social environment


noun Sociology.

the environment developed by humans as contrasted with the natural environment; society as a whole, especially in its relation to the individual.

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What is a social environment?

A person’s social environment is their society and all surroundings influenced in some way by humans. It includes all relationships, institutions, culture, and physical structures.

The natural environment is the natural world around us: the ground, the trees, the air. The social environment is, collectively, all of the things that humans have overlaid on top of our world: our personal and societal relationships, our institutions, our cultures, and our physical surroundings—all of the aspects and products of human activity and interaction.

Sociologists, health researchers, and others study how the social environment shapes who we are and how we live, especially how individuals are affected by such factors.

How does a social environment affect behavior?

It can be hard to wrap your head around what things constitute the social environment. In fact, even experts debate what exactly it includes. In 2001, public health researchers from West Virginia University and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and came up with a working definition of social environment that was 182 words long! Social environment is so hard to define because it involves so many things, including many of the aspects of our daily lives that we take for granted.

It can be hard to summarize or comprehend, but when we start to list some of the specific elements that can make up the social environment, it starts to make a bit more sense. Here are some of the things those researchers mentioned in their definition as making up the social environment:

  • immediate physical surroundings
  • social relationships
  • infrastructure
  • industrial and occupational structure
  • labor markets
  • power relations
  • government
  • cultural practices
  • beliefs and religious practices

While the term might sound impossibly abstract, your actual social environment is just the opposite—it’s the arena in which the entirety of your human experience happens. Sociologists and other researchers are interested in how all these factors taken together impact our lives.

Researchers rely on information about social environment all the time and for all kinds of research—like studies on decision making, the formation of prejudices, even our mental and physical health, just to name a few. Importantly, scientists factor in details about individuals’ social environment to determine why some populations are affected by particular diseases when others are not.

Did you know ... ?

A fancy word often used alongside social environment is milieu, which means one’s social or cultural surroundings (typically in a more narrow sense than social environment).

What are real-life examples of social environment?

Our social environment can shape our behavior in subtle ways. Watch this video for an explanation of some revealing experiments on the subject.


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What other words are related to social environment?

Quiz yourself!

True or False: Someone’s social environment includes the type of weather they experience.