Social environment

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. Therefore, the social environment is a broader concept than that of social class or social circle.


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

Natural/artificial environment

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 things have all developed through this. All these man-made components are included in our cultural environment, Erving Goffman in particular stressing the deeply social nature of the individual environment.[3]

Milieu/social structure

C. Wright Mills contrasted the immediate milieu of jobs/family/neighbourhood 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".[4]

Emile Durkheim took a wider view of the social environment (milieu social), arguing that it contained internalised norms and representations of social forces/social facts:[5] "Our whole social environment seems to be filled with forces which really exist only in our own minds"[6]collective representations.


Phenomenologists contrast two alternative visions of society, as a deterministic constraint (milieu) and as a nurturing shell (ambiance).[7]

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.[8]

Social surgery

Pierre Janet saw neurosis as in part the product of the identified patient's social environment – family, social network, work etc. – and considered that in some instances what he called "social surgery" to create more space in that environment would be a beneficial measure.[9]

Similar ideas have since been taken up in community psychiatry and family therapy.[10]

See also


  1. Elizabeth Barnett, PhD and Michele Casper, PhD, A Definition of “Social Environment”, American Journal of Public Health, March 2001, Vol. 91, No. 3
  2. Marjorie Taylor, Imaginary Companions (1999) p. 147
  3. Erving Goffman, Relations in Public (1972) p. 296
  4. Quoted in Peter Worsley ed., The New Modern Sociology Readings (1991) p. 17
  5. P. Hamliton ed., Emile Durkheim: Critical Assessments, Vol I (1990) p. 385-6
  6. Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1971) p. 227
  7. John O'Neill, Sociology as a Skin Trade (1972) p. 174-5
  8. Jörg Dürrschmidt, Everyday Living in the Global City (2000) p. 47
  9. Henri Ellenberger, The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970) p. 380-1
  10. R. Skynner/J. Cleese, Families and How to Survive Them (1993) p. 94

Further reading

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