A Social Scientist Looks at the UN Sustainable Development Goals

A Social Scientist Looks at the UN Sustainable Development Goals

Janet Salmons

I became a social scientist in my high school biology class. I managed to negotiate conscientious objector status with my instructor: since I was a vegetarian, I could not possibly be expected to dissect frogs and pigs! To complete an alternate assignment, I had to go to the library (my favorite place!) and write a paper (my favorite thing to do!). I quickly realized that I was much more interested in people as individuals in communities, organizations, societies, or cultures than I was about the inner workings of their bodies. Nevertheless, I have a healthy respect for natural, earth, space sciences, especially in these times when the viability of life on earth seems at risk due to climate change. I want to understand what is going on and what we can do about it, but alas, my mind wanders once the conversation drifts into the technicalities of CO2 levels.

Given this mindset, I expected to need a double espresso to avoid glazing over when I delved into the 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets central to the UN Paris Agreement, officially known as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. I was pleasantly surprised to find that an understanding of serious science is not needed to grasp the meaning and significance of set of comprehensive goals. Social issues are intrinsic to the SDGs; clearly, the impact of climate change is being felt across communities and societies as well as in the natural world.

Folke et al (2016) offer a coherent way to define and understand these critical interrelationships with the concept of social-ecological systems: “In this concept, the social refers to the human dimension in its diverse facets, including the economic, political, technological, and cultural, and the ecological to the thin layer of planet Earth where there is life, the biosphere. The biosphere is the global ecological system integrating all living beings and their relationships, humans and human actions included, as well as their dynamic interplay with the atmosphere, water cycle, biogeochemical cycles, and the dynamics of the Earth system as a whole…. [P]eople are not just interacting with but are inhabitants of the biosphere together with all other life on Earth, shaping its resilience in diverse ways, from the local to the global, consciously or unconsciously” (Folke et al 2016: 1).

In the main image, Folke et al (2016) position the 17 Sustainable Development Goals in relation to the biosphere foundation, with the economy and society as embedded within the biosphere, as intertwined parts of the planet. Social scientists are indeed needed in order to understand the complex multi-sector, interdisciplinary nature of these problems.

What do we need to know in order to participate in dialogues on these important concerns, and contribute our expertise to efforts now underway to achieve the Global Goals? Given the broad scope addressed in the SDGs, I identified two themes to explore: gender equality and work. A few years ago, I conducted two small studies about women, work (Salmons & Boynton, 2014), and entrepreneurship (Salmons, 2014) which fueled an interest to see how to relate gender and employment-related issues with climate change, sustainability.

Gender Equality     

Women play key roles in their communities, especially in times of change. Their voices are needed as policy-makers and leaders, and as creative entrepreneurs who can find new ways to make a living in shifting economies. Yet in much of the world, discrimination against women and girls makes it difficult for them to fully participate. Access to education, including vocational training, is critical to ensuring gender equality. Progress towards gender equality is more likely when strong and just institutions are in place. At the same time, as illustrated in the Folke diagram (main image), issues women and girls face in the economic and societal realms cannot be separated from their existence in the biosphere. Societal advances are difficult at best when people struggle for the very basics of clean water and healthy places to live.

While gender issues are important to consider in all areas of the SDGs, a few highlighted targets are particularly relevant:

4.3 By 2030, ensure equal access for all women and men to affordable and quality technical, vocational and tertiary education, including university.

5.1 End all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere.

5.5 Ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

10.2 By 2030, empower and promote the social, economic and political inclusion of all, irrespective of age, sex, disability, race, ethnicity, origin, religion or economic or other status.

13.B Promote mechanisms for raising capacity for effective climate change-related planning and management in least developed countries and small island developing States, including focusing on women, youth and local and marginalized communities.

16.7 Ensure responsive, inclusive, participatory and representative decision-making at all levels. 

Work and Entrepreneurship    

The first, most fundamental Global Goal is to end poverty. For most of us, gainful employment is essential to prevent or escape from poverty. This means we need access to employment or other opportunities to generate income. But, as the Sustainable Development Goals 2017 report states, given the fact that economic losses from natural hazards are now reaching an average of 250 billion to 300 billion US dollars a year, people need different ways to make a living. Numerous macro and micro economics considerations are at play when there so many different, inter-related factors involved. At the same time, new directions for economic growth should be environmentally sound and not the result of unsustainable exploitation of resources.

In addition to traditional employment, entrepreneurship can contribute to economic growth and diversification. Entrepreneurial activity drives structural transformation and can lead to inclusive and sustainable socioeconomic development.  One way that women deal with discrimination and workplace obstacles is through entrepreneurial activity. Women run between a third and a quarter of all enterprises worldwide, and self-employment is a major source of income for many women in developing countries. Social entrepreneurs can find new ways to solve local problems and provide needed services– reasons why support for women’s entrepreneurship is seen as an important strategy for achieving the SDGs and targets.

In places where environmental disasters or hazards require people to rethink their livelihoods, digital literacy and access to the Internet and technology, are essential. Today’s work life, whether in a job or as an entrepreneur, also commonly depends on online access for sales and marketing, exchange and networking. Yet in 2016, the global rate of Internet use was 12 per cent lower for women than men, with an even larger gender gap in the least developed countries, at 31 per cent. This is yet another hurdle that is more difficult for women to overcome.

Economic issues underpin the SDGs, but a few specific targets are particularly relevant to an exploration of work and employment:

1.4 By 2030, ensure that all men and women, in particular the poor and the vulnerable, have equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to … appropriate new technology and financial services, including microfinance.

5.A Undertake reforms to give women equal rights to economic resources, as well as access to ownership and control over land and other forms of property, financial services, inheritance and natural resources, in accordance with national laws.

8.3 Promote development-oriented policies that support productive activities, decent job creation, entrepreneurship, creativity and innovation, and encourage the formalization and growth of micro-, small- and medium-sized enterprises, including through access to financial services.

9.C Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.

Questions for Social Science Researchers

Inquiry into gender issues and inequality, shifting economic and employment trends, is not new, but relationships between these issues and sustainability are not well understood. Recent reports from the UN Economic and Social Council pointed to limited progress, particularly on equality for women and girls: Gender inequality is still deeply entrenched, as manifested in the slow progress in women’s representation in political life, in decision-making within their own households, and in the violence, most often with impunity, that women and girls face in all societies…. [E]ven the richest have yet to fully ensure women’s rights, conquer inequality or safeguard the environment. Clearly, more research is needed to understand the obstacles and to evaluate the effectiveness of efforts being made.

Education, including vocational and technical training for adults, might be one of the areas where more research is needed in order to understand more about what content and delivery modality can help to make a difference. Brissett and Mitter (2017) suggest that we need to rethink our goals and redefine education: “Education must be valued and used as a tool to recognize and act upon societal inequities, placing issues of social and ecological justice at th purveyed e heart of its objectives…. It is only by challenging and expanding the definition of ‘quality’ education — one that questions what is taught and learned, and how – that education can truly have a lasting impact on other areas of development, thereby contributing to a more holistic and integrated approach to achieving sustainable development” (2017: 201).

The terms “holistic and integrated,” “cross-cutting,” and “interdisciplinary” pervade the documents and reports have been meeting to learn more about the SDG’s. Climate and environmental scientists cannot go it alone—they need social scientists’ perspectives in order to see the whole picture. We have an essential role to play, by sharing expertise from our own fields and experience gained from researching individuals, groups, and societies. Whether our studies are large or small, whether we teach or write, we can make a contribution by working to achieve the Global Goals. I am re-thinking my research agenda. What about you? Please use the comment area to share your thinking and links to resources or projects.

Brissett, N., & Mitter, R. (2017). For Function or Transformation? A Critical Discourse Analysis of Education under the Sustainable Development Goals. Journal for Critical Education Policy Studies, 15(1), 181-204.
Folke, C., Biggs, R., Norström, A. V., Reyers, B., & Rockström, J. (2016). Social-ecological resilience and biosphere-based sustainability science. Ecology and Society, 21(3).
Salmons, J. (2014). Putting the “E” in entrepreneurship: Women entrepreneurs in the digital age. In L. Kelley (Ed.), Entrepreneurial Women: New Management and Leadership Models. Westport: ABI-Clio Praeger.
Salmons, J., & Boynton, V. (2014). Women academics in the cognispheric workplace: A digital duoethnography. Paper presented at the Qualitative Research in Management, Albuquerque. 

Janet Salmons spent 18 years teaching and guiding doctoral students at Capella and Walden Universities before becoming an independent scholar, writer, and consultant through Vision2Lead. Janet wrote Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn (in press), Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016), Qualitative Online interviews (2015), and edited the Cases in Online Interview Research (2012). Janet blogs for SAGE Methodspace, and is an acquisitions reviewer for the SAGE Research Cases.