December 1995 // Volume 33 // Number 6 // Tools of the Trade // 6TOT2

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Social Impact Assessment in Extension Educational Programming

This article opens a dialogue on whether or not Extension programming can be enhanced by inclusion of social impact assessments before initiatives are pursued at the county level. It is written to provoke reflection about previous and existing trends in program planning. References are made to journal articles and texts cited in the attached bibliography. The article concludes with a challenge to USDA to fund pilot projects that would help determine whether advantages of integrating SIA into program planning would outweigh disadvantages.

Michael Score
Extension Associate
University of Kentucky
Lexington, Kentucky
Internet address:


Extension efforts in integrated pest management, public issues education, and leadership development are appreciated by many in the public sector. At the same time, hallmark accomplishments including promotion of new pesticides in crop production, high soil fertility levels, substantial increases in production, and dependence on hybrid varieties have been called into question for generating short-term producer profit at long-range community expense. This article suggests that results of Extension programming can be enhanced by inclusion of social impact assessments before initiatives are pursued at the county level.

What is Social Impact Assessment?

Social Impact Assessment (SIA) is "...the study of the potential effects of natural physical phenomena, activities of government and business, or any succession of events on specific groups of people" (Orbach, as cited in van Willigen, 1993 p. 171). Formal SIAs include sections on socio-economic variables relevant to a proposed activity, identification of appropriate information sources, data collection and categorization, a community profile of affected populations, projection of consequences for several alternative courses of action, assessment of impacts, and evaluation of the SIA by community members (van Willigen, 1993).

Socio-economic variables include significant factors that are social and economic in nature. For example, in an integrated farm system study impacts of particular farm practices might be considered in terms of impact of the practice on farm labor needs, relationships between farmers and non-farm rural residents, impacts of practices on human health, and effects of the practice on youth perceptions about farming careers. Appropriate socio-economic variables need to be selected for each project considered in a SIA.

In selecting information sources that will be drawn upon in the course of a SIA, attention needs to be given to overall assessment credibility. Stakeholders need to be consulted frequently to insure that sources are perceived to be adequately comprehensive and balanced. Recent studies of farm system sustainability in the United States provide examples that illustrate possibilities for building acceptable resource bases in complex communities.

Data collection and categorization must also be agreed upon by stakeholders in the SIA. The goal of data collection is to generate information that will be perceived as a fair representation of stakeholder interests. Issues of data collection and categorization center mainly on who will be consulted and what will be measured. Different observation categories are required for different projects and different communities. For example, a community with a lot of part-time, small acreage farmers studying potential outcomes of increased conservation tillage might consider access to implement dealers, community experiences with shared ownership of equipment, and labor requirements. A community made up primarily of full-time conventional farm operations may not even look at shared equipment ownership as a variable. Instead, they may add availability of government cost-share funds and other factors.

Collected and categorized data is used to develop a community profile. Profiling is an ordering of categorized information into a form that is descriptive of the community. Van Tassell and Michaelson describe profiling as "...the development of complete baseline data in order to provide a basis for projection and planning" (as cited in van Willigen, 1993, p. 180). Stakeholders need to work together to determine the parameters that will be highlighted in the profile.

The community profile is used to project what could happen in the affected community under several scenarios during a specified period of time. This is a significant variation from contemporary Extension trends. Extension educators commonly develop education strategies for a very limited range of practices or changes: those for which funding has been allocated.

Forecasting is done along with projection. Forecasting involves predicting the future based on outcomes of projection discussions. It answers the question: given the scenarios that have been considered, what do we believe is the most likely course of events that will follow? Van Willigen (1993) provides several descriptions of social science tools that he recommends for forecasting activities.

Assessment involves summarization and comparison of various projections (van Willigen, 1993). Some groups may choose not to undertake the assessment phase since it often results in no significant improvement in the understanding of how a proposed project will affect the community. Assessment is however, a requirement for some grant programs and therefore may be significant for groups seeking funding from sources that require it.

The last step is to take the collective results of consideration by stakeholders and experts to the broader community for evaluation. If the community agrees with assumptions and conclusions of those who conducted the SIA, they are likely to cooperate in bringing about the targeted changes of the development project.

Anticipated Outcomes of SIA in Extension Program Planning

This article suggests that wide spread use of SIA in Extension program planning would reduce initiatives created primarily for pursuit of grant funds. The number of projects being implemented at any given time in a particular county would be reduced. Highly compartmentalized Extension systems would have to adjust to requirements for more integrated efforts. In exchange, outcomes of Extension initiatives could make greater contributions to sustainability of farm communities and farm systems.


van Willigen, J. (1993). Applied anthropology: An introduction. Westport, CT: Bergin & Garvey.