Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

The Social Pillar of Sustainable Development: A Literature Review and Framework for Policy Analysis

Academic journal article Sustainability : Science, Practice, & Policy

The Social Pillar of Sustainable Development: A Literature Review and Framework for Policy Analysis

Article excerpt


While the concept of sustainable development (SD) generally refers to achieving a balance among the environmental, economic, and social pillars of sustainability, the meaning and associated objectives of the social pillar remain vague (Dempsey et al. 2011; Casula Vifell & Soneryd, 2012). Indeed, it has been described as the most conceptually elusive pillar in SD discourse (Thin, 2002). Moreover, the social dimensions of sustainability have not received the same treatment as the other two pillars (Cuthill, 2009; Vavik & Keitsch, 2010) and there are various interpretations regarding what issues should be addressed (Dixon & Colantonio, 2008). The selection of social measures in sustainable development indicator sets (SDIs) is often a function of power rather than policy coherence, as influential groups are more likely to have their concerns included (Littig & Griessler, 2005). These indicators reflect different sociocultural priorities (Omann & Spangenberg, 2002) and as such are often picked for political rather than scientific reasons (Fahey, 1995). For example, preferences for neoliberalism or the European social model will result in different social objectives (Colantonio, 2007).

These ambiguities suggest that a greater understanding of the social pillar of SD is desirable. The literature also indicates that it is necessary to develop greater linkage between the social and environmental pillars (Dobson, 2003b; Littig & Griessler, 2005; Gough et al. 2008). This article contributes to establishing such connections by presenting a conceptual framework for understanding the social pillar and outlining its environmental implications. A review of eight bodies of literature related to SD suggests four pre-eminent policy concepts (Figure 1).

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Figure 1 Four Pre-eminent Concepts of the Social Pillar.

While the literature highlights the relatively limited treatment afforded to the social pillar, some work has been done. In particular, SDIs and the social sustainability literature present us with policy concepts and objectives specifically identified as "social" and represent a significant contribution to how the social pillar is conceived. However, I argue that establishing clearer links with the environmental pillar will further enhance this concept, an argument rooted in an understanding of SD as a concept requiring interpillar linkages. In this respect, the links between the social and environmental pillars are particularly underdeveloped. It is therefore useful to expand the parameters of the social pillar by connecting it empirically to environmental imperatives. Furthermore, while existing approaches tend to present the social pillar in terms of national welfare objectives for current generations, it is useful to broaden the understanding of the social to incorporate international and intergenerational dimensions. In so doing, a policy framework emerges that provides the basis for an alternative set of social indicators to those specified in international SDIs or implied in the social sustainability literature. This approach constitutes a set of policy objectives that have clear social and environmental dimensions. The framework may be employed to conduct an empirical analysis of how different states and organizations understand the social pillar and to what extent they develop social/environmental links.

This article is divided into two parts. The first part describes the origins of the proposed framework, explaining the identification of eight key types of SD-related literature that discuss social concepts and policy objectives (Table 1). I then explore how debates to date have presented "the social" in SD. Drawing on key United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) SD policy documents and environmental policy integration (EPI) literature, the argument then moves to a justification for linking social and environmental imperatives.

The second part of this article presents the four policy concepts at the heart of the framework, which are linked to thirteen policy objectives that address social and environmental concerns simultaneously. …

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