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Help needed for theory for PhD thesis on the role of Social Impact Assessments as a vehicle in improving stakeholder & public involvement in the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) & urban planning

Hi everyone,

Apologies for the long discussion title and what I am about to write - this is the first time I am writing here, even though I have been a member for quite some time (I had limited myself to looking up articles from the SfAA journals). Suddenly it occurred to me that there are loads of other anthropologists who call themselves "applied anthropologists" and work in similar areas to mine! So here I am....

I am placing this post on the student forum too so apologies for cross-posting.

As the title states, I am in my writing-up phase of a PhD in Anthropology and geography and while a succinct title eludes me, I am basically researching the role of SIA and stakeholder / public involvement within the EIA process in urban decision-making processes. The geographical location is Malta / the Mediterranean region / Europe, so the research is within a European development context not the classical development of the '3rd world' when one sees the word 'development.'

My central set of questions are as follow:

How would more stakeholder involvement and interdisciplinary research during the course of an impact assessment help the flow and transparency of information and improve decision-making? i.e. can a balance be reached between the tensions created by the objective driven (top-down standardisation) method and scoping driven (contextualisation) approaches to Impact Assessments, including horizontal public involvement, rather than bottom-up approaches? How would the role of SIA fit in such an approach since (as I said above), it is currently the one component of the EIA which analyses the perceptions of the different actors of the potential changes a proposed project will have and uses local knowledge through qualitative interviews and direct contact with the grassroots to analyse how they interact with their social and physical environment and how they construct such values based on past experience of environmental change, which informs upon the way they will politicise these narratives within environmental discourse at the grassroots level, which will in turn help to understand whether or not they will get involved in the planning and decision-making process.  And finally, given what I just explained, what are the trade-offs that these actors are willing (or not) to make towards accepting (or not – by getting involved) these proposed changes? So, can SIA be a way to bridge the information flow and knowledge transfer to contribute towards a more effective distribution of the power in urban planning decision-making on the ground through the EIA (and decision-making) processes? 

My initial answer to this is that
it is by implementing smaller, manageable steps and actively acknowledging that these need to be approached at a contextualised, local level and that socio-physical urban management should be approached as a process (again the current literature supports this view), using present legislations and tools such as the EIA and its constituent components, in particular the Social, Visual, Landscape and Cultural impact Assessments. The local Environmental and Planning Authorities would reframe the individual Terms of Reference (ToR) to facilitate a more cross/inter-disciplinary approach to the methodologies and analyses, in other words, collaboration between the various components of the process of the EIA itself, rather than a total reframing of the system, which is what the literature is saying, such as implementing an integrated systems approach (there is an actual term which I am not sure that this is it, but I can’t remember it at the moment), which, while it would be beneficial, it would be very difficult to integrate it with current legislative mechanisms. 

I started this project because in my 10 years of being a consultant applied anthropologist, I have seen that even though it is generally known that “all environmental problems are inherently social” (from Goldman, 2000, in his book on SIA) especially in such a small place such as Malta, the social in the 3 pillars of environmental sustainability is the last thing anybody thinks of, especially politicians, but not just – people seem to only get involved if they have vested interests. But why? It has been known and have been studied extensively, maybe not in anthropology, that stakeholder involvement and participation in planning decisions is important, so important that the EU has a whole directive on it and its purview is far-reaching, into EIAs and environmental decision-making, the ELC  - the European landscape Convention (on landscape planning) and of course environmental sustainability.  At the same time though, somehow, more institutionalised involvement  of stakeholders is very limited and very ‘managed’ with top-down mechanisms that keep grassroots involvement to a minimum.  

There have been many theories about this and more direct attempts at improving this, such as democratic political decentralisation and collaborative planning but these do not work universally and one needs to understand the local socio-political environment to why this happens and why such attempts, especially from a governmentality perspective, these attempts remain largely cosmetic. And in the case of Malta, my research has shown that due to the way Local Councils work, political decentralisation would not work, for example. The Social Impact Assessment then should be central to the EIA process, it should inform on the decisions to be taken, but it is only one chapter and when possible, it is not even included within the terms of reference for many EIAs to be made on proposed projects. This is because the SIA is the one component of the EIA that directly includes those potentially affected by a project and the use of non-specialist or local knowledge.  Again the question is why is this so?

In other words, why isn't the EIA process delivering to people?  It is good at describing the physical, quantifiable impacts, but seems to fail to deliver a clear message re the effects on people... their day to day lives, their well being, and their values and aspirations.  Does the answer lie in the very process?  So what is the process that is needed to tease out the people-impacts and how can such impacts be given due weight in the decision making process? 

So basically, I am in the phase of my thesis writing where I am trying to ethnographically describe my case studies and analysing them from an anthropological / human geographical perspective. I have found lots in theory on stakeholder involvement etc. in other disciplines such as environmental science and ecology but not anthropology, save a couple of books edited by Simone Abrams, for example. I need to become a bit more creative and look at my work from a more 'classical' perspective (anthropologically), but the theoretical framework to do this eludes me.

Any help on where to look and which authors I should look at would be greatly appreciated.

You can email me directly on stevenvella@gmail.com if you have any papers, articles or other material that you would like to share with me.

Thank you for all the help and wisdom that this community may have to offer!


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Dear Steve  - A bit of a late response but then this not as active a forum as many other anthro groups out there. Regarding Classical anthropological theory as it applies or can be applied to EIA I suggest that you look at acculturation theory. The intra-cultural differences between bureaucracies carrying out the law, the parties attempting to use or circumvent the law, and processes by which all of this is carried out is a straight forward culture contact problem. It doesn't matter whether this is third world, second world, or first world the problem is the same -- imposed change by one or more socio/cultural (or Malinowskian institutions) upon one or more other system(s) in prolonged contact. Ward Goodenough's Cooperation in Change, Charles Erasmus' Man Takes Control, the cases in Edward Spicer's Human Problems in Technological Change  are starting points. More theoretical are David Bidney's "Culture of Crisis" in his Theoretical Anthropology.




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