplinary research projects that, in attempting to construct a unifying perspective, ‘encounter the problem of holism’ and in reducing ‘all phenomena to one metaphor, theory, or ideology … risk becoming monolithic projects or closed systems’ (from Notes toward a social epistemology of transdisciplinarity, 1994).

These warnings notwithstanding, it is easy to see why the conditions of complexity and hybridity pertaining to many fields of research, including sustainability, demand a cross-disciplinary approach. Nevertheless, further difficulties inherent in the endeavour need to be acknowledged. Problems of language associated with encounters between diverse disciplines and between academia, government and the wider community; and problems arising from assumptions about the hierarchical status of different parties working in a cross-, trans- or inter-disciplinary and institutional field are all among those difficulties.

In recognition of these difficulties, our network will work towards strengthening communication between disciplines and between communities, universities and governments at a local, state and federal level. Our emphasis will concentrate on integrating existing research results, and looking for best practice examples of projects that have managed to overcome the problems associated with interdisciplinary practice. This will involve an investigation of research undertaken by researchers in our network and by others in the Murray-Darling region.

The arts

Our network will examine and further the use of the visual and written arts in exploring and promoting concepts of eco-social sustainability. Network member Kay Lawrence is an experienced visual arts practitioner with a strong track record in regional and community art projects. In 2001 she was awarded a Centenary of Federation grant for a project on 'Weaving the Murray', encapsulating the diversity of the river communities, and acknowledging a historical relationship to the river and the importance of the River Murray to all Australians today.

Other projects in Australia on the role of the arts in sustainability will be examined to evaluate their success. The Institute for Rural Futures (University of New England) are running a study on the Environment and the Arts (on the influence of the visual arts in people’s perceptions of the environment.

Indigenous knowledges and sustainability

There is a growing recognition of the link between the knowledges and practices of Indigenous peoples and the issue of sustainable development. On a world level this is witnessed by the recent introduction of a dedicated Indigenous support platform within the World Bank, and the initiation of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues and more specifically the Database of Best Practice on Indigenous Knowledge within UNESCO’s MOST Program.) Both programs recognise the importance of regional and particularly Indigenous input into the sustainability of regions. The position of UNESCO is that ‘local and indigenous knowledge is a key resource for empowering communities to combat marginalization, poverty and impoverishment’ (UNESCO Indigenous Special Topic Section).

The inclusion of Indigenous knowledges is particularly important within our interdisciplinary framework, as many indigenous ways of seeing embody potential models for interdisciplinary thought. As is noted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Taskforce on Indigenous Peoples: ‘Indigenous Peoples are among the best organized and most articulate groups in defense of local community rights and concerns. Their holistic views that link environmental sustainability directly with individual health and community well-being, communicate that it is not just the diversity of life that provides the cornerstone for sustainability – but also the knowledge of that diversity enshrined in the laws, sciences, religions, rituals and ceremonies of human societies’ (Inter Commission Taskforce on Indigenous Peoples, Indigenous Peoples and Sustainability: Cases and Actions, 1997).

Literature relating to the ‘Fourth World’ and the rights of Indigenous peoples argues strongly for a definition of sustainability that includes social factors and a move away from the entrenched assumption that development is inherently advantageous. Kathy Seton’s paper ‘Fourth World nations in an era of globalisation’ (Fourth World Journal, 4(1), 1999) discusses the growing recognition that environmental diversity cannot be sustained without cultural diversity and the preservation of traditional environmental knowledge, and argues for the widespread adoption of ‘symbiotic conservation’.

In Australia, the use of Indigenous knowledge within relatively traditional discussions of environmental sustainability is now embedded within tertiary education (see for example the subjects at Murdoch University and particularly the online unit at Griffith University which has been developed with the assistance of the United Nations Environment Program). However, there is also a growing recognition within Australia of the need to concentrate on the social aspect of sustainability in order to adequately fulfil the needs of Indigenous peoples. Some commentators see sustainability as a principal step in achieving reconciliation (see for example the paper on ‘Sustainability and reconciliation’ at Reconciliation Victoria).

Steve Kinnane in a paper for the Western Australian Sustainability Policy Unit, notes the need to develop a whole-of-system approach to understanding and catering for Indigenous rights on a regional level: ‘Inherent Indigenous rights are not individual rights. They … provide for individual place and relationship, but operate within a collective Aboriginal whole-of-community approach. This is widely understood and accepted as an Indigenous approach to land, heritage, community and culture, and must be vested in any process that claims the mantle of sustainability.’

Our network is particularly well placed to comment on the use of Indigenous knowledges within such local eco-social sustainability programs. For example, network member Deborah Bird Rose has recently co-authored a paper on the use of Indigenous totemic law as ‘the basis for ways of thinking about co-management and sustainable futures’ (‘Indigenous kinship with the natural world in New South Wales’, NSW Parks and Wildlife Service, 2003). Other network members Lester and Daryle Rigney have written extensively on Indigenous cultural practices, particularly within education, and Bobby Banerjee has critiqued the concept of sustainable development from an Indigenous perspective (see Abstracts and examples).

A word about indicators

The principal focus on institutions and policies will distinguish our work from many other discussions of sustainability, particularly in regard to indicators. Many indicators of social sustainability employ figures such as the percentage of literate persons, or alternatively, the number of homicides per million people in the population. Such statistics are useful, particularly in comparing the performance of countries, or in analysing which areas of a given country are in an ‘unsustainable’ condition and therefore in need of increased resources. However, on their own they do not explain why these areas are in a particular condition, or precisely where resources might be best spent in order to alleviate the problem. The majority of the work thus far on social sustainability has been on generating these indicator systems (a notable example being the recent implementation of the Measuring Australia’s Progress system by the ABS).

Two main Australian projects stand out in terms of having well-established indicator systems. Firstly, the Western Australian government’s Sustainability Indicators Project engaged in a lengthy consultation phase in which participants in the research were called upon to comment on what they see as being desirable indicators of sustainability in their region. The results are arranged in their publications according to the overlapping spheres model discussed in the background paper, thereby providing a structure for interdisciplinarity within their indicator system.

Secondly, the Academy of Social Sciences Community Sustainability Project determined a structure of five key areas of ‘capital’ (natural, human, social, institutional and produced) and managed data according to a set of indicators for each of these areas of capital. An example is below, taken from the survey of the Gilbert Valley.

Examples of indicators Social Human Institutional Produced Natural Gilbert Valley rating
Sense of future  *         Strong
Sense of community or belonging  *         Strong
Community activities  *         Strong
Even age structure  *  *       Weak
Political representation      *     Weak
Economic viability    *  *  *  * Medium
Employment opportunities      *  *  * Medium
Meeting places      *  *   Strong

(Condensed from Community sustainability: a question of capital, ed C Cocklin and M Alston, Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia, 2002, p 104).

We see it as appropriate to concentrate instead on studying social patterns, particularly patterns of change, rather than finding ways of measuring these patterns. Therefore, our network will not attempt to compile a new series of such ‘indicators’ of social sustainability, generally or in the Murray-Darling Basin. As our network is primarily concerned at this stage with comparing the results of existing eco-social sustainability research rather than undertaking new research, our decision not to develop an indicator system is a logical one. Our intention is to measure the success of social policy and institutions by the indicators established in these research projects, in order to establish a clearing house of best practice examples.

Areas of study and research

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