Social scientists and conservationists who are interested in the environment do research that is focused on the relationships and interaction between people and the environment. They may also be consulted on the social impacts a new development might have.
They study a very wide range of topics in a variety of environments, depending on their interests and the discipline or major subjects in which they have specialised. For example:
- environmental psychologists may study the effects on the mood and behaviour of people when trees are planted in their neighbourhood or when a dump is sited where they live
- community conservationists work with communities to foster nature conservation values within a community - conservationists work / liaise between protected areas and local communities to foster reciprocal relations and conservation values, to support biodiversity conservation and the sustainable use of natural resources
- anthropologists study, for example, how rural communities use /wetlands during times of drought or unemployment / natural resources as part of their livelihoods
- political scientists might write or study the effect of a new law giving responsibility for managing water to various communities
- historians study interactions between people and their environment in the recent past
- archaeologists study the distant past, using artefacts and sophisticated techniques such as carbon-dating to determine the relations between ancient people and their environment such as the food they ate and what substances they used to make decorations.
Social scientists share their findings with other researchers towards improving community and conservation practice. They also try to influence government policies and how communities manage their environments. To do this, they write policy briefs, scholarly and popular articles, present talks, and speak to the media.
Social scientists may work indoors, reading or studying artefacts, or outdoors collecting material for their studies. Scientists should be able to work long hours on their own, reading, writing and conducting their experiments. They also have to be able to work in teams with other experts, including, for example, natural scientists, educators, policy makers or biodiversity managers. Scientists may travel, both to do their research or to present their findings to stakeholders, policy makers and scientists locally and around the world. Social science research assistants help to collect data, for example doing interviews in the field, or assisting with putting data together and looking for particular information, patterns and themes in the data.
- have a passion for their subject, but also for making a contribution to society’s understanding of nature and society, and the best ways to manage our environment
- be able to get on well with people from all walks of life as they often interview or observe people
- able to work with a variety of research methods: some disciplines, such as archaeology have very specific research techniques
- have good observational skills and deep curiosity
- be thorough about details and the accuracy of information
- think conceptually, analytically and creatively and enjoy problem-solving
- have computer skills which are needed to capture, manage, analyse and present findings
How to Enter
Schooling & School Subjects
National Senior Certificate meeting degree requirements for a degree course, where appropriate
Each institution has its own entry requirements.
Compulsory Subjects: None
Recommended Subjects: Life Sciences, History (for those who wish to go into cultural heritage aspects), Languages, Geography (highly recommended)
What to Study
Compulsory Higher Education
Degree: Most universities have faculties with a number of options for study in the social sciences, e.g. NWU, Wits, UNISA. Subjects from a variety of departments may include general or traditional social science options such as Geography or Sociology, with an Environmental Management option.
Some social scientists study Geography and Environmental Management as a first degree (BA or BSc).
Often science requires in-depth knowledge about both the chosen topic and the methods of doing research, and this only develops during further studies (BA or BSc Honours, MA, MPhil or MSc and PhD).
Government and other agencies provide bursaries to help support students in undertaking these studies. Another option is to start working and conducting one’s research part time.
Possible Career Paths
Possible career paths include research specialisation, teaching and conducting research at a university, where one could end up as the head of department; policy formulation and oversight or programme management in a government department; policy advisors to government; or running a consulting business.
- in universities, where they continue to carry out research
- teach their subject in research institutions such as the HSRC, museums, development agencies and NGOs such as AWARD, which study the ways in which rural communities can be assisted to better look after their water and wetlands
- self-employment, set up a consulting business and conduct studies for clients including government or developers who need to understand the impacts of a proposed new development
South African Environmental Observation Network (SAEON)
Building C, Ground Floor
41 De Havilland Crescent
Tel: (012) 534 3504
The South African National Biodiversity Institute (SANBI)
2 Cussonia Ave
Tel: (012) 843-5000
Environmental Evaluation Unit
University of Cape Town
Private Bag X3
Environmental and Geographical Science Building
Room 2.13, 2nd Level
South Lane, Upper Campus
Tel: (021) 650-2866
People and Parks Programme
Department of Environmental Affairs
Branch: Biodiversity and Conservation
Tel: 086 111-2468
Programmes by Study Institutions