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)
- 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
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.