What Is Eco Social Work?
Eco-social work (also referred to as environmental / ecological social work) is a sub-field of social work that focuses on the systemic, symbiotic relationship that exists between all living organisms and ecological systems on the planet Earth (references 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). The usage of the term ‘eco-social’ is included within 'eco-social work' in order to describe the symbiotic, systemic nature of the social justice issues central to this specific field of inquiry.
Work by Gray, Coates, and Hetherington (2012) has described the nature of the field of eco-social work as one....
...where the traditional human-nature dichotomy is rejected and explicit recognition is given to the interrelatedness and interdependence between humans and the non-human world. An ecosocial orientation [argues] that both the ecological and the social are inextricably related and cannot be considered in isolation from one another. (p. 322, reference 3)
Thus, eco-social work views the environment in terms of "not only social and economic contexts but also the natural world” (p. 20, reference 1).
In her paper entitled “The Practical Realities of Ecosocial Work: A Review of the Literature,” Molyneux (2010) offers a succinct summary of the state of eco-social work literature over the past decade:
A review of the literature indicated that recent admirable attempts have been made to broaden the concept of person-in-environment in social work. Environmental issues are increasingly acknowledged as a concern for the social work profession. The literature reviewed however significantly lacked pragmatic suggestions on how to apply environmental or eco social work in practice and few studies appeared to have explored its practical realities. Significantly, several articles acknowledged the reluctance of the profession to modify its practice orientation to engage in environmental justice (Coates, Gray & Hetherington, 2006; Zapf, 2005a; Zapf, 2005b) and others questioned the actual practicability of an ecocentric practice in social work (Besthorn, 2003; Ungar, 2002). Additional research into the how of ecosocial work is imperative not least to assist in propelling environmental justice into mainstream social work but also to support its evolution into evidence based practice. (p. 61, reference 6)
Currently, there is no universally accepted theoretical framework for eco-social work.
Drawing on existing eco-social work literature (see references 1-7), the creators of this website propose a theoretical framework for eco-social work predicated on five main conceptual areas:
(1) The adoption of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work's (IASSW) global training standards, which would involve:
1. Recognition of the dignity and worth of all human beings, respect and appreciation for diversity and the assumption, identification, and recognition of strengths and potential of all human beings; 2. Recognition of the interconnectedness among micro, mezzo, and macro systems; 3. The importance of [promoting] advocacy and changes in socio-structural, political, and economic conditions that disempower, marginalize, and exclude people; and, 4. [A] focus on capacity-building and empowerment of individuals, families, groups, organizations and communities through a human-centered developmental approach. (p. 516, reference 7)
(2) The promotion and implementation of social justice principles from the Canadian Association of Social Worker's [CASW] (2005) Code of Ethics:
Value 2: Pursuit of Social Justice...[as well as four associated principles which call for social workers to...] uphold the right of people to have access to resources to meet basic human needs; advocate for fair and equitable access to public services and benefits [and] equal treatment and protection under the law and challenge injustices, especially injustices that affect the vulnerable and disadvantaged [as well as the promotion of] social development and environmental management in the interests of all people. (p. 5, reference 8)
(3) The promotion and implementation of environmental advocacy and sustainability principles, which would require social workers to stay informed about the most current environmental/climate research literature, sustainability practices, and technological advances; it would also involve advocating for the adoption of renewable sources of energy and sustainable practices in all sectors of society.
(4) The promotion and implementation of ecological/environmental justice principles, which would require social workers to adopt and promote...
An environmental ethic which seeks to preserve the integrity and beauty of the natural world, its primary focus is the intrinsic worth of the natural world irrespective of its use or utilitarian value to human welfare. [Ecological justice] posits that meaningful efforts to protect nature must begin with a firm commitment to the inherent value of all aspects of the natural world. (p. 321, reference 3)
(5) Utilizing an adapted version of Bronfenbrenner and Ceci’s (1994) bioecological model.
Briefly, Bronfenbrenner and Ceci’s (1994) bioecological model draws on early systems theory (i.e., an interdisciplinary approach to studying systems as a whole, rather than as a sum of discrete parts). This model identifies five distinct yet interlocking environmental systems which constantly interact one another:
Figure 1. And eco-social adapted version of Bronfenbrenner and Ceci’s (1994) bioecological model (which includes the addition of an overarchign ecosystem level). Original Photo Sources: Image of Bronfenbrenner & Ceci’s bioecological model retrieved from Johnson and Puplampu, 2008, p. 28 (see reference 9 in References); Earth image (free use) retrieved from
The Microsystem: includes an individual person, their direct/immediate environmental settings (e.g., school, home, neighbourhood, place of worship), techno-subsystems (i.e., technologically-based environments and stimuli), and any other social agents whom the individual can interact with (e.g., family, friends, classmates, teachers, neighbours, etc.)
The Mesosystem: includes “the interrelations among two or more settings in which the developing person actively participates (such as, for a child, the relations among home, school, and neighborhood peer group; For an adult, among family, work, and social life”) (p. 25, reference 10).
The Exosystem: includes “one or more [contextual] settings that do not involve the developing person as an active participant, but in which events occur that affect or are affected by, what happens in the setting containing the developing person” (e.g., extended family, mass media, the workplace) (p. 25, reference 10).
The Macrosystem: includes the larger cultural context, including social class, societal beliefs, and the surrounding culture, ideology, and laws that indirectly influence a person).
The Chronosystem: includes time / temporal transitions and shifts in one's lifespan, including socio-historical contexts that may influence a person.
The Ecosystem: used to indicate the liminal, constant presence of the Earth’s natural resources and characteristics, including weather, climate patterns, pollution, air quality, water quality, ecological biospheres (e.g., mountains, rivers, hills), and all other coexisting non-human living organisms (e.g., animals, insects, trees, coral reefs, plants/vegetation, etc.).
1. Dewane, C. J. (2011). Environmentalism & social work: The ultimate social justice issue. Social Work Today, 11(5), 20. Retrieved from
2. Gray, M., & Coates, J. (2012). Environmental ethics for social work: Social work’s responsibility to the non-human world. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 239- 247. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00852.x
3. Gray, M., Coates, J., & Hetherington, T. (Eds.). (2012). Environmental social work. New York: Routledge.
4. Heinsch, M. (2012). Getting down to Earth: Finding a place for nature in social work practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 309-318. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00860.x
5. Schmitz, C. L., Matyók, T., Sloan, L. M., & James, C. (2012). The relationship between social work and environmental sustainability: Implications for interdisciplinary practice. International Journal of Social Welfare, 21, 278-286. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2397.2011.00855.x
6. Molyneux, R. (2010). The practical realities of ecosocial work: A review of the literature. Critical Social Work, 11(2), 61-69.
7. Teixeira, S., & Krings, A. (2015). Sustainable social work: An environmental justice framework or social work education. Social Work Education, 34(5), 513-527. doi:10.1080/02615479.2015.1063601
8. Canadian Association of Social Workers [CASW]. (2005). Code of ethics. Retrieved from
9. Johnson, G. M., & Puplampu, K. P. (2008). Internet use during childhood and the ecological techno-subsystem. Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 34(1), 19-28.
10. Bronfenbrenner, U. (1979). The ecology of human development: Experiments by nature and design. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.