Developing Long-Term Environmental Identity

Williams, C. C., & Chawla, L. (2016). Environmental identity formation in nonformal environmental education programs. Environmental Education Research, 22, 978-1001.

Understanding the long-term impacts of environmental education (EE) is one way to assess programs' overall success in cultivating environmental stewardship. However, it can be difficult to track those impacts over time and directly link the behaviors to particular EE experiences. In this study, the authors attempt to illuminate those complex, multifaceted linkages between non-formal programs and eventual stewardship behavior by examining the role of EE in influencing participants' social environmental identities.

To explore social environmental identities, the researchers use the anthropological framework of social practice theory as described and applied by Holland and colleagues (1998). Social practice theory builds on the notion that interacting with other people, as well as surrounding environments, influences the formation of different identities, which correspond to different parts of a person's life in a dynamic way. Through these ongoing, ever-changing processes, people adopt the vocabulary, behaviors, and practices of others. One of these identities, in particular, is “social environmental identity,” which reflects how people view and identify themselves with respect to an environmental group, such as an outing club or WWF.

According to the authors, social practice theory has implications for outcomes related to environmental stewardship behaviors as people form identities in the course of taking actions. Therefore, understanding pivotal moments in identity formation—such as salient memories of participation in a certain environmental group experience, such as a non-formal EE program—is critical to linking programs to their influence on stewardship behaviors.

Given this foundation, the authors attempted to test whether memories could illuminate how environmental identities develop in childhood. To do so, the researchers conducted unstructured interviews with former participants of Thorne Nature Experience, Wild Bear Mountain Ecology Center, and the University of Colorado's Science Discovery program (CUSD wilderness camp). The authors interviewed 18 former participants, who ranged in age from 19 to 50 years old and had been participants between 5 and 40 years prior to when the interviews were conducted. All but one participant had repeated student experiences in their program. During the interviews, the researchers asked the interviewees about their memories of the nature-based programs, as well as their self-perceived identities.

The researchers used a process of narrative inquiry, which allowed interviewees to control the direction of the conversations as they relayed their most salient memories. Throughout the interviews, emergent themes included sense of wonder, self-efficacy, influence on environmental identity, and sense of place.

The authors framed their analysis in relation to the three components of social environmental identity formation predicted by social practice theory. With respect to the first theme—attentiveness to the natural world and environmental problems—16 of the 18 interviewees said their experiences permanently altered their view of the natural world, although none said that their experiences had contributed to an awareness of environmental problems. Regarding the second theme—identification with environmental action—the majority of participants mentioned some element of this in their memories by describing a sense of responsibility, sense of community, and overcoming fears. The third theme—gaining knowledge through action—was not a primary focus of the authors' analyses, given its inextricable links to the second theme; thus, the findings from those two areas may have been intertwined.

Ultimately, the authors found social practice theory to be useful for examining the formation of long-term social environmental identities. They also emphasized that social practice theory, like previous research, indicates that EE must occur over a series of experiences that contribute to identity formation. To continue this line of work with respect to EE, the authors suggest further narrative-based research with more diverse participants and former participants with concretely established—rather than self-reported—identities as environmental actors.

The Bottom Line

<p>The longer-term development of social environmental identities of participants is a key goal for many EE programs. Practitioners hoping to help participants form long-term social environmental identities and create effective programs should incorporate a series of experiences that allow participants' social environmental identities to form over time. This could include helping participants develop a sense of responsibility, build a sense of community, and overcome fears. One way to encourage and support formation of participants' identities is to allow young people increasing levels of responsibilities.</p>