Social environment

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The social environment, social context, sociocultural context or milieu refers to the immediate physical and social setting in which people live or in which something happens or develops. It includes the culture that the individual was educated or lives in, and the people and institutions with whom they interact.[1] The interaction may be in person or through communication media, even anonymous or one-way,[2] and may not imply equality of social status. The social environment is a broader concept than that of social class or social circle.

The physical and social environment is a determining factor in active and healthy aging in place, being a central factor in the study of environmental gerontology.[3]


People with the same social environment often develop a sense of social solidarity; people often tend to trust and help one another, and to congregate in social groups. They will often think in similar styles and patterns, even though the conclusions which they reach may differ.

Natural/artificial environment[edit]

In order to enrich their lives, people have used natural resources, and in the process have brought about many changes in the natural environment. Human settlements, roads, farmlands, dams, and many other elements have all developed through the process. All these man-made components are included in human cultural environment, Erving Goffman in particular emphasising the deeply social nature of the individual environment.[4] There are still many people living in villages and this is their social environment. A village is a township with production, living, ecology and culture. The state is trying to solve the problem of integrated rural development, which includes construction, expansion, and road building.[5]

Milieu/social structure[edit]

C. Wright Mills contrasted the immediate milieu of jobs/family/neighborhood with the wider formations of the social structure, highlighting in particular a distinction between "the personal troubles of milieu" and the "public crises of social structure".[6]

Emile Durkheim took a wider view of the social environment (milieu social), arguing that it contained internalized expectations and representations of social forces/social facts:[7] "Our whole social environment seems to be filled with forces which really exist only in our own minds"[8]collective representations.


Phenomenologists contrast two alternative visions of society, as a deterministic constraint (milieu) and as a nurturing shell (ambiance).[9]

Max Scheler distinguishes between milieu as an experienced value-world, and the objective social environment on which we draw to create the former, noting that the social environment can either foster or restrain our creation of a personal milieu.[10]

Social surgery[edit]

Pierre Janet saw neurosis in part as the product of the identified patient's social environment – family, social network, work etc. – and considered that in some instances what he termed "social surgery" to create a healthier environment could be a beneficial measure.[11]

Similar ideas have since been taken up in community psychiatry and family therapy.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Barnett, E; Casper, M (2001). "A definition of "social environment"". Am J Public Health. 91 (3): 465. doi:10.2105/ajph.91.3.465a. PMC 1446600. PMID 11249033.
  2. ^ Marjorie Taylor, Imaginary Companions (1999) p. 147
  3. ^ Sanchez-Gonzalez, D (2015). "Physical-social environments and aging population from environmental gerontology and geography. Socio-spatial implications in Latin America". Revista de Geografía Norte Grande. 60: 97–114. doi:10.4067/S0718-34022015000100006.
  4. ^ Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1972) p. 296
  5. ^ Liu, Fulong; Lin, Baogang; Meng, Kun (February 23, 2023). "Design and Realization of Rural Environment Art Construction of Cultural Image and Visual Communication". International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 20 (5): 4001. doi:10.3390/ijerph20054001. ISSN 1660-4601. PMC 10001604. PMID 36901011.
  6. ^ Quoted in Peter Worsley ed., The New Modern Sociology Readings (1991) p. 17
  7. ^ P. Hamilton ed., Emile Durkheim: Critical Assessments, Vol I (1990) p. 385-6
  8. ^ Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1971) p. 227
  9. ^ John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (1972) p. 174-5
  10. ^ Jörg Dürrschmidt, Everyday Living in the Global City (2000) p. 47
  11. ^ Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) p. 380-1
  12. ^ R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and How to Survive Them (1993) p. 94

Further reading[edit]

  • Leo Spitzer, "Milieu and Ambience: An Essay in Historical Semantics", in Philosophy and Phenomenological Research III (1942-3)
  • James Morrow, Where the Everyday Begins. A Study of Environment and Everyday Life. transcript, Bielefeld 2017, ISBN 978-3-8376-4077-9.