Gender and race/ethnicity influence on environmental identity in undergraduate students

Miao, R. E., & Cagle, N. L. (2020). The role of gender, race, and ethnicity in environmental identity development in undergraduate student narratives. Environmental Education Research, 26, 171-188.

A person's identity is influenced by many factors and therefore changes over their lifetime. This also applies to environmental identity, defined as a person's perception of themselves and how they relate to the environment. Environmental identity also dictates how an individual makes decisions about the environment. The concept of environmental identity is important to understand when developing inclusive environmental education curriculum and programming. There are two factors that influence environmental identity. One is significant life experiences (SLEs), or experiences critical to developing values and beliefs later in life, and the second factor is social influences. While these two factors have a significant influence on the formation of individuals' environmental identities, other factors, such as demographics, also play a part. The primary purpose of this study was to explore the roles that race/ethnicity and gender play in forming environmental identity.

The researchers conducted this study by interviewing 30 undergraduate students at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina. Interviewees had an average age of 20.6 years and included volunteers and selected participants to balance gender, race/ethnicity, and area of academic focus. The interviews were approximately 30 minutes in length and were designed to encourage open responses on environmental identity. Participants' environmental identity was also measured through the Environmental Identity (EID) scale that evaluated the importance of the environmental in one's identity. Interviews and surveys were analyzed for common themes.

All the participants had significant life experiences in nature that they considered important for the development of their environmental identity. The experience differed depending upon the student. Overall, the most common SLEs fit into the category of outdoor experiences; traveling or vacation influenced the most participants. Living in one environment and getting to experience another while traveling had a significant impact on the participants.

Gender stereotyping had an impact on many participants. It affected what participants felt comfortable doing outside in nature, such as physical limitations that a female participant felt, including the impact of menstruating. Race affected SLEs as well. Racial minorities tended to have SLEs during travel more so than racial majority participants whose SLEs were more likely to be at home or during play. Participants from racial minorities also noted how race was limiting factor in their SLEs, while those from racial majorities did not.

Family was the social influence on environmental identity most commonly reported by interviewees, with parents being specifically mentioned by many participants. However, social influence differed depending upon race/ethnicity and gender. Many participants also listed friends, teachers, and mentors as influential. Females and racial minorities preferred having mentors of their gender or race. Some participants who identified as a racial minority also mentioned race as a limiting factor specifically because the lack of representation of racial minorities and females in university faculty made finding a mentor more challenging for them. Overall, the results of this study show that there were differences in significant life experiences and social influence on the formation of environmental identity for people of different gender and race/ethnicity.

The primary limitation of this study is its small sample size. Another potential limitation is only conducting the study at one private university. It may be beneficial to interview other students across the country, as well as include other age groups in the study. Limiting the education level to only students receiving college degrees could be another limitation.

One recommendation the authors made based on the results of this study is to increase gender and race diversity of faculty so that students can have mentors they strongly connect with. The authors stated that educators need to be mindful of the nuances and stereotypes associated with all genders and race identities when creating inclusive and accommodating courses. Finally, the authors recommend that educators use outdoor education as a way to empower racial minorities and female students by building their confidence in outdoor activities.

The Bottom Line

<p>Environmental identity is a person's self-meaning and how it relates to the environment. It can be affected by significant life experiences in nature and social influences of people in their lives. This study examined how race/ethnicity and gender affect a person's environmental identity. Thirty college students at Duke University were interviewed and took a survey about their environmental identity formation. Results showed race/ethnicity and gender did affect the formation of environmental identity. The authors recommend increasing the diversity of faculty at universities and being mindful when creating curriculum to promote inclusivity in environmental education.</p>

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