Social Ecology pioneered in Irvine’s innovative academic environment

Founding dean Dan Stokols publishes new book about Social Ecology's past, present and future.

When the program in Social Ecology was established in 1970, the concept was radically new. Research probing social problems from a systemic view that accounted for the interactions between humans and the environments they live in? A teaching focus that trained students to look at the big picture, work across disciplines and engage with community partners?

“We were starting something that was very unknown and untested,” says Dan Stokols, one of the first faculty hired into the program in the 1970s and the founding dean.

The program reorganized into a school 25 years ago – the first time the name “Social Ecology” was applied to a school – and ushered in a new academic vanguard.

This month, Stokols published a book, Social Ecology in the Digital Age, which tells the story of this evolution, of a school and the approach it pioneered. The book offers a broad view of people’s relationships with their built, natural, sociocultural, and online surroundings, and highlights the combined influence of those environments on health, behavior, and sustainability.

In the book, Stokols applies social ecological thinking to the challenges of promoting personal and public health, confronting complex social problems, managing global environmental change, designing resilient and sustainable communities, and educating the next generation of transdisciplinary scholars. He also explores humans’ most significant new environment, the cybersphere, and the ways that people navigate their physical and virtual worlds.

Since chartering the Irvine campus in 1965, the University of California always intended for UCI to be interdisciplinary, and an incubator of new academic ideas, Stokols says.

Irvine’s programs breached rigid academic boundaries. The Information and Computer Science department was a bold new venture when it launched in the 1970s. Critical theory in the humanities bridged literary criticism and English studies. The Psychobiology Department mixed biological, cognitive, and neuro sciences.

In addition, Earth System Science tackled global environmental issues. The ESS department was home to Sherwood Roland and Mario Molina who won a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their research on the links between synthetic chemicals and depletion of the earth’s ozone layer, along with Frederick Reines, awarded a Nobel Prize in Physics for his studies of the neutrino, a subatomic particle.

“Irvine has been a hotbed for launching cutting-edge research and educational programs, and Social Ecology has been an incubator of cross-disciplinary approaches to scientific and societal problems,” Stokols says. “From the early days at UCI, there was a climate here where you could do novel things and get away with it. Even though some people were skeptical, there was room to experiment.”

The program in Social Ecology was founded by Arnold Binder in 1970. He pioneered a novel interdisciplinary curriculum, including the Field Study program in which students commit to 100 hours of field work each quarter. Field study remains today as an important requirement for BA majors in the school.

Now, it seems, higher education is embracing what UCI’s Social Ecology Program pioneered in the early 1970s, says Stokols. Across the country and around the world, many universities now champion interdisciplinary “action research” that drives solutions to real-world problems. And some have begun offering experiential learning opportunities for students.

The School of Social Ecology is unique in some key ways, however.

“Our school-wide core courses train students to analyze scientific and societal problems from an ecological systems perspective,” Stokols says. “Few other undergraduate and graduate programs require students to take cross-departmental, integrative core courses that teach them to think ecologically and work collaboratively as they analyze and develop solutions to real world problems.”

For many years, this interdisciplinary ecological approach to research and training made Social Ecology a perennial outlier among more traditional disciplinary degree programs. In the early 21st century though, many universities are now trumpeting the virtues of transdisciplinary, team-based, transcultural, and translational approaches to research and education.

Traditionally, academics sought truth by breaking problems into smaller and smaller pieces, a process known as reductionism. But a social ecological approach to the world “zooms out” to examine multiple layers of a problem, from the physical to the social and cultural, and spans multiple scales, from the individual person to the global level.

Academics tend to cluster in their disciplinary tribes, especially when scholarly recognition and rewards reinforce discipline-focused research pursued by individual scholars. Tenure committees are more likely to reward a professor who has published a wealth of studies on her own than another who collaborates with large numbers of co-authors on team science publications.

The School of Social Ecology, from its inception, has tried to reduce those academic barriers to confronting complex real-world problems as embedded in ecosystems, interlinked and interconnected. And, the school trains students how to do so, leaving a legacy of systems-oriented thinkers in arenas as diverse as criminology and law, urban planning and public policy, behavioral science, education and public health.

Even as the ethos that formed the school’s identity 25 years ago evolves, some aspects will always remain the same, Stokols says.

“We tackle real-world problems, while also training students to become creative interdisciplinary scholars. We translate research into evidence-based practice and policy,” he says. “We don’t want our research to sit idly on a shelf in a library, with little impact on the world around us. When you study social ecology, you aren’t doing so in a vacuum.”

-October 11, 2017