Research Summary

Environmental Identity Development Through Social Interactions, Action, and Recognition

Social Interactions and Recognition Encourage Environmental Identity Development

The Journal of Environmental Education

Although environmental education researchers have long considered how environmental attitudes may relate to environmental behavior, the connection remains unclear, primarily because there are so many pathways and intersecting relationships between the two constructs. Some have suggested, however, that environmental identity may provide another lens through which to consider environmental behavior. In this line of reasoning, people tend to act in ways that are consistent with how they see themselves as well as how they wish to be seen by others. A number of different approaches have been taken to explore the topic of environmental identity in relation to the natural world.

Drawing on a theoretical frame of identity research from science education, the author considers the importance of social interactions in arguing that identity development is connected to practice, action, and recognition. In other words, one becomes a particular type of person through practice, expresses him or herself as a particular type of person in relation to others through action, and is recognized by others as a particular type of person.

The author applies this framework to a study examining environmental identity development among U.S. youth who are participating in a program focusing on climate change impacts in a South Asian nation. Program participants spent four weeks in South Asia: two weeks in the capital area; one week on a boat, learning about climate change impacts on a large mangrove forest; and one week in rural villages participating in service-learning projects. While in the country, participants lived with host families and each participant was paired with a host-country partner student. In addition to the time abroad, the program included a pre-trip orientation, a reunion three months post-trip, and participant-designed social action projects that were implemented in the participants’ schools and home communities post-trip. In sum, 30 high-school students participated in the program; the students hailed from diverse socioeconomic and ethnic backgrounds and initially reported having varying interest in, and concern about, environmental issues.

The article focuses on data from post-trip interviews. The author interviewed 13 program participants three to six months after the trip. Similar to the overall pool of program participants, the interviewees were from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds and initially reported having differing pre-trip levels of environmental awareness and concern. The author’s interview approach was narrative, based on the initial prompt, “Tell me about the trip,” followed by questions related to the participants’ social action projects.

The author’s analysis focuses on the interview data related to social interactions, paying particular attention to the impacts of interactions with different types of people (such as the host country residents, U.S. peers on the trip, and friends back home). The author uses Kempton and Holland’s (2003) environmental identity development framework to analyze the data, identifying evidence of salience, or increased awareness of environmental issues; identification, or seeing oneself as an environmental actor; and practical knowledge, or knowledge about how to engage in environmental practice, which develops through action.

The author found that social interactions, both during the trip and after, were important for participants’ environmental identity formation. Different types of social interactions were meaningful in reaching different stages in Kempton and Holland’s model. Being recognized by others as environmental actors also enhanced environmental identity development.

One type of interaction—interaction with host-country residents—was particularly critical for moving participants toward the salience stage of identity development, while another type—interaction with co-participants— was more influential in moving participants toward the identification stage, or what the author terms the “environmental action” stage. When participants interacted with people in the host country who had been directly affected by climate change, the participants became more aware of climate change and its impacts, as well as of their own contributions to the climate-change problem. This heightened awareness also occurred for participants who began the program with little knowledge of, or concern about, the issue, as well as for those who were already concerned about climate change initially. The author suggests that those in the latter category moved deeper into salience, based on these interactions, indicating that there may be different degrees of salience.

Although interactions with people impacted by climate change were important for moving participants toward salience, interactions with co-participants were more effective for moving participants toward environmental action. Many participants reported that they had adopted new environmentally friendly behaviors after the trip. They attributed some of these behavior changes to conversations with peers during the trip. Some described being inspired to act by peers whom they perceived as more knowledgeable and active in addressing climate change than themselves; by contrast, those who were already concerned about climate change found further motivation to act by realizing that there were others who shared their interests and concerns. This carried over after the trip, as some participants continued to share ideas and information that facilitated environmental action once home.

Another factor that the author found to be important in participants’ environmental identity formation was being recognized by others as environmental actors. This happened in two ways. First, as part of the program, participants developed social action projects after returning from the trip. These projects took a variety of forms, but all were related to an environmental issue and were implemented in their school or community. In addition to providing an opportunity for participants to continue engaging in environmental action, the projects also allowed participants to be recognized and positioned by others in their schools and communities as environmental actors. Second, after returning from the trip, many participants reported teaching others in their communities about climate change, which led to others recognizing and positioning them as experts. This recognition, through the social action projects and their post-trip conversations, furthered and enhanced participants’ environmental identities.

The Bottom Line

Environmental identity is a useful lens for examining people’s movement toward environmental action and behavior. People act in ways that are congruent with not only how they see themselves, but also how they wish to be seen by others. Environmental identity develops over time, and different factors can influence this development. This study demonstrates the importance of social interactions for developing an environmental identity. Moreover, different types of social interactions influence identity development in different ways: interacting with people who have been impacted by climate change can lead to awareness of environmental issues; interacting with peers, creating both inspiration and knowledge networks, can encourage environmental action. Additionally, being recognized by others as an environmental actor can further and enhance one’s environmental identity.