Is “Social Sustainability” Subservient?

Sustainable Development. Author : Johann Dréo, 2006. From Wikimedia.

I’ve been pondering the usage and implications of the term “Social sustainability.” In this post, I provide my reflections on the social and political challenges implied by an econo-centric view of the term in which social sustainability directly and indirectly serves to maintain the economy. I also add my thoughts about the use of the 3-sphere model in the university context.

The Socially Subservient Sphere?

My first encounter with the term was in an online survey administered by our university’s Office of Sustainability in early 2008. The questions were organized in such a way that “Social” was always the last of the three types to be asked about.

I finished the survey a little more educated about Social Sustainability and realizing that I may indeed have something to contribute in the “social” sphere as a teacher and researcher of rhetoric. (Sorry, I don’t have a copy of the survey questions to refer to anymore).

But I was also left wondering about the implications of social sustainability within our city and university’s political context.

I became troubled as I considered that my contribution as a rhetorical scholar toward the good ends of “sustainability,” however positively I intended it to function, might in fact be “useful” toward sustaining an ideology of sustainability that I would not, in the end, wish to support. I will dub this view “the econocentric view” — one in which commerce and unlimited growth rule over the vision for a fair and equitable society that respects human rights, builds communities, and protects and honors the environment.

The “econocentric” view: (NOT what I personally believe, but what some people may be thinking)

  • It is of paramount importance to keep OUR economy going and growing.
  • The environment must be sustained in order to provide natural resources and a stable context for our economy, not for the environment’s own sake.
  • We must have an eye to politics, social norms, values and individuals’ health and well being in order to sustain the human resources needed to go forward with the above plan and in order to persuade people to see the virtue of complying and the social (and environmental, and economic) costs of not complying.

In this model, Social sustainability is reduced to a matter of propaganda, public relations, and politics … with an eye to sustaining

… humans who obey or are self-policing and are not resistant to wise, benevolent authorities such as employers and developers

… humans who work toward the protection of the environment as a resource for the economy

… humans who use their minds and strength to maintain our economic growth.

Like the Subservient 19th Century British Woman’s “Private Sphere”?

This “econocentric” view reminded me of how women in 19th century Britain were often told to play the role of the “Angel in the house” — In the dominant ideology (which not everyone followed), the pure wife/mother was to play her highest social role by being in charge of the moral virtue and physical health of her husband and children, and was in charge of the economic and environmental integrity of the household.

The woman was not to go outside her sphere. The wife was to obey the authority of her husband, and the unmarried daughter was to obey her father, and the widow was … a frightening person to be, because without a living brother or son, you have nobody male to obey or to serve, and nobody male to earn money for you or protect you from harm.

Is “social sustainability” the wife, the dependant, the employee in this 3-way relationship?

Like the Subservient Professional or Technical Writer?

This “econocentric” view also reminded me of a common theme in the scholarship of professional and technical communication — the technical writer’s role in serving the economic and technical functions of society and industry.

Slack, Miller and Doak (1993) distinguished three roles or positions a technical writer could take in a workplace, the first one being that of a mere “transmitter” of other people’s ideas, an accurate scribe who pays attention to clarity and correctness and puts out communications according to the conventions of the organization’s genres. [The other two roles were 2) to translate or negotiate meaning between parties and 3) to play an articulate, critical-thinking role that contributes significant insight, order, and influence. Obviously they extol the 3rd ]. See this page for more

When I was planning my courses’ sustainability research projects this term and consulting a sustainability expert, one of the things this person suggested we as Communications Studies folks could contribute would be something like “strategies for clear and persuasive communication that actually results in changed (environmentally sustainable) behavior.”

Is this the only meaningful role of the Rhetorician in the service of Social Sustainability? To be a handmaiden to the other two spheres, in supporting their cause and communicating their messages? Yes, it is nice, yes it is a real service… but… still contributes as a LESSER party among the three.

In this econocentric, limited view of the communicator serving a “separate spheres” model of social sustainability, he/she is a less powerful and influential actor than those scientists who study what is going to have an environmental impact, and the economists and businesspeople who determine what is economically wise and feasible.

Such an information-transmitter has little influence over the content of the message. To do such would be to move dangerously too far outside his/her “sphere” as one who gathers data and communicates it. Where does his/her sphere end? She/he is not one who “creates” knowledge (scientists), “creates” techniques (technical professionals) or who organizes people (business managers) or rewards compliance (managers and government offices) …

Sometimes a communication role may move beyond transmission, but not much — only to Slack, Miller and Doak’s second role for the technical communicator, that of translator and negotiator. But this second role, while it is meant to achieve harmony, often ends up strengthening dualities or oppositions by means of its underlying presumptions of the relationships between a powerful speaker/politician/manager and a mass public or an employee audience.

See, for example, the Government of Canada’s 1996 report on the State of Canada’s Environment– their page on Social Sustainablity portrays social norms and values as constraints on development:

Any proposal that would breach existing social limits will fail because the people involved will resist or oppose it. This leads to the question of how to deal with the social limits that must be respected to achieve sustainable development.


It may be concluded that social norms and social constraints on development must be taken into account in planning for sustainable development. To define social limits to sustainability, there is no alternative to exploring the issues in collaboration with the groups or communities concerned.

Although the discourse on this page claims to treat social norms and values with respect, the language that portrays it as “constraints on development” and “social limits” puts such social factors in opposition to economic ones and portrays them not as a resource and driver of development but as a negative force of resistance that must be “deal(t) with.” They, the communities concerned in a development proposal, become an intangible, unmeasurable obstacle that must be faced through collaborative exploration of issues … a communicative process that “defines” the social limits, hopefully at a point that is mutually agreeable to both so that sustainable development may still occur albeit in a compromised way.

Like the Subservient Faculties in a University?

To what degree does a 3-sphere model like this, when used in the University context, tend to move administrators to categorize each faculty, discipline or person within their proper “sphere”?

At my university, using common stereotypes of the disciplines and faculties, we might get something like this as a hierarchy in the “econocentric” view:

Involved in the Regulation of all spheres:

  • Law, and our new school of Policy Studies


  • Business, and Economics (at our university, this is within Social Sciences)


  • Science
  • Engineering


  • Environmental Design
  • Medicine and Nursing (if human health & illness is seen as a biological& social inquiry)


  • the “Liberal Arts” faculties: Communication and Culture, Humanities, Fine Arts
  • Most Social Sciences disciplines
  • Social Work
  • Education

Questions for further thought

  • Does the 3-spheres model further reinforce our culture’s categorization of the Technical/scientific, Professional, and Arts faculties?? And if so, will the Arts faculties be seen as subservient?
  • In what order are the faculties listed when mentioned by administrators in speeches and documents — alphabetically or by this categorization ? see U of C president talks
  • So… Where does Rhetoric / Communication fit within this 3-part scheme?
  • Would it be equally dysfunctional for considerations of social sustainability to rule (a sociocentric view) or environmental sustainability to rule? Must we always have one ruling power among three, or can there be a peaceful, creative trinity…
  • What about a view that does not divide it into 3 spheres that are largely separate yet overlapping? Some models have 4 parts, some even 7 or 8. Are those models more multivocal and less hierarchical?



Slack, Jennifer Daryl, David James Miller, and Jeffrey Doak.. “The Technical Communicator as Author: Meaning, Power, Authority.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication 7 (1993): 12 – 36.


8 thoughts on “Is “Social Sustainability” Subservient?

  1. This is an important line of inquiry. It seems to me that there’s a more general rhetorical issue here: most people associate “sustainability” with environmentalism, and those who can accept much environmental rhetoric and principles are rudely surprised when they learn that “sustainability” encodes a wide-ranging social and economic agenda. I have written on this point online, and so have John Leo and the National Association of Scholars.

    I saw a thoughtful piece a few months ago on “sustainability” as a useful, transdisciplinary, philosophical and pedagogical term because of its use, for instance, in considering broad topics like continuity and change.

    Another issue to consider is how this broad notion of sustainability functions as a religion, with something to say about the fate of humanity and the world and with something to say about every aspect of human choice.

  2. Thank you very much Adam for your thoughtful reply. I checked out the FIRE site you gave the URL to, and found the following article:

    “Sustainability can be a warm, fuzzy word that invites tyranny”

    by Katherine Kersten, October 11, 2008

    — Thank you for drawing me (and my students) to these resources and further developing these lines of argument.

  3. As one of the students involved in these classes I thought I should weigh in here.

    Social sustainability has had its day in the spotlight; in the last century social justice and equality movements have caused massive upheavals in society. These movements were very important incredibly influential and have shaped society as we know it today. While not named social sustainability movements at the time of their undertaking they were none the less pushes towards a more sustainable system.

    The main reason that social sustainability seems subservient now is because it is; it is absolutely true that it only exists in a progressive way to further the other two spheres. The reason for this, in my mind, is that for a society to exist with a sustainable environment and economy it must first be sustainable socially.

    A good example of this in current events is Zimbabwe; I would challenge any scholar to propose a solution to that countries economic problems without changing their current government(social system) to a more sustainable one. Likewise, China is exhibiting a complete lack of environmental sustainability due to its current social system and it’s hellbent push towards modernization; this is slightly in contrast to Zimbabwe because the social system in China is not unsustainable in itself, but its choice of policies are.

    Social sustainability is subservient in Canada because we take for granted the fact that we do have a socially sustainable system; on a global scale however, social sustainability takes much more of a front seat.

  4. Mitchell, thanks for these valuable thoughts. I think you are on to something about the degree to which Canadians presume our social sustainability. Maybe we do have a pretty good framework because we have a sense of social order, peace and prosperity compared with some other countries. On the other hand I am concerned about this foundation eroding in the light of our corporate and technical emphasis in public life and in university institutions. It seems like we are in the middle of a new era in which these values supersede those of democracy and civic engagement. Many people could point out ways in which an erosion of the social fabric has already begun. I think we must remain vigilant and point out that a presumption of social sustainability could turn into (or remain) an idealistic fiction if it is not vigorously upheld or recovered. Speaking about it as a fundamental issue is part of that essential rhetorical labor.

  5. As a part of the up-and-coming generation I think that the erosion of Canadian social awareness is less of a problem than you do.

    I believe that the ‘free world’ is moving towards a model of society much unlike what your generation is accustomed to. This ‘globalized’ society will follow its own norms and values many of which will be foreign and alien to older generations. Every generation does this to a certain degree and the generations that preceded them worry about the shift in society as they knew it.

    What I’m trying to say is that society is changing; it’s been changing since society was dreamed up. This change isn’t always bad but it always occurs.

    As for the sustainability of the globalized world order…time will tell. The cold war saw two different societal structures compete, one succeeded while the other failed; if globalization fails natural selection will follow and a new social system will take it’s place.

    The world will keep on turning.

  6. what i wouldnt give to name drop “national association of scholars”

    im jealous of adams sources

  7. i want to know more about that reference you used. I find it interesting how everything connects to a technical communication document. How did your reference influence your writing?


    are the larger models of sustainability more multivocal and less heirarchical? id like to hear someone comment on that. At first they seem silly but the divisions are true and useful. The graph is very interesting.

    can you kindly delete my really big post i’m not sure if its tastefully short.

  8. Ok I will delete your longer post at your request. That article is —

    Slack, Jennifer D, David J. Miller, and Jeffery. Doak. (1993). “The technical communicator as author: Meaning, power, authority.” Journal of Business and Technical Communication, vol 7, no. 1, pp. 12-36.

    The article has influenced my approach to teaching and practicing organizational communication.

    Yes, other models, like Robert Gibson’s (Sustainability assessment: basic components of a practical approach, Impact Assessment and Project Appraisal, volume 24, number 3, September 2006) are less hierarchical or expertise/discipline based, and more process-based — first you consider this, then you consider that… meanwhile you talk to these people, then those, and you ask someone to measure this and that… And other models can be more based on social processes of dialogue and governance re: the environment….

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